A town in the borderlands

Words by:
Stephen Wade
Featured in:
August 2011

Market Deeping has a strong sense of place, surrounded by illustrious neighbours
Market Deeping, not only at the heart of the string of places known across the county as ‘the Deepings’ but also neatly placed between Stamford and Crowland, two locations with a heavy weight of history, impresses the visitor with its own special qualities. This effort to assert an identity has been done in the face of one inescapable fact: the town stands in a mix of borders, and always has done. It lies on the county boundary and early maps place it on the edge of the Soke of Peterborough – a ‘soke’ being a term from the Danelaw meaning an area of jurisdiction; in more recent terminology, it lies at the junction of the A15 and the A16. Not only is the town a group member – one of the Deepings – but it is somewhere in which you can step easily and quickly from one county to another. In writings from the past, though, it has been defined as one of the gems of Lincolnshire, placed in an historically very important location, surrounded by tales from England’s religious and political past.

If an example is needed of the borderland nature of the place, look no further than what is now The River restaurant: this began as The Boundary General Store in the last years of the nineteenth century, being placed on the line between Market Deeping and Deeping St James. The owners were two brothers called Day, who combined running the shop with being members of the Deepings Brass Band. In the 1950s it was taken over by the Ellis family and they divided the business between hairdressing and selling fish and chips. It had two other identities until the present owners created their restaurant. Like Market Deeping itself, it has known life on the boundary line.

The town also lies close to other places with important historical connections, such as Greatford, just a few miles away (the home of Dr Willis who treated George III and became known as ‘the mad doctor’) and also Deeping Fen, which was explained in the 1920s by W F Rawnsley as a place of extraordinary importance for all Lincolnshire farming, having been seen in Saxon times as having ‘about fifty square miles of fine fat land’; in the reign of Henry III the Kesteven forest there reached to the bridge at Market Deeping. Rawnsley tells us that ‘Richard de Rulos, who was the father of all Lincolnshire farmers, aided by Ingulphus, Abbot of Croyland, set himself to enclose and drain the fenland.’ In that story lies the very beginning of Market Deeping, where de Rulos first had settlements on his raised riverside land.

Over time, the town has been a key point on the stagecoach and carting routes, mainly to Boston and north to Barton on Humber. In 1836 the ‘express’ coach stopped here on the London to Barton route. That kind of communication brings trade and drinking places and, as David Kaye pointed out over twenty-five years ago in this magazine, in the late Victorian years there were nine public houses in Market Deeping – one for every 134 of the population. David also pointed out that the market, from which the town’s name derives, had disappeared by the 1880s along with two annual fairs, one for cattle and one for wood. The former was held on the second Wednesday after May day; the latter, on the last Wednesday in July.

In many ways, the Regency period Market Deeping is the one at the core of the community; only in vestigial form, but there to be seen on close inspection. That place was one of coaching houses, hospitality, farmers and labourers in a rapidly changing world of enclosure and rural unrest. A few miles down the road into Cambridgeshire, the poet John Clare had become famous and was destined for Northborough asylum; there were highwaymen in the desolate parts of the land, and the community was just recovering from the hard times of the war with Napoleon. These hard times are indicated by the Market Deeping Charity Estates, whose 1819 building was part of a line of other late Georgian buildings made around that time. The ‘Perseverance’ coach would have sped into town on its way from Boston to London and deals would have been negotiated in the bar of the White Horse.

Market Deeping has had its moments of drama, such as the death of Miss Sarah Wilson in 1913. She was one of the casualties of that new phenomenon, the motor car (after being run over by a car owned, but not driven, by the vicar, the Rev Ashby). There was also the thunderbolt of 1926 which destroyed two houses in the town, though the families inside managed to escape unharmed. Excitement and national interest have arisen when matters of farming and country life have come to the fore, as in 1947 when harvesting of the sugar beet crop was expensive and new machinery was being used. In that year large crowds turned up to see the machines at work at Mr Tinsley’s farm.

One remarkable local industry linked to the land, but more unusual than beet, was the distillery developed from an initiative of a doctor called Holland who began growing medicinal herbs. The business expanded when a Mr Barker came to help and a field was rented from the vicar in the 1820s. By 1876 there were 1200 acres of land (of which 400 acres were used for growing over twenty kinds of herbs, from aconite to thyme). This was obviously good for local employment, and schoolchildren helped with the planting of mint in seasonal work – a photograph from around 1900 shows a large crowd of children picking dandelion flowers in the Distillery Field. Awards were won and the products were bought by all kinds of people, including the Apothecaries Hall in London.

When the son of the founder of the distillery, Squire Holland, died in 1899 the concern declined; in 1907 it was for sale. The squire was arguably one of the most colourful characters in Market Deeping history, being a magistrate and taking on numerous other responsibilities (including involvement in the drainage of the Fens, having duties as the rector’s warden and Director of the Stamford, Spalding and Boston Bank). The estate was carved up and sold as separate lots, listed by F A Day in Lincolnshire Life twenty years ago, making rather a sad list of different buyers.

The town’s buildings have attracted interest, and the town hall and market place pubs have character in abundance; the hostelries have a long history, and what was formerly the Black Horse is a fine Victorian place. The New Inn, built in 1802, was admired by the architectural historian, Pevsner, who was particularly fond of the rectory and had much to say about it. He gushed on the attractions of the interior, liking the roof (with ‘hammerbeams and small pseudo-hammerbeams’ alternated ‘with little figures’); the work done by Thomas Pilkington in the Regency period caught his eye – Pevsner noted, ‘Two projecting wings, buttressed and gabled, and over the centre a tall, dated gable.’

The presiding saint of Market Deeping is St. Guthlac; his church, dating from the twelfth century, also prompted Pevsner to celebrate its quatrefoils and arches. Guthlac was a hermit in the late seventh century who had been a warrior fighting in the army of Aethelred of Mercia. He came to Crowland and lived a holy life, building a small oratory before dying at the age of forty in 714 AD. It was recalled that he used to dress in animal skins and lived on barley bread and muddy water.He was famous enough to have his biography written by Felix, a monk, who learned of Guthlac’s life from one of his old friends. Centuries later, Guthlac’s writings became known. He wrote poetry and religious works, and his name is associated with a beautiful illuminated manuscript, the Guthlac Roll, which is kept in the British Library.

Guthlac was visited by people from across the land who wanted guidance, or simply to see and speak with such a holy man. Today he is not only commemorated in literary texts, but by the St Guthlac Fellowship (a group of churches from several English counties) and, of course, Market Deeping is the centre of this. The town will always be associated with Crowland Abbey (formerly Croyland) which was founded by Ethelbald, in memory of St Guthlac, and was destroyed by the Danes in 866, before being rebuilt later.

Anyone wanting to understand the changes experienced by the town only has to reflect that other places of worship have been lost, such as the Independent Chapel in the High Street (built in 1812) and the two Methodist chapels (from 1866 and 1876). One might also comprehend the transformations of the place by noting that the stone bridge over the river Welland, opened in 1842 at a cost of £8,000 and involving the purchase of nearby homes, was to replace a former wooden bridge; of course, the twentieth century brought a revolution in transport and in 1998 a new bypass was opened. Then as now, traffic across the county dictated the beginnings of social change and affected the topography and lifestyle of the town.

As with so many rural communities, ‘the Show’ is a highlight; at Market Deeping, this has existed since 1945. This year over 10,000 people are thought to have gone to see the events at the Showground. Last year, as well as the trade stands and gymkhana, there were craft displays, sheep-shearing presentations and even terrier racing to enjoy; some guests from Canada and New Zealand were noticed, as they were town criers. The Show has become a centre-piece of the year; it continues to adapt and change, balancing traditional with modern events and attractions for all ages.

In the twenty-first century the peals of St Guthlac’s eight bells will ring out the new, to show that the past has inevitably given way to new initiatives; the bells themselves were the product of a grant from the Millennium Fund and were first heard at the harvest festival in 1998. However, the name still suggests the history – after all, ‘the Deepings’ evokes the low marshy land and the ‘market’ is always there to suggest trade. There has been a renaissance, beginning perhaps with the new shopping precinct, and Market Gate blends nicely with the older parts of the town; the growth of what is known at Greater Peterborough has had an impact, but this also stresses the borderland – a town sitting in the Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire line, proud of its past and looking to the future.

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