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  • Local History Old Boston. Reminiscences

    R. G. Cooper

    Published Date : October/November 1986
    Native Son

    The author was born in Boston, England, emigrated to Canada in 1929, and is now a resident of Nova Scotia.  He returned to England with the Canadian Army during World War II (1939-1945) and again as a visitor in 1980.

    Our medieval forebears spoke of Boston, England, as St. Botolph’s Town, and it was in the 16th century that the name was abbreviated to Boston.  Roman legions trod the ramparts, and in 1642 during the Civil War in the reign of Charles I, the great Puritan Oliver Cromwell stabled the horses of his cavalry in the famous church of St. Botolph.

    The fame of the old fenland town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England, was carried across the Atlantic by the emigrants who followed in the wake of the Pilgrim fathers and founded a new Boston in the state of Massachusetts.  The new city has long ago surpassed the old in size and importance but close links still remam.  The generous citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, have twice subscribed to help restore the famous parish church, in 1857 to restore the chapel in memory of the Pilgrim fathers, and in 1930 to repair the massive tower and rehang the bells.  Cracks had appeared in the walls of the tower possibly from the vibration of these great bells.

    St. Botolph’s Church

    Old Boston lies in the shadow of its church, considered to be one of the finest pieces of perpendicular architecture in England.  Affectionately called “the Stump,” it has a grey stone tower rising nearly 300 feet, pointing like a finger into the heavens.

    The foundation stone for the massive structure of the church was laid in June 1309 and it may have taken nearly 200 years to complete.  It is said that there are 365 steps to the top of the tower, one for every day of the year, as there are 12 pillars for the months, 7 doors for the days of the week, and 52 windows for the weeks of the year.  The foundations are laid below the bed of the adjacent River Witham and on many occasions the high tides have overflowed the banks and flooded the interior of the church.  The highest tide marks may be seen on the columns of the tower, and many visitors today are interested to see inside the church traces of old horse rings on the pillars, where Cromwell quartered his horses and troops.


    This is the same church of which Rev. John Cotton became Vicar in 1612.  After having trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities in England over ritual, he emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, arriving there in September 1633, where he became the popular teacher of the First Church of Boston, Massachusetts.

    There is an impressive view from the top gallery of the church, and looking over the parapet on a clear day the hedged checkerboard fields, interspersed with arteries of rivers and canals, stretch away as far as Lincoln Cathedral 40 miles inland.  Off to the east the River Witham winds its way to the mudflats of the Wash [the basin at the mouth of the river]. In days gone by a light was placed in the tower as a beacon for weary travelers of the fens and ships returning from the sea.

    To Market, to Market

    Beneath the tower is a broad marketplace with shops on either side.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays there is still an open air market with white canvas stalls proliferating like mushrooms.

    To the north past the street called Bargate, there was a larger market place used for the auction of farm animals.  Every Wednesday farmers from surrounding towns came to town, and cattle, sheep, and horses were herded through the narrow streets of the old town.  It was common to see a flock of sheep outgeneraled by the shepherd and his dog in their efforts to dodge away from their strange surroundings. The cattle and sheep were herded into large pens and sold by auction to the highest bidder.  The auctioneer moved from pen to pen followed by an assortment of herdsmen, farmers, and large bowler-hatted buyers from out of town.

    At the great May Fair, once one of the largest fairs in all England, when most of the country people came to town to see the sights, ride on swings and roundabouts, throw wooden balls at the coconut shies [sic], and test their strength with the mighty hammer, it was common to see a drove of young horses in the streets, led by a boy with an old faithful mare and followed by a band of gypsies with their romantic-looking colored caravans, a Dalmatian hound trotting under the axel.  The horses would be driven to another part of town where individual animals had straw braided into their manes and tails.  When prospective buyers arrived these animals were haltered, then walked and trotted up the street.  They were usually followed by a man cracking a whip in one hand and fluttering a red flag in the other to encourage the horse to show off his best paces.  If the deal was successful both parties retired to the Red Cow Inn for a drink to complete the final details.  The seller usually handed back one silver shilling for good luck.

    Years ago one of the main items of trade was wool which was not generally manufactured at home but exported to Eastern Europe for manufacture into cloth.  In 1369 the wool staple was transferred from Lincoln to Boston, which meant that in order for it to be properly taxed it had to be weighed, marked, and sealed in Boston before export.  Hence the corporation coat of arms for Boston depicts a ram surmounted on a wool sack.

    Boston is still a great agricultural center and famous for its potatoes.  It owes its present prosperity to the rich country surrounding it.  Instead of being reached by barges and strings of pack horses, its produce in grain, livestock, sugar beets, cauliflowers, and potatoes is now distributed by modern means to many markets.


    The Old Port

    Down the cobbled High Street one passes the Quay where the Department of Fisheries berthed the Protector, which used to make periodic inspection trips down to the fishing grounds of the Wash.  In earlier years the same quay berthed the old paddle-wheel steamer the Privateer, which used to make weekly trips with sightseers.

    A little further on was a small white ferry boat for those who wished to cross the river, and fishing boats were beached nearby on the mud waiting to catch the flood tide for the shallow waters of the Wash, where shrimps were caught for the London market.  In the distance, past the Ship Inn, is the swing bridge over which the coal trains still rumble to the dock.

