Saturday, April 22nd 2017
Boston lies in the county of Lincolnshire and is the main town of the Borough of Boston. It sits beside England’s biggest sea inlet and estuary, called the Wash. For a brief history of Boston see here. As the map below shows, Boston is almost due north from London. When the railway first came to the town in 1848, the line from London was the main route to the north and Boston was an important station. Those days have passed, however, and going to Boston from London today requires at least one change of train.
Today, we had to break our journey at Sleaford and take a shuttle train from there to Boston. While on the station at Sleaford we noticed that a family had taken up residence there.
A couple of pigeons had built a nest on top of a cabinet holding a cctv camera. We couldn’t see the eggs but there must have been some because the female was sitting still and quiet in the nest while the male flew in and out bringing her food.
This provides people with a rare opportunity to see a side of pigeon life that is usually kept away from public view. I am sorry that I shall miss the rest of the story – the appearance of the fledglings, their first attempts to fly and so on.
We at last reached Boston’s Victorian railway station and admired the entrance arcade which has been restored to its original 1850 appearance. A new booking hall was added in 1911 but the former entrance was restored in 1992-3.
We then set out to explore Boston. What we found was a town full of fine buildings of historic and aesthetic interest. There was so much, in fact, that I can only provide a few samples in this post. If you know and admire Boston, you will no doubt miss some of your favourite buildings but difficult choices had to be made about what to include and what to leave out.
Near the station stands the first of our discoveries, a handsome building with a swan on top, called Swan House. Originally an industrial building now converted for residential use, Swan house was was a factory making bedding with the goose feathers for which Boston was famous. In was built in 1877 to replace a previous factory that was destroyed by fire and only later became known as Swan House. The present swan atop to the building is a glass fibre replacement for the original. Why a swan, I wonder, when the trade carried out within was the manufacture of bedding made with goose feathers? Perhaps the owners thought that ‘Swan House’ sounded more elegant than ‘Goose House’.
I might add here that thanks are owing to Boston Borough Council, Heritage Lincolnshire and The Boston Preservation Trust for the plaques and information boards installed throughout the town to help us understand and enjoy the buildings we are seeing and visiting.
This beautiful building with its unusual ceramic finish was opened in 1904 (architect James Rowell) as the town’s Municipal Buildings. Here were to be found not only the Council Offices and the Mayor’s Parlour but also the Fire Station, the Police Station and Police Court (complete with cells and exercise yard), the School of Art and the Public Library, the latter a beneficiary of a financial contribution from Andrew Carnegie.
I will admit that on my first sight of this building I was sceptical as to whether it was what it appeared to be. For one thing, it is very large and the subsidence and warping that you expect to see in genuine Tudor buildings weren’t evident. I thought it might be a ‘Tudorbethan’ construction of the 1930s when such were common. However, a plaque on the side tells us that the original 15th century building was subjected to remodelling and restoration by John Oldrid Scott (son of the rather more famous George Gilbert) in the 1870s. Historic England nonetheless accords it a Grade II* listing and, in a separate report (NB PDF file), goes into its complex history in more detail.
The town of Boston sits on the River Witham. Depending on your point of view, the Witham either becomes, or drains into, the River Haven, which itself empties into the Wash beside the outfall of the River Welland. Boston grew up in the neighbourhood of a ford across the Witham but that wet crossing was iater improved by a series of bridges. One such was built by John Rennie in 1806-7. According to Historic England, this bridge was ‘largely rebuilt 1913 by John Webster’, although they state that ‘The site of the bridge was moved slightly southwards from the site of the C18 and earlier bridges’. Other sources have it that the 1913 bridge replaced the old one which was demolished. I am unable to arbitrate between those two views.
Following the east bank of the river southwards, we came to Custom House Quay (previously called Packhouse Quay) which served as the town’s port until Boston Dock was opened in 1882. It would have been a busy and thriving port with goods arriving from, and sailing to, ports all around the world. The port’s custom house was built in 1725 to replace an earlier one. It is Grade II listed.
Nearby stands the striking Fydell House, built 1726 for the Fydell family. Various notables lived in the house over the generations, until 1934 when it was faced with demolition. Opposition to this led to the formation of the Boston Preservation Trust who were able to buy the house and preserve it for posterity. It has been awarded a Grade I listing.
Next door to Fydell House is this ancient building that was originally the Boston Guildhall, home of the religious Guild of St Mary. It was built in the 1390s and merits a Grade I listing. Today it is a museum. A notable feature is the large kitchen – members of the Guild of St Mary clearly liked to dine well. To sum up the building’s long history, I can do no better than to quote the information board:
Boston Guildhall was built in the 1390s for the Guild of St Mary whose members comprised some of Boston’s wealthiest and most influential merchants. Upon the dissolution of the religious guilds by Henry VIII, the Guildhall subsequently became the first Town Hall; also serving as a court and gaol, as well as other occasional uses including warehousing. The Pilgrim Fathers were tried and held in the Guildhall in 1607 for trying to leave the country without the consent of the crown, before ultimately reaching Leiden in Holland and then sailing on the Mayflower to the New World in 1620. The courtroom and cells are still to be seen in the Guildhall…
On the gate of the Guildhall is displayed this colourful plaque showing Boston’s coat of arms. This in fact is the coat of arms granted to the town in 1568. It was replaced by a slightly modified version in 1974. In the centre, upon a black shield are three coronets, representing the three large landowners of Boston in 1568, the Duke of Richmond, the Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Brittany. Above the shield at the top is a wool pack with a ram on it, symbolizing Boston’s historic importance in the wool trade. The motto PER MARE ET PER TERRAM means ‘By sea and by land’ and what more fitting symbol for this concept than two mermaids? Some think, however, that there is more to this than meets the eye and that the mermaids in fact represent Anne Boleyn and Princess Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, who had connections with the town.
To visit the museum thoroughly and learn all it has to tell you would take many hours but ours had to be a short visit. There was a lot of information on display and interesting artifacts such as the muniments chest shown above. We also peeped into the cells where the Separatists, later known as the Pilgrim Fathers, were held pending their trial.
The kitchen is palatial and has a number of ovens and fireplaces with spikes for roasting meat. A looping sound track suggests the presence of an irascible chef and his sous-chef assistants as they prepare a dinner for the Guild members.
This ground floor room was perhaps originally the council chamber for the Guildhall but later it became a court room. It lacks the usual fixtures of a courtroom and it is thought that when the court was to be in session, furniture had to be brought in and set out appropriately. A looping video recounts typical cases that would have been heard here and the punishments likely to have been meted out. Perhaps the most controversial from our modern point of view was the case of the wife, condemned for scolding her husband and being forced to wear a scold’s bridle, a cage-like accoutrement fitting over the woman’s head and incorporating a plate that projected into her mouth and held her tongue down flat and spikes to discourage movement. The punishment was as much the public humiliation and mockery as the physical discomfort.
In the middle of the floor was the top of a steep spiral staircase leading to a lower level to which visitors did not have access. What was its purpose? I have no idea. I thought at first that it might be for bringing prisoners into the court but then I remembered that the cells were on a level with the court. Unsolved mystery!
After viewing the museum, we continued our rambles and visited the Unitarian Church whose schoolroom is used by the A. J. Dance School and by Boston’s Quakers as their meeting house.
Our attention was attracted by this obviously ancient building. A plaque tells us that it once contained the refectory of the Dominican Friary. Parts of it date from the 14th century but it was rebuilt in 1309. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the building went into decline and was finally rescued by the Boston Preservation Trust and turned into a theatre and arts centre. We went in and had a cup of tea!
