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The Towns that Serve the Countryside?

Do the towns of the Fens serve the countryside? Or does the countryside serve the towns? The American economist Jane Jacobs argued that cities and towns developed agriculture. She argued that one of the first great examples being the invention of animal husbandry due to the need to feed cities and towns.[i]

Whether this is right or wrong I like the idea as it in part accounts for the development of towns. However she did make several generalisations that you may like to consider:


The creation of all new goods originates in cities and towns and not in the countryside.

Growth of a town or city relies upon creating new types of work and simply continuing the same mass production of a small range of goods leads to stagnation or contraction.

New types of work, whether manufacturing or trade results from people experimenting and has nothing to do with what people have done before.

New types of work develop from supplying the needs of the towns and cities whether clothing, food, waste disposal, energy supply etc.

Towns and cities can prosper anywhere provided new work and ideas are generated.


Whether you agree with any of this it is worth considering how this applies to the towns of the Fens. For example, the development of the bulb industry in Spalding and the massive growth of food packing and processing, with perhaps the most significant of my age was Geest in Spalding. (see illustration at the bottom of this post)


Any town that developed in the Fens required a seed of people whose location was usually dictated by geography. Spalding was a natural port and a bridge across the Welland as well as having an area of higher, dryer land. It was also a cross-roads of rivers with the Westlode providing access to timber from Bourne as much as the Welland could take wool from Stamford. Fosdyke and Sutton Bridge developed ports at natural crossing points of the Welland and the Nene. If you look at the towns and the villages of the area they often form along ridges or banks that would have been the higher ground and provided a means of traversing the wet and wild fens. Over time people settled, drained and cultivated the lands adjacent to those settlements which over time grew and required more land. Hence we see a pattern of concentric circles of development of the towns and villages of the fens. Bizarrely it is this system of growth that results in high quality grade one agricultural land being built upon as towns like Spalding expand. Yet, whilst we may bemoan the fact it is built on we ignore the simple fact that originally that land was not cultivated at all and required man’s intervention to drain, clear and cultivate the land before it could gain its now much valued grade one status.


This style of growth is portrayed in the 1867 Commission of Employment of Children Young Persons and Women in Agriculture that describes a great number of small farms and garden style farms developing on town edges. Hence we see my house in Spalding built in the 1980’s on grade one land that grew daffodils in my childhood. The fate of this land was possibly sealed in the 1930’s when they first planned what was to become the flood relief channel called the Coronation Channel that was built in the 1950’s to alleviate the flooding of the town centre. An example of the countryside serving the town. Being on the inside of the Coronation Chanel, that is between the town and the Channel lent its nature to future development.


Similarly we see such developments of land on the inside of roads that bypass towns such as the A16 at Spalding and Cowbit. Few people realise that West Elloe Avenue, now very much towards the middle of an enlarged Spalding, was Spalding’s first “bypass”. Thus we see the concentric circles of towns and villages grow. However, I do feel that the growth from the 1970’s onwards has possibly been at the expense of the core businesses, shops, people and activities that used to happen in towns and villages. This is, in part, due to the highly successful food hubs and distribution networks that supply the supermarkets that we have mostly sold our souls to and become reliant upon. This combined with the forces of globalisation, has seen a distancing of and disappearance of the direct links that connected farmers and food producers to the towns. It would be very hard for the poster pictured below to be taken seriously today as todays farmer cannot function without imported chemicals, fuel, seed and equipment.



Poster from the 1930’s promoting buy British produce to enable the farmer to invest back into Britain.
Poster from the 1930’s promoting buy British produce to enable the farmer to invest back into Britain.

Thus the family businesses that were invested in towns and villages and their people and communities have become replaced by multi-national corporates that mostly pay lip-service to such ideals. Key to enabling such expansion in the fens has been a mass migration of people from other parts of the UK and abroad to supply labour to food processing and distribution. This has been done with inadequate investment of resources to service the communities and that is proving to be a howling mistake in 2022 as politics and the epidemic sees shortage of labour as a significant threat to farming and food processing and distribution in the area.