    Although Boston lies about four miles from the mouth of the river Witham it has in the past been an important port.  In the 13th and 14th centuries Boston was one of the most important ports in England, paying twice as much duty on articles of export as the port of London.  The port probably owed its commercial importance to its geographical position.  There was considerable trade to the east with Holland, Belgium, and France.  The town was fortunate for its situation up the river Witham allowed seagoing ships to dock, and its back door was kept open up stream to produce and coal by barge from the midlands.  These goods were readied for export.  Many merchants from Calais, Cologne, Ostend, and other places in Europe resided in Boston and it was a place of considerable wealth.

    Many fishing smacks plied their way up and down the river.  They usually waited for the tide and sometimes had the long and tedious job of tacking back and forth across the river into the wind.  These fishing smacks with their red mainsails and jibs spread to the wind made a picturesque sight as they -sailed into the shallow waters of the Wash to fish 2 for shrimp and rake for cockles. Later, when the shrimps were boiled in sea water they turned a lovely coral pink.  Unloaded upon the wharf they were bagged for shipment to industrial areas.  However, trade changes, and apart from a few ships carrying lumber from the Scandinavian countries and maybe a collier plying his wares, the dock was mostly used by steam trawlers for fishing in the North Sea.  Today the trawlers have all gone owing to the fishing restrictions in the North Sea.

    On the other side of the river was Keightley’s Slip for repairing fishing vessels.  The Bath Gardens with many beautiful elm trees made a pleasant walk along the river bank for lovers and the elderly.  Since World War II, however, these gardens have been in a state of disarray due to the many extra cement jetties required for shipping during the war years.

    The Grand Sluice was built in 1764 on the outskirts of the town.  These locks bar the tidewaters from reaching the freshets upriver.  Rowing was a [228] popular sport in the early days of this century, and the Boston Rowing Club held annual regattas on the placid waters above this dam.


    There is now a second bridge over the river, many one-way streets, and a ring road around the town.  The large stock market has been closed and turned into a parking lot.  The corn market held every Wednesday has been discontinued.  There is no poultry market, and Strait Bargate, the narrow street leading to Bargate Green and the once famous cattle and sheep auction, has been turned into a shopping mall.

    The main line of the London & Northeastern Railway to Spalding, Peterborough, and London ran through Boston, and there were vast goods yards from where trains carried the many varieties of produce to larger industrial centers.  In those days one could often see a large shire horse helping to move the trucks and vans.  A chain was hooked to an individual rail car which was hauled to the right siding to make up the tram.  Over recent years and since the railway system became nationalized, parts of this line have been torn up and now the goods yards look very empty.  The line to Grantham remains open providing a link with the national network.

    Historic Buildings

    Old Boston has endured many changes in the 20th century.  Many of the old inns have disappeared.  Near the old town bridge one finds the Assembly Rooms, housed in a large square building built ca. 1822 with tall windows and columned front door.  This is where many of the civic occasions and social functions take place today.  Close by is the Rum Puncheon Inn, site of the birthplace of John Foxe, born in 1517, author of The Book of Martyrs, which had great influence in the English Reformation.  In my day there were many ancient inn signs to welcome visitors, heralding beast and bird, such as the White Hart, the Red Lion, and the Peacock & Royal.  The White Hart is still there but many of the others have long ago succumbed to progress and change in commercial trade.

    The first building one notices on South Street is Shodfriars Hall with its timbered front and overhanging gables.  A little further along is the stone shell of Blackfriars in Spain Lane, a Dominican Friary built in the 13th century which has been restored and now is a small theater.  A step further is the ancient Guild Hall built in the 15th century with vast kitchens and huge ovens.  In this old building are the cells used by the Pilgrim fathers.  Prior to sailing for America and in order to avoid religious persecution, they planned to sail from Boston to Amsterdam; however, they were prevented from doing so by the authorities.  They were arrested and kept in confinement for many months and finally released.  They reached their destination in Holland in 1608.

    Almost next door to the Guild Hall is Fydell House, built in 1726 for William Fydell, wine merchant.  On the opposite side of the street many of -the old warehouses on the river bank, built in the 18th century and the subject of many artistic -works, have been demolished.  The old tow path used to run under the oaken knee beam overhang of these buildings.  Continuing south is the Grammar School, erected in 1567.

    In this rather unusual corner of the Old World, of interest to visitors are the miles of sea banks enclosing the reclaimed acres of land from the sea, made possible by the tides.  This process still continues today.  It is said that the silt from the northern county of Yorkshire is carried south by the currents and deposited upon the shores of the Wash.

    Like Holland, nearly all the land around the old town is below sea level.  It is believed that the Roman conquerors were able to accomplish the original barricades by the forced labor of early Britons and some foreign laborers, possibly brought over from Belgium where similar conditions were said to prevail.  The marshland towns could not have been built before completing the embankments.  The purpose may have been twofold; for defense, in order for the soldiers to stand and march upon solid ground, and for the long term planning of these enterprising colonizers.  The sea banks remain a monument to our forefathers.

    By R. G. Cooper 

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