This large and imposing building dates from the late 18th century when the then Boston Corporation sought to improve the aspect of the west side of Market Place. Thomas Lumby designed the building which was to contain dwellings in the upper level and a fish market on the ground floor to replace the market fish stalls lost to the development. Later, the fish market was discontinued and the space it occupied converted into municipal offices. These changes occurred in the mid-19th century when the name Exchange Building started to be used. These days, the ground floor consists of retail units and the upper floors accommodate offices. The building has a Grade II* listing.
We paid a quick visit to Boston Market which operates every Wednesday and Saturday in the appropriately named Market Place. The market has been in existence from at least the time of Henry VIII.
In Wide Bargate, on its corner with Park Gate, we found the Central Post Office. This building, we thought, was obviously Edwardian, its style being so much like many others of that period. Just to make sure, we looked for a date, as post offices of the period usually include a plaque with the date under the royal cipher. We could find no date, though we did notice on an adjoining wall (not the post office itself) in Park Gate a small plaque bearing the number 1935. Here was a little mystery. So…
We betook ourselves to Boston’s public library and ransacked the local history section. Books that we might have expected to help us, such as Pevsner, didn’t even mention the post office, while those that did all gave the spurious date of 1935. Sure of obtaining correct data from what I thought of as an impeccably reliable source, I went online with my iPhone and sought Historic England’s list entry for the post office. Imagine my incredulity to find that this bastion of expertise and accuracy also quoted the 1935 date! (I have to say that this has severely shaken my confidence in Historic England whose records I now treat with caution.)
Despite this setback I was determined to get to the truth and so I continued searching online. My luck was in because I discovered an excellent site with the name British Post Office Buildings and Their Architects : an Illustrated Guide. Did this site have an entry on Boston’s Central Post office and did it give a date? Yes, to both, and you can read that carefully researched page here. It proved, by citing irrefutable evidence, that the true date of completion of the post office was 1907, right in the Edwardian period as we had supposed. I have retained the URL of that site and emailed my appreciation to its author!
These fine old post offices are closing all over the country. We cannot argue with economic necessity, of course, but it is sad to see them put at risk or being ‘developed’ for some unsuitable alternative use. This post office is also closed and awaiting its fate. Historic England has at least given it a Grade II listing so let us hope this provides a measure of protection for this fine old building.
This remarkable structure is the Centenary Methodist Church, built in 1839 by Stephen Lewin and still in use. It has received a Grade II* listing despite being partially destroyed by fire in 1909 and having to be rebuilt. We did not visit the interior and I will say no more about its history. You can find more about this in the Historic England listing or, more succinctly on the site of Heritage Gateway.
As you move around Boston, you continually notice a tower in the background of most views. The tower is tall and fairly slender and it is therefore puzzling when you learn that it is affectionately know as ‘the Stump’. The tower belongs to the Church of St Botolph, the saint, so it is thought, who gave his name to the town. ‘St Botolph’s Town’, it is alleged, became eroded to give ‘Boston’. St Botolph’s is one of the largest parish churches in England and possesses one of the tallest medieval towers with an approximate height of 272 feet or 83m.
There were churches on the site from very early times but construction of the present one started in 1309. The tower was not begun until 1450 and work on it continued until the first couple of decades of the 16th century. Why it is called ‘the Stump’ is uncertain and although there are various theories about this, none has been proven correct.
We went inside for a look.
As the view from outside the church correctly suggests, the inside is also very large and it would take a long time to catalogue all of the church’s features and treasures. The above samples will suffice for now.
Boston had kept us busy and the evening was approaching. So was the time of our train. We found a friendly little pub where we could relax for a while over tea and then we started back to the station.
I took my last photo of the ubiquitous Stump from St Botolph’s Bridge. This is a pedestrian bridge across the Witham that was installed in February 2014, replacing an earlier bridge.
Boston left us with the feeling that we had seen a lot but by no means all of it. Much remains still to be seen and enjoyed. Perhaps we will return another time and capture some more of the intriguing town of Boston.