When you read history books they typically show the Agricultural Revolution as freeing up labour from the fields to work in towns and cities. Government stats show in 1850 Britain had about 22% of its population employed in agriculture, whereby in 2021 it was 1%. I believe this is misleading in that whilst there is a vast reduction in people working directly in farming there is a vast increase in people employed indirectly in various aspects of farming and food distribution and processing as is clearly obvious to anyone living in the Lincolnshire Fens. Just look at my own household in 2022 as an example; I used to be an agricultural bank manager, my wife worked in the canteen at a local food processing factory, and my son is an agricultural engineer. None of us have worked in farming, but each of us owed the ultimate source of our incomes to farming.


The changes in agriculture in the Fens has seen the farmer change from being a food producer from farm to table to being a supplier of raw materials to the food manufacturing industry.[ii] This in turn saw a massive change in the towns of the area, their people and their jobs and professions. I am lucky in that my work, family and social life has given me insights into nearly all the towns and villages of the fens and their people. Each place has its own character that I feel over time is in danger of being homogenised. As I look at the different towns and their stories and people it is with a sense of nostalgia, but not, I assure you, “wishing for what never was.”[iii]


In the following I use the term “dormitory town”. I do believe it is a legitimate label. Any town can be labelled and categorised. However, like the labels we give people it does not necessarily show the full complex mix of character that makes the whole. It needs also to be recognised that a town can change over time, evolve into something different, grow or decline. The labels used for towns, especially “market” towns often refer to historic activity and do not necessarily reflect their current status or activity. Indeed, in many instances a market town in England originally derived its title by the ability for it to hold markets being authorised and recognised by the Crown at some stage in the last thousand years.


In England the primary types of town we see are: Cathedral (and Priory) towns, garrison towns, industrial towns (including mining towns in the category), seaport towns, resort towns, market towns, and dormitory towns. Many towns can have a mixture of activity, but a dominance of primary characteristics in my opinion determines the label:


Seaport Towns – In the Fenland area around The Wash these are Boston, Kings Lynn and Wisbech. Sutton Bridge and Fosdyke could also be considered significant enough to share this label until relatively recent times. These ports fed trade and commerce through the fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Historically these grew due to trade with the region of the Hanseatic League countries in northern Europe. The modern day area of these would stretch from the Netherlands into the Baltic ports of modern day Germany, Poland, Lithuania and parts of Sweden. Indeed, my family Elsden originated from some German Hanseatic region in the 16th century migrating up the Nene into the inland port of Soham Mere. At that time Soham Mere was significant to trade with the region and it was considered England’s largest lake. It is perhaps of note that whilst Sutton Bridge has not survived as a functioning port Wisbech still does function with a regular route to Lithuania that my fore-fathers would have recognised.


Cathedral Towns – Ely is the best Fenland example. Close to this are what I will call Priory Towns with Ramsey, Crowland and Spalding being excellent examples that evolved into becoming market towns in part due to the reformation, but also due to increased enclosure of land for agriculture.


Garrison Towns – In the modern era there are very few with perhaps Aldershot being the largest modern example. Historically in Lincolnshire Caistor could be regarded as a garrison town in Roman times. The nearest equivalent we see to this type of town in Lincolnshire are at Coningsby and Waddington as it would be reasonable to consider these towns as dominated by the culture and local economic influence of their RAF bases. In Suffolk this is also true of Mildenhall on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens.


Industrial Towns - these are towns that were built as a result of, or grew as a result of industry. The most common example in England are mining towns. In Eastern England Industrial Towns tended to develop out of what were formerly market towns. In Lincolnshire the first Industrial Town to form was Scunthorpe due to the availability of iron ore in the nineteenth century. In my opinion Gainsborough evolved from being a market town to an industrial town on the back of the manufacture of engines and machinery for Agriculture. The inland waterways and roads that saw it prosper as a market town aided its industrial growth.

Industrial towns often develop around one activity and one Company or Corporation – British Steel being the obvious example in Scunthorpe and nearer to the Fens the London Brick Company, followed by Perkins in Peterborough. Typically you have a large percentage of the town employed by that one industry or firm. Furthermore, around that key activity and business in the industrial town establishes a network of businesses, shops, offices, engineer and tool-shops and parts suppliers that supply both the business and its people and employees in a symbiotic relationship. As a result of this you see a high percentage of the working population employed directly by this dominant industry and the rest reliant upon its continued success. If an industry takes a down-turn or the key business fails this can prove disastrous for the town and its inhabitants. Peterborough was fortunate to escape this fate because despite its growth from brick manufacturing and engineering it developed diverse industries with significant growth into food processing, manufacture and distribution. The growth of Peterborough possibly accelerated the evolution of nearby market towns such as Market Deeping and Crowland into dormitory towns.


