Ian Dair: Bourne - a dirty little town?

The Angel Hotel, Bourne'Photo: MSMP070213-009js
The Angel Hotel, Bourne'Photo: MSMP070213-009js

I have written articles in The Local which have shown that Bourne is a good place in which to live but that was not always the case. At least, in the view of the Universal British Directory.

This publication, in its 1791 edition, describes Bourne as ‘but a dirty mean-built town, of about a mile and a quarter in length from the east to west, and about half a mile in breadth from north to south’. Dirty and mean-built, that was their opinion. I’m sure Bourne’s inhabitants (there were probably only about 1,500 of them in 1791) didn’t see it that way.

The Universal British Directory lists these inhabitants. Not all of them, by any means. As was the way in the class conscious society of those days, only the important people were named – the ‘principal inhabitants’ - along with their status in society and their trade or profession. There are fewer than 100 on the list.

It begins with the ‘gentry’ of Bourne. Of these there were only two, one being the Colonel of Leicestershire Militia. Next in the pecking order came the lone clergyman. Followed by the ‘physics’ - two ‘surgeons and apothecaries’. And one ‘attorney’ – a Major. Next in line were the ‘traders etc’. For a place as small as the Bourne of some two centuries or more ago, there were lots of these. Many were farmers or graziers, as you’d expect in a rural community. Farmers are naturally hardworking folk, as were the rest of the people of Bourne. This must have made them thirsty - there were more publicans and those connected to drink and drinking than there were farmers.

We’ll come later to the watering holes. Some of the trades which the people of Bourne followed in 1791 are unknown to us today. There was a peruke maker – a maker of wigs. A stay and mantua maker (mantua was a woman’s loose gown of the period). A hair and sackcloth maker (I’m guessing but maybe he supplied the peruke maker with the raw material?). A raftmerchant (something to do with timber or rafters?). A brazier and tinman (a worker in metals). Two people were woolstaplers and fellmongers (dealers in sheep wool and hides ). One was a flax and hemp dresser.

We can recognise some of the other trades but I doubt that there are many, if any, left in Bourne. These would include the four men who were saddler, collar and harness makers, the two wheelwrights, the two blacksmiths, the three curriers (workers who dressed and coloured tanned leather). One of the curriers doubled as the parish clerk. The curriers would have received their material from the two tanners, who got their hides from the fellmongers. There were two clock and watchmakers, one cooper (a barrel maker), a breeches maker and a basket maker.

Other trades were the usual ones – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and so on. A few people named in the list weren’t ‘in trade’. These were the master of the workhouse, the master of the Free School, the Chief Constable (who was one of the farmers) and the dreaded Excise Officer.

As you’d expect, most of the trades listed were carried on by men. But about 10% of people on the list were women. There was Penelope the miller; Catherine and Precious (presumably sisters) were mercers, drapers and grocers; sisters Elizabeth and Mary were milliners; another Mary was also a milliner; Magdalene was a grocer and china dealer; and a third Mary ran the Ladies Boarding School.

Another Elizabeth was a victualler (publican) at the Six Bells. Which brings me on to drinking. There were fourteen people in the list who had a hand in the making or selling of drink, either as publicans, maltsters (brewers) or ‘liquor merchants’. I am not a frequent visitor to the pubs in present day Bourne. But if I had been in 1791, I’d have been spoiled for choice. As well as the Six Bells, there were the White Hart, the Fox and Hounds, the Red Lion, the Bull inn, the Marquis of Grandby, the Anchor, the Windmill, the Horse and Jockey and the *Angel inn. Ten in all.

I am not suggesting that the Bourne people of that time were drunkards or that, in their liking for pubs, they were any different from anywhere else in England in 1791. In the old days my own tiny village had three registered pubs (and two unregistered one – what were they like) serving what must have been fewer than 100 inhabitants. Life then was work, the pub and church on Sundays. There wasn’t a lot of home entertainment, like TV. And you would not be stopped and breathalysed for riding your horse home while under the influence. Happy days.

The Universal British Directory, despite the ambitious title, didn’t last long, and publication ceased in 1798. Serves it right for being so rude about Bourne. Eighty four years later, another publication, the ‘History, Gazetteer and Directory of Lincoln etc.’ by William White, was able to describe Bourne more positively as ‘a well-built and pleasant market town’. 

- Acknowledgments: Universal British Directory, Bourne, Lincs - transcription SA Whittle-Bruce 2002; Photograph and information about the Angel from Rex Needle’s A Portrait of Bourne, the definitive history of the town. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne web site at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk