Brief History of the Town of Brigg
BRIGG has developed and prospered during the current Millennium but its primary functions remain unchanged down the centuries - a safe place to cross the River Ancholme and a forum for buying and selling goods and services. Back in the 11th century the only crossing was by wading through a ford where the river was just a few feet deep, near the site of what is now the Lidl store.
History of the Town of Brigg - A Brief Synopsis
by Nigel Fisher, Brigg Journalist
Brigg’s primary functions have remained unchanged down the centuries - a safe place to cross the River Ancholme and a forum for buying and selling goods and services.
Back in the 11th century the only crossing was by wading through a ford where the river was just a few feet deep, near the site of what is now the Lidl store. A very small settlement was clustered near the crossing point. The first recorded reference to the county of Lincolnshire was in 1016 but the ancient territory of Lindsey, of which Brigg was part, existed as an entirely separate entity.
The area was surveyed by the Domesday Commissioners after the Norman Conquest. But few people lived in the tiny hamlet and were probably involved only in a little agriculture, fishing and wildfowling. The meandering river was connected directly to the tidal Humber - Ferriby’s protective sluice gates were centuries in the future - and the district was subject to frequent flooding, particularly during the winter. Brigg really came of age in 1205 when Hugh Nevil established the first Thursday market and two fairs a year by way of Royal Charter. He married Desiderata, daughter of Sir Stephen de Camara, the local Lord. People still had to ford the Ancholme but, in the 14th century, the first stone bridge was built. In 1313 it was reported to Edward II that “men and cattle passing over Glaunford Brigg in the time of much floods were seldom out of danger.”
There were several forms of the place-name and it was not until the 17th century that the term “Brigg” was in common use.
The Black Death, which decimated England in the 14th century, was spread by rat fleas as a result of people being in close proximity to plague sufferers and the cramped confines of Brigg market must have been a terrible breeding ground for the dreaded disease.
The Ancholme was usually navigable to Brigg, allowing trade with many areas, particularly in timber and agricultural products. Rabbits became one of the settlement’s most lucrative commodities, the warrens of the area being reportedly Britain’s biggest and most productive. The rabbit, or coney, skins were prepared, usually by girls and women, and sent far and wide for use in hat manufacture.
Today the trade’s origins can be traced in the street name Coney Court, a cul-de-sac off the Market Place. Although Brigg then had no churches, the first Catholic Mass was said in 1604 by Henry Garnet, executed two years later for his links with Guy Fawkes’ infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. The Angel Hotel was established in the 16th century as an inn on the national stagecoach network - the most reliable way for the wealthy to travel.
And period maps show the town being linked to Barton and Kirton. In 1654 John Evelyn, one of the founders of the Royal Society, passed through Brigg, noting it was “famous for its plantations of liquorice.”
Brigg was long the property of the Tyrwhitt family, but their influence gradually declined.
In 1635 Sir John Monson drained the Ancholme valley by cutting a straight new channel making, in effect, two rivers at Brigg, which was then less liable to flooding. Sir John was a local landowner, based at Owersby, further down the Ancholme.
A landmark in the town’s development came in 1669 with the foundation of the grammar school, courtesy of landowner Sir John Nelthorpe who left lands in his will to pay for its continuing upkeep. But Brigg remained a scattering of buildings in and around the Market Place. Although the town developed and gained a host of resident tradesman, ranging from shoemakers to surgeons, by 1705 it was still only the seventh largest settlement in the area, behind Haxey, Epworth, Belton, Barton, Crowle and Owston Ferry.
That century saw the Elwes family take over as the main landowners, Cary Elwes - once dubbed “The King of Brigg” organising, around 1752, the construction of brick houses - more sturdy than the old ones of timber filled in with clay.
The arrival of proper turnpike roads was a real boost to improved communications and trade on which Brigg relied so heavily, although the payments system must have been a worrying cost for many. Methodist pioneer John Wesley visited Brigg in the late 1700s and described it as “a noisy, turbulent town.”
The rabbit skin trade in the town possibly peaked in the 1780s when a silver-grey fur could fetch 1s 3d (8p). In 1794 Brigg Fair attracted 200 people from Hull by boat. Buildings dating from the 18th century which survive today include the Exchange Hotel, No. 7 Market Place (formerly the offices of Ian Cawsey MP) and 57 Wrawby Street (now the Hub computer services shop).
The old town hall, now The Buttercross, dates from 1817. Major agricultural changes came about between 1800 and 1805 with the enclosure of Wrawby-Cum-Brigg, ending the open fields farming system and changing the local landscape with new hedges between the large fields, known as Redcomb,West Moor and Brigg Field. Much land was awarded to Robert Cary Elwes, in lieu of manorial rights, but his share of the enclosure costs came to £3,061. Some 43 landowners, including Sir Henry Nelthorpe and Lord Yarborough, were involved in the share-out.
John Rennie’s work on improving the drainage of the Ancholme valley included vital work at Ferriby Sluice in the 1820s, the device being made by Adam Smith of Brigg. Traffic along the river expanded, particularly to Hull with regular steam packet services and a great deal of cargo of many kinds. Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, there was a great deal of unease about the French Revolutionary War. Britain looked threatened with invasion or uprisings at home, and the Nelthorpe Militia or Brigg Independent Volunteer Armed Association was formed to protect the locality. The 19th century saw Brigg really develop as Britain emerged as “The Empire On Which The Sun Never Sets.”
And some Briggensians were looking much further afield, widower Thomas Ball leading a party of 137 (70 from Brigg) who emigrated to New Zealand, where he became a prominent citizen.
A new County Bridge - replacing the decrepit structure of 1665: “perhaps without equal in the county for danger” - was erected and another major addition, in the 1840s, was the parish church of St John. There had been a chapel of ease, but no C of E parish church. Later that decade the railway arrived, but while construction was under way the Riot Act had to be read to disperse railway navvies who got out of hand in the town centre where many of the poorest people were crammed into tiny cottages in in sanitary alleyways off Wrawby Street.
The navvies caused more consternation on the outskirts of the town, at Kettleby, when they broke open coffins in an ancient cemetery in the hope of recovering coins buried with the dead. In 1849 the town stocks were used for the last time to house a drunk.
The population in the 1851 census stood at 3,097, Brigg being second only to Barton. The population had just been swelled by many poor Irish labourers fleeing their country in the wake of the Great Potato Famine.
In the 1860s one of the most colourful and long-lived characters ever to grace Brigg’s streets finally died.
John Gilliatt - born in Waltham some time between 1761 and 1764 - lived to be over 100, having been press-ganged into the services and been pensioned off, partially blinded, from Egypt in 1801. He ended up in Brigg Workhouse (founded in the 1830s) where the master was a keen photographer. Local landowner and aristocrat, Lord Yarborough, saw John’s photo and was moved to pay for the war veteran to be rehoused and to enjoy an allowance of tobacco. Brigg’s Thursday market continued to thrive and, in 1868, buyers were noted from Lincoln, Newark, Retford, Worksop, Sheffield, Doncaster, Wakefield and Leeds - most arriving via the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway.
In the wake of Britain’s frequent cholera and typhoid outbreaks, the Victorian hirearchy became very concerned about public health and Brigg’s water supply and sewerage arrangements certainly needed major improvements. Effluent found its way into the Ancholme by way of the stinking Town Drain which passed close to the town centre. In 1868 there was a fatal case of cholera; in 1872, some 15 cases of smallpox were reported; and in 1883 the Medical Officer of Health was asked to visit Chapel Yard where cases of typhoid fever were reported. Eventually a proper, safe water supply was laid on from the St Helen’s spring at Wrawby, and a gasworks established to provide power for heat and light.
But when a sewerage system finally arrived - after decades of wrangling over costs - its effects were far from comprehensive. Many of the poorest houses in the courts and yards continued to have only bucket toilets in a yard at the back of the premises. And the contents had to be taken out through the house to the frontage to be emptied by the “Dilly Cart Men” every Friday. That was the one night of the week when - even in the warmest summers - Brigg town centre folk kept their windows well and truly shut!.
A giant prehistoric boat and a causeway were discovered near the Ancholme during construction work in the late 19th century, showing that the area had been inhabited during ancient times.
The dawn of the new century, in 1900, saw life becoming a little more comfortable for some of the town’s most unfortunate residents. For Coun (later Alderman) Joshua Davy persuaded the workhouse guardians to allow talking at mealtimes!
A year later, however, it was decided that Sutton Bean Brewery’s offer to provide a barrel of beer for the workhouse at Christmas should be refused. Others found different ways of coping with the stress of their harsh lives - getting drunk in the many pubs or taking laudanum (opium) which was still known as an addictive drug among women in the yards in the 1920s.
In 1901 George Henry Layne, became one of the first people in North Lincs to own and run a car, branching out into motor repairs and sales and eventually employing more than 60 people at his Bigby Street premises in Brigg.
At Brigg Music Festival in 1905 the folk song section was won by Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, whose haunting melody Brigg Fair inspired Delius to compose his famous rhapsody of the same name. In 1910 the town’s worst fire gutted Yarborough Mills, beside the New River Ancholme, where enormous quantities of linseed cake and oil became “one burning mass.” Difficulties in tackling the blaze prompted improvements to the local fire service.
Spring’s preserves factory, on the banks of the Old River Ancholme, became a major employer with an international reputation for its marmalade and lemon curd, even Queen Victoria being impressed. Founder Henry Spring was a qualified chemist who began manufacture in Coney Court but eventually moved to his striking riverside premises where several hundred men and women were employed. The sugar factory, from the late 1920s, also employed many hundreds, particularly on seasonal work during the processing “campaign,” while Corah’s stocking factory was another significant job provider.