Resort Towns – these tended to develop from Spa towns or coastal towns with the railway accelerating their growth. In Lincolnshire Woodhall Spa and Skegness are examples of this. It is perhaps an accident of geology that the Spa of Woodhall Spa was discovered by accident whilst exploring the possibility of mining in the area. It is hard to imagine this gentile place as an industrial mining town! The railway ensured the longevity of these into the twentieth century. In contrast to this was the the resort at Freiston that relied largely upon the entrepreneurial energies of the Plummer family to maintain its attractiveness for bathing and sporting activities, horse racing, hare coursing amd fore-shore shooting along with annual fairs. This was not maintained after them and the ability to attract people from the nearest railway station at Boston was lost.


Market Towns – these are the dominant towns throughout England and especially the Eastern counties and the Fens. Their primary purpose was to provide a market for those living on the land and act as a conduit to the cities. From the fenman selling eels and wildfowl, to the cottager with their butter and the farmer with livestock and grain. To this end you see three significant constructions/institutions develop in the market towns: the corn exchange, the market place or square, and the livestock market.

The corn exchange came about due to railway arriving in the mid-nineteenth century opening up the grain market and at the same time the repeal of the Corn Laws enabling a free trade where quality could attract a better price.

The erection of corn exchanges on the back of an open market and free trade was short-lived as those same free trade conditions drove British agriculture into recession as cheap grain imports largely from America and Russia hit hard from the late 1870’s onwards to the end of the century. This meant that the corn exchange no longer had its source of wealth and income to ensure erection and subsequent maintenance. Corn exchanges adapted their use for other markets such as bulbs, processed animal feed and flowers. It is perhaps ironic that Spalding corn exchange should have originally incorporated a butter market and a poultry market, but the budget for this was used up in a dispute with a neighbouring property over the maintenance of its cellar. As we entered the twentieth century corn exchanges became multi-use buildings hosting functions, entertainment, dances and cinemas moving away from its original purpose. Indeed, as a child my grandmother took me to amateur dramatic productions held in Spalding corn exchange, which was subsequently demolished and replaced with a multi-roomed, multi-functional civic centre.

Livestock was originally sold in the streets of market towns. I recall seeing one old photograph of cattle being sold and having a shit outside an open-fronted butchers shop with a note on the back saying the cattle were getting their revenge on the butcher. The erection of livestock markets was driven by a desire to improve health, hygiene and safety, especially as traffic increased in streets towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Over time livestock decreased substantially in numbers in the fens as arable farming grew and mixed farming and cattle reduced greatly in the area. Those farmers that did produce livestock increasingly sold direct to slaughter-houses and producers or reared animals and poultry under contract direct to a processor for the super-markets by passing the need for a livestock market. As a result, in the post-war period town after town lost its livestock trade and the livestock markets that anchored this trade disappeared. As described in my preface it is the ultimate irony that in many towns the location of the livestock market was replaced by the supermarket in the same location. In Lincolnshire Louth is the only market town to have retained its livestock market largely thanks to the ability of local businessmen to maintain its attraction to farmers by adjusting to their needs.

Even without the anchors of the key structures of livestock market and corn exchange market towns clung on to their historic origins of the street market. When not too restrictive in its management these markets enable the sale of goods and produce by people that otherwise would have little route into the corporate shopping and distribution network structures that dominate today’s retail outlets. Thus local producers are given access to a market regardless of their lack of scale, their seasonality or the nicheness of their product. The market is the final surviving anchor of the market town whether in a market square or the street. The twenty-first century has seen this last vestige of the market town struggle. To state the obvious, a market town needs a market.

However, it is not just the market that a market town needs. It also needs a range of key services to drive foot-fall through the streets and maintain a level of activity that is conducive to strong independent businesses and larger retail chains alike. Losing banks, libraries, health centres, manned police stations, magistrates courts, cottage hospitals, local council offices, accountants and solicitors all contribute to the decline of market towns by reducing footfall. These services and institutions keep the market town relevant to its larger catchment area. They give it a reason to be visited. Indeed the inclination to create out of town super-markets, shopping centres, sports facilities, football grounds, cinemas all take away footfall and undermine the town whilst at the same time reducing accessibility to those out of town facilities to the dominant car. No one wins.


