Between the Humber and Ermine Street

Words by:
Stephen Wade
Featured in:
September 2011

Winterton, astride the coast road to the Humber Bridge, lies off the highway, with its main street running parallel to that route, and it is easy for travellers to avoid turning off to visit the village. But if they do stop and consider the place, then the history will be full of interest, packed with stories from Roman to Victorian times.
Such a surprise awaited the workmen in 1968 when working on the A1077: they came across a huge stone coffin, and the occupant was a young woman, most probably a Roman from one of the villas discovered close by. Even the name evokes a time from long ago: Winta was one of the kings of the old area of Lindsey, so the name refers to the people of Winta – Wintrintune and Wintrintone in the Domesday Book of 1086.

At one time it was the principal town in North Lincolnshire; the population in 1860 was around 1,700 (and Scunthorpe was still a dream). It is neatly placed close to several other places of great interest such as Alkborough and Normanby Hall. The old landing place of Winteringham Haven is at the mouth of the old Winteringham beck, and so it is not too difficult to imagine the landing-place of the Germanic people in pre-Roman times who settled here, and of course the Ermine Street highway led to the Humber, a very important part of the Roman Empire’s plan to extend north in Britannia. Archaeological work in the 1950s found Romano-British foundations, with limestone masonry, half-timbered gables and a thatched roof. But the village is less than two miles from Ermine Street and the Roman pavements and villas found there are one of the most celebrated aspects of Winterton’s history.

Pavements were found in the eighteenth century, both at Roxby and Winterton; these mosaics were copied, the Roxby one being engraved in 1799, and it has white, red and yellow borders around a geometrical design. At Winterton the images are of Orpheus playing the lyre and Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, with a sheaf of corn. More excavations have now shown that there was a group of buildings with polygonal dimensions; there was clearly a cluster of Roman villas there. The Roman presence had been known about for a very long time; in 1699 the antiquarian, Abraham de la Prynne commented on seeing a tessellated Roman pavement.

More recent history includes the arrival of the railways, the first steam train pausing at Winterton and Thealby station in 1906, at the time when the North Lindsey Light Railway appeared, running between Frodingham and West Halton; there was a limited period of passenger travel, but industry was the priority, with the line serving the Normanby Park works. The Victorian period saw the usual proliferation of public houses, notably the Butcher’s Arms, the George and the Cross Keys, the latter being one of the commonest inn signs in the land, the image coming from Christian heraldry, stemming from Christ’s words to Peter: ‘I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’

One of these pubs has a sad story attached, from 1879, when John Ruddock stood before the Hull magistrates charged with stealing several items from a domestic servant called Annie Parkinson. The rogue promised marriage, and in the words of the time ‘he had ruined the prosecutrix’ after going to Hull with her on the promise of being wed. In fact, he was out for all he could get, leading her astray after they both met while working at the George in 1878. Ruddock was sentenced to nine months of hard labour.

Drinking places and cattle fairs have always gone naturally together. The chartered fair at Winterton was held on 23rd September or on Palm Sunday, and that fact highlights the kind of celebrations and festivities in rural communities in times gone by, as in the showing of prize rams at Northlands House in the 1850s, or the prizes won at the dog shows when someone’s award-winning setter would be mentioned in the regional press.

But there is still the celebrated Winterton Show; this year was the 139th show, organised by the Winterton Agricultural Society, which has been in existence since 1872. The show now fills thirty acres, with trade stands, side shows and entertainment. As David Kaye wrote in Lincolnshire Life back in 1985, the Show is ‘one of the highlights of the North Lincolnshire calendar’ and in that year there was the appealing theme of ‘Bygones’ – with floats depicting everything from Stone Age life to the British Empire. Nothing could be more quintessentially English than that.

As to local trades, honourable mention must go to Fletchers engineers, known as the Newport Iron Works, traditionally manufacturers of agricultural implements – something done way back in the late Victorian times by a company called F-Bust of Park Street, who specialised in chaff-cutters. At the time of the Bust firm, there would have been a farrier, a millwright, saddlers and a wheelwright. As to the Fletchers, oral history records that there was an observation post on their land in the war against Hitler.

Strangely, the Victorian years in Winterton have several notorious legal cases involving wills and bequests. Perhaps most complex was the story of William Palmer, a rich man who died aged seventy-six in 1868. After his wife’s death it was argued by some that an employee called Mrs Walesby laid a plot to have the man’s wealth. His wife’s nephew filed a bill in Chancery claiming that Palmer had been of unsound mind. From London came a medical man appointed by the court to enquire into whether or not Palmer was a lunatic. Should he have been defined as a Chancery lunatic, the money would have been ‘frozen’ and Mrs Walesby left without a benefit. A Dr Hood went to Winterton and gradually formed an opinion that Palmer was quite in control of his rational faculties, and the nephew’s petition was dismissed. He had to pay costs.

The material topography of Winterton includes or has included most notably the fine church of All Saints. We have here an Anglo-Saxon tower, battlements and pinnacles. In the 1920s, W F Rawnsley liked the octagonal pillars and the wide, decorated transepts; later, Pevsner was impressed by the arcades and piers, writing that ‘the capitals have small flat leaves of excellent varieties, quite original and inventive.’ He was fond of the early thirteenth century elements and back in 1964 he let some petulance creep into his responses, writing about the painting over the altar: ‘May it some time be cleaned.’

Pevsner also liked Dent’s cottage, and yet again there is a compelling local tale behind it: Jonathan Dent was a money-lender in the town, born in Roxby in 1740; he became very tight with his money and gained the reputation of being a miser, after losing money when a bank failed. He was said to have declared: ‘Let others boast of squandering cash, mine is the pleasure to hoard it.’ He never married and rarely lent money. On one occasion he did so and the repayment was late so he wrote, ‘The cash I lent thee, t’other day/for weeks thou didst neglect to pay/who can such conduct ere commend/fly hence man, seek another friend.’ His cottage was left to Joseph Dent, but it was in a poor state of repair, so an architect from Hull was employed to work on it, and the result was what Pevsner liked; he said it was made ‘in a spiky Gothic manner of buttressed wall and tall pointed gables.’ Jonathan Dent’s tomb is in the garden.

I noted earlier that Winterton’s history has a tranche of legal cases and the Dent family provide one of these. In Dent v Bennett (1835) the matter concerned the legality of a document signed by Dent, promising that on his death the doctor, Lucas Bennett, would receive what was then the huge sum of £25,000. At the Chancellor’s Court the decision was that the injunction to prevent the payment had to be stopped, and the judge commented that the signed paper was something that ‘advanced materially the interests of the defendant (Bennett). The fortune evaded the doctor, so the ‘Lincolnshire miser’ once more had his cash kept to himself, even when dead. The only negative in all this being that the Dent reputation for parsimony was a countywide topic for chitchat.

If we check out the famous sons of the town, we find William Fowler on the list. He lived in West Street, born there on 13 March, 1761. He was educated at the village school and then went on to start a building company. His work in architecture includes the stables at Cleatham Hall, Caythorpe vicarage and Leadenham Rectory. His home in Winterton he called Parva Domus – little home. Architectural art became his special expertise and he was also a talented builder. He was self-taught as a painter and engraver, and his prints were published in book form in 1804 and 1809. Such was Fowler’s fame that he was asked to meet the royal family to show his drawings, and he also went to spend time with Sir Walter Scott at his Abbotsford castle. He died in 1832 and is buried in Winterton.

Another famous Wintertonian was the astronomer Wallace Sargent, who was born in Elsham in 1935 but went to school in Winterton and then studied at Scunthorpe Technical High School, where he was the first pupil to go on to attend university in 1953. He commented that his ‘academic ancestors were mathematicians’ but that, like another famous astronomer, Sydney Chapman, he ‘spoke with a northern accent.’ Sargent went on to receive several honours and was Director of the Palomar Observatory, 1997-2000.

More down to earth with his achievements is the cyclist Neville Tong, who won the 1,000 metres time trial at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in 00.01:12. Shortly before that, he had been in Scotland and there he won the Dundee Grand Prix, over five miles, beating the Scottish champion to bring the cup down to England for the first time in fifty years. He broke the record for that distance in Scotland. Other achievements include the British half-mile grass championship.

These are merely a few of the surprises one may find digging into the social history of the town; there are many more from a place with many layers of history in its composition. The important Roman settlement grew into a prosperous agricultural community and then later became a focus for steelworkers working in Scunthorpe. Yet that is not to say that it lost its own particular identity; on the contrary, Winterton has maintained its distinctive character.

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