Today, Layne’s, Spring’s, Corah’s and the sugar factory have all gone from Brigg, part of the jam factory site being redeveloped, in the early 1980s, for William Jackson’s Grandways supermarket - the first sizeable one in the district.
Still going, however, is the firm of Peacock and Binnington, agricultural engineers, based in Bridge Street since 1894.
Either side of the Second World War, Brigg has seen the creation of housing estates - council-built and private sector - to cater for the growing population, allowing the demolition of the old town centre alleyway cottages.
Having had major problems with heavy traffic trundling through the town centre on the A18, Brigg streets became less busy with the opening of the nearby M180 motorway in the late 1970s and with the introduction of an inner by-pass in the 1990s, allowing major shopping areas of the town centre to become a pedestrianised zone.
As it always has, Brigg still boasts a host of specialist shops but although big names like Woolworth, Curry’s, Binns and Dewhurst pulled out in the 1970s and 1980s, major retailers like Tesco, Lidl, Wilkinson and Poundstretcher have arrived.
The old grammar school buildings of 1669, much extended in Victorian times and boosted by the imposing boarding house (now a study centre), survive at Sir John Nelthorpe Comprehensive School. And as many of the town centre shops and offices date back 200 years or more, the local council and central government encouraging their preservation and restoration with grants under a regeneration scheme.
Brigg Horse Fair, staged during early August, is a tremendous link with the past, attracting visitors and traders from many parts of the country.
The music festival also continues to thrive, although, sadly in many eyes, it can no longer be held in the 19th century Corn Exchange - demolished in the 1990s, despite howls of local protest. What was the historic Angel Hotel has been transformed into council offices with an impressive function suite, while the restored Buttercross houses the award-winning Tourist Information Centre, officially opened by Lady Diana.
Among the most historically interesting of the surviving hostelries - mainly in the town centre - are the Nelthorpe Arms, adjoining the County Bridge; former Sutton Bean Brewery premises The Britannia, and the Black Bull, both in Wrawby Street; plus The Dying Gladiator in Bigby Street, said to be the only pub bearing that name in Britain, and featuring a sculpture modelled on one in the Vatican as its sign.
It is hardly surprising that Brigg’s role as a bringer together of people on a regular basis saw it become the main centre for local government - really put on a firm footing by the Victorians. The old Brigg Urban and Brigg Rural District Councils were both based in the town, which housed a purpose-built police station and courthouse (mid-19th century) to catch and try any lawbreakers. There was also a workhouse for the poor and destitute, but thankfully that is now long gone.
The police presence remains but the magistrates’ function has now been centralised in Scunthorpe to cut costs and, it is said, increase efficiency.
The 1970s saw the old authorities merged to form Glanford Borough Council, based in Brigg. Since 1996, the all-powerful unitary authority of North Lincolnshire, providing most local services, has arrived - again with important offices in the market town. They were named Hewson House in honour of long-serving and distinguished councillor George, several times Mayor.
The town’s Glanford Hospital may have gone as a provider of treatment, but one of the local health bodies has its main offices on the same site, off Wrawby Road.
Brigg still has a tenuous rail link but passenger trains run only on Saturdays and the station, which could once boast a fine roof and busy goods yard, is now nothing more than an unstaffed halt.
The River Ancholme has long ceased to be a conveyor of freight, the final barges visiting the old Yarborough Mills some 30 years ago. But the river is now a very popular leisure venue for rowers, canoeists and boat-owners, while an enterprising company has set up pleasure cruises Brigg has long been a popular sporting venue, with Brigg Town Football Club - founded in the 1860s - one of the oldest in the world, and the Ancholme Rowing Club and Brigg Town Cricket Club, also formed by health-conscious Victorians, still going today.
When Brigg Town won the FA Vase in 1996 at Wembley, London, it was the town’s most significant sporting achievement of the Millennium. Playing on the world’s most famous pitch was certainly a far cry from 1888 when Brigg Britannia beat Boston Reserves in the final of the Lincolnshire Minor Cup in 1888. Brigg were described as “a heavy, rough lot, who played the men first and then took the ball.” Yet, despite all the changes, Brigg continues to function, as it has since the 13th century, as a popular market town. The cattle market may have gone but every Thursday a host of stalls go up in Wrawby Street and the Market Place, selling all manner of goods, while Stennett’s auction swings into action in Station Road, offering everything from an old bike to a brace of pheasants and a tray of eggs.
There is also a smaller “general” market every Saturday, while North Lincolnshire Council’s always-popular, award-winning farmers’ market is staged once a month.
People travel into Brigg from far and wide to buy their provisions and visit one of the many eating establishments or hostelries, before returning home with their purchases.
And that is how Brigg has been for centuries.
A town devoted to trade, at a convenient crossing place over the River Ancholme.