Home » Articles » A History of Sutton Bridge – 1745 to the Present Day Peter Clery

A History of Sutton Bridge – 1745 to the Present Day Peter Clery

Huge thanks to Mr Middleton for delivering the latest copy of the The Bridge – Handbook of Sutton Bridge. This is a very impressive publication and has a history of Sutton Bridge. Please read on.

1745 – 1814

The South Sea bubble was a financial scandal in 1720-21 which outweighed anything before or since. What has that got to do with Sutton Bridge which at that time did not exist? The area was grazing, some of it salt marsh washed daily by the tides. The land was farmed by graziers living in and around Sutton St. Mary, now Long Sutton. But it was good grazing and the rents were as high as 13-14 shillings per acre (65-70p) but averaged around 7 shillings (35p) making it a profitable holding for the owner Lascells Metcalf. (The earliest record of dry’ish land here may be around 1660 when certain grandees were given power by the Crown, to enclose some 6,700 acres of Sutton and Lutton marshes). Now read on

One of the few people to come out on the right side of the South Sea scandal was one Thomas Guy, a shrewd part time banker and printer and stationer. He bought into the stock as early as 1711 and when others were frantically buying, he was discretely selling in tranches of £10,000 in then money to clear a profit of no less than £234,000.  It was said that this was the largest honest fortune made out of the bubble and the Guy’s Hospital it built the best memorial the Bubble left behind. It impossible to calculate realistically this value in today’s devalued currency.

Thomas Guy’s Trustees needed sound investments which would support the running costs of the Hospital. They cast their eye over the lands of Lascells Metcalf, originally in 1728 and after considerable delays which included detailed calculations on the cost of repairing and maintaining the sea defences, the estate of about 5,500 acres including un re-claimed saltmarsh was purchased in 1746 for some £39,000 — £7/acre -14 years purchase of the rents. Their full report is in the author’s hands. At that time, there were virtually no buildings and certainly no village of consequence, the river crossing being a risky trip fording or boating across the river at low tide. However the Treasurer of Guy’s, Benj. Avery in an internal memorandum, wrote in 1738 that “Guys was not for buying anything but what will produce a profit”.

The Trustees proved good landlords and willing to invest. By 1814 Wm. Marrat described the settlement at Sutton Wash as “mostly belonging to Guy’s Hospital and having about 80 houses, three inns, one wash house for sea air and bathing” and added “that merchants and shipowners reside there”.

1814 – 1843

The next major development was the straightening of the outfall of the River

Nene. The old course, meandering to the east through what is now known as Wingland, was silting up and blocking easy access to the Port of Wisbech. After the necessary Act of Parliament in 1827 (the Nene Outfall Act) work started to straighten the river from what is now known as Foul Anchor (Gunthorpe Sluice) to the sea. A massive task. The new course was dug out through Guys Hospital dry land and the first bridge, designed by Sir John Rennie, was built across the dry bed of the designated new course for the river. Both ends of the works had been blocked by removable barriers and it was a dramatic day when these barriers were lifted and the river allowed to flow down its new course which it has stuck too ever since, fortunately for us. It was said the Victorian engineers responsible for the new cut calculated that the river flow would scour out the last few feet of the river bed and that this need not be (very expensively) dug out. They were proved right.

Two mock “lighthouses” were built at the seaward end of the new cut to mark what has been described as the last major task for the draining of the inland fen. They remain a daylight guide to shipping. A replacement bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson, was an iron swing bridge, built in 1850 at a cost of more than £2O,OOO. It remained in use until 1897.

Meanwhile, Guy’s Hospital Trustees continued investing in their property.The old brick buildings in the village such as the block opposite the Co-op are witness to this as are other similar buildings. There are also major farmsteads and farmhouses built around the 1850s. This period has been described as The Golden Age of English Farming and Guy’s invested accordingly. For instance, Avenue Farm, Curlew Lodge and Thompson on South Drove. Others including The Maze have been demolished and many of the Victorian farm buildings have gone or are going the same way.

Guys also built St. Matthews Church finished in 1843 and the vicarage adjoining. The resident agent at that time was William Skelton, a Governor of Guy’s Hospital. And during his long term of office, he organised buildings including schools and a “Working Man’s Institute”. He also laid down roads (e.g Hospital Drove) planted trees, organized an annual agricultural show and was chairman of Long Sutton magistrates. He built up an effective modern well run estate and a stained glass window to his memory was installed in the church .

1843 -1913

An Urban District Council had been established by 1859 and the Long Sutton

School Board took over the schools in 1879 with a new building in Bridge Road. This accommodated 450 children average attendance 149 boys, 140 girls and 100 infants. Still there but not used since the school was moved to the new site at Westmere in the 1980s.

The next major drama to hit Sutton Bridge was the attempt at an enclosed dock. There had been riverside wharfs for very many years trading mainly timber, coal and corn. A company was formed to create a new enclosed dock with a coal hoist and rail connection on the lines of Lynn and Boston. Substantial funds were raised as £1 shares with 10 shillings (50p) paid. The story has it that the contractors failed to drive the piles through the silt into the underlying clay. Be that as it may, the dock collapsed in 1881 with just one ship entering and leaving, just in time. There was a colossal financial loss for the original investors as the unpaid 10/- per share were still due and there were bankruptcies, suicides and enforced exiles by those due to pick up the tab for this financial disaster.