I had this argument with a local Tory councillor when out-of-town sports facilities were proposed in Spalding pointing out that those used by my nieces and nephews from a nearby village could not be accessed as they came in to town by bus. She retorted, “Everyone has access to a car.” When I pointed out this was not the case the best response she could give me was, “People vote me in so that I can tell them what is best for them.” Such are the wheels of local democracy that can undermine the footfall of a market town.


Market towns have always had key dates in the calendar that have increased their activity. In the past there would be the hiring fairs in Spalding, the large May Day parade in Crowland, Holbeach Horse Fair, Long Sutton Agricultural Show, Flower shows, Ram sales, Fairs and in more recent times Spalding Tulip Parade. All these events stimulate economic activity. But key is to keep them alive and relevant to a wide range of people with different events and activities. These events need to be relevant to the whole community and not get caught up in inappropriate nostalgia. Such events kept the market town at the heart of the community. To this extent we saw a huge amount of narrow-mindedness when Spalding lost its Tulip Parade rather than seeking to invest into it and evolving the event to keep its relevance to a wider range of persons. If the market town gets it right it enlarges the attractiveness of both itself and its surrounding area to a more diverse group of people from the cities. Perhaps a great challenge of our time if we are to maintain the flow of labour to the food and farming industry.


Finally, the market town has to be accessible. It is no accident that market towns originally had catchment areas of 8 to 12 miles as this was the distance that could be covered on foot over two to three hours. For a market town to function it must have access by car and public transport. Access by foot and cycle should also be able to be achieved safely. These differing needs can conflict with the current design of towns and public transport in the fenland area making the car essential. Throughout my life time the public transport in the fens has largely declined with towns like Bourne, that were able to be accessed from Spalding by bus no longer being easy to travel to except by a roundabout route. The timing of services is also poor. The railway in Spalding nearly lost its service to Peterborough in the 1970’s if it wasn’t for the shrewd undertaking of the local council to help fund the service. I foresee the next challenge for Spalding will be to keep the railway station within the town centre as an out-of-town station at the old race-ground area of the town has been voiced in the past and may be again. The modern market town that thrives is likely to be the one that maintains the most access to the most people in the area and this is the challenge the modern market town faces if it is to maintain its traditional function, albeit in a new way.


Dormitory Towns – this is the fate of many market towns and some enlarged villages also transform into this category. Dormitory towns are named because most of the inhabitants are either retired, or travel to other towns and cities to work and the towns themselves have little economic activity meaning that key services and goods cannot be obtained within the town. Dormitory towns tend to have very low footfall. At least 10% of the working age population in a dormitory town tends to commute 12 miles or further to work. This is supplemented by homeworkers. Dormitory towns usually have an average age higher than the national average. They are nearly always bypassed and the area of land between the new bypass and the town is developed for housing with little or no business or industry in this new belt of land. Dormitory towns serve a housing purpose in that they provide housing for workers in larger industrial towns and cities but they tend not to serve the local population in terms of affordable houses to purchase or rent. Indeed, once a town starts to slip into this category housing developments tend to favour larger houses with “affordable” housing tending to be a token that the developer avoids. The dormitory town tends to have relatively low levels of first generation immigration from abroad compared to industrial towns and cities, but does have relatively high levels of migration of people from within the UK usually from cities, larger towns or retirees from more affluent parts of the country. This is wholly understandable because the very nature of a first generation immigrant is that you go where the work is. The irony of this is that farmers in fenland have plenty of work, but poor transport and facilities combined with housing costs make this unattractive and unaffordable.

When looking at these labels it is possible that a town may be in transition or fit partly into another label, but one tag will be dominant. It often requires an outsider to look in with fresh eyes to realise this.



Family tree structure chart showing how vast Geest was as an organisation.
Advert showing the significance of Geest to Spalding as an employer at the point when I left school in the 1980's

[i] The Economy of Cities – Jane Jacobs 1970 [ii] This was described in the late Holland with Boston MP Sir Richard Body in several of his books. [iii] The journalist Colin McInnes author of Absolute Beginners described nostalgia as “Wishing for what never was.”

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