The builders of the new port in 1987 took care to have the piles driven deep enough into the clay.A unique golf course now occupies the site of the collapsed dock.

The present bridge was built in 1897 for the Midland & Great Northern Railway at a cost of {80,000. One track was rail, the other road. The swing section, 165 ft 6ins long and weighing 750 tonnes was operated by water hydraulics via two massive 75 and 70 ton (standby) containers housed in the tall pump house still to be seen in what was the old railway yard. The water pressure generated by these weights descending opened and closed the bridge through ingenious hydraulic piping. Steam power drove the containers back up their slides ready for use next time.This neat Victorian operation was converted to electrically driven oil hydraulics during refurbishment in 1987-91.

After the collapse of the dock, matters stayed on a fairly even keel for the next 40 years apart from the inevitable influence of the first world war. In 1913, the year before the outbreak ofWWI , Kelly’s Directory for Lincolnshire described the community as: “chiefly one side of a street running to a considerable length with a short street or two diverging from it on the north, besides several detached residences. There is a good quay on the riverside and warehouses for corn, coal and timber.About two thirds of the houses at Sutton Bridge and nearly all the land in Sutton and Lutton marshes belongs to Guy’s Hospital, London. ….

1 9 1 3 — 1 977

The area of the civil parish and urban district is 6, 176 acres and the population of the civil parish 2, 156.” The same directory indicated a Parish Clerk and Sexton (Richard Triffit); a Surveyor, Collector and Sanitary Inspector (Thomas Whitehead); a coastguard (George Gibbons) & five men; and a county police station, Constable Wm. Ranby in charge. The Station Master was Frederick Moule.

The next major event in Sutton Bridge was the compulsory purchase by the government of the whole Guy’s Hospital Estate in 1921. This was part of the post war wish to establish homes and businesses for returning soldiers. Houses in the village were sold and the five or six big farms were split up into hundreds of smallholdings each with cottage and buildings. Some of these can still be identified up New Road and are making nice little non-agricultural homes. The big farmhouses were split into multiple occupation. Lloyd George was Prime Minister when this national policy was implemented but he expressed doubts about its efficacy. A lot of little holdings would, he though, be less efficient as food producing units than large well run farms. So it proved.

In the inter war years, Sutton Bridge village developed independently of the

Ministry of Agriculture, the new owners of the rural estate. In the 2nd World War, an aerodrome was established across the river, north of where the power station now is. This was a key war time activity and the people it brought to the district affected the whole area. There are some who can remember still those days. There are Commonwealth and other war graves in the Church to this day of those who lost their lives in the air or on the ground. Post war adjustments saw an increase in the village population which now stands at 4,454 and the development of local businesses such as Leesons Garage which started in 1949. Food factories were established across the river and provided welcome employment.

The next major change which affected the rural population but the urban hardly at all, was the sale of the rural estate. As an early privatization, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decreed its sale as under Ministry of Agriculture management, the estate was losing money after repairs and management. It was bought by an agricultural investment company, The Lands Improvement Group, under an ingenious contract which gave all the tenants an option to buy their holdings.

Few did. Lands Improvement, whose then Managing Director is the author of this history, paid the same price, in real terms as Guys Hospital had paid in 1746 — 14 times the annual rents.

1977  – Present Day

During this company’s ownership, the by- pass came through the southern part of the estate thus leaving the village relatively traffic free. A new port was constructed on the riverside making use of the old dock entry as a turning bay for vessels which do not come in stern first. The new port, costing some £10m, was opened in 1978 amid considerable public interest. The largest addition to the community during this time was the Falklands Estate, 300 houses off Bridge Road. The name has nothing to do with the war. The architect had connections with the Islands and named the streets after areas he knew. There was increasing employment in the area including the development of food processing industries across the river.

A gas fired power station was built south of the factory area and opened in 1999 at a cost of £337m. A charitable fund had been set up and part of the fund, known as S 106 money. Along with locally raised funds, this provided most of the money to pay for a new community centre adjoining the Memorial Park. Now known as the Curlew Centre, it cost some £600,000 and was opened, by the then Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire Tony Worth, in December 2011. There is also a Power Fund set up from the same source. This can provide funds of up to £2000 a year for eligible local activities. Local contact Michael Barton. See Sources of Local Funding on page 10.

In 1997, the rural estate was sold to the Henry Smith Charity, the second richest charity in the country and community life on carried on much as before. The charity owns land opposite the Anchor Inn designated for some 200 new houses. Let us hope the local facilities, schools and health are expanded to meet the new demand when it occurs.

All the while, the matters which concerned the Guy’s Trustees back in 1740, protection from the sea and land drainage, have been the un- ceasing care of those responsible since then. Sea defences have been raised as recently as the 1980’s after flooding in 1977. The South Holland Internal Drainage Board maintains the watercourses which drain the parish into the River Nene. This by heavy iron tidal flaps which open at low tide to allow the water flow out but close on the incoming tide to keep out the salt water. A simple system which works well. Long may it continue.

Vistor comments