A History of Boston, Lincolnshire

By Tim Lambert

Boston in the Middle Ages

According to legend Boston is named after St Botolph. It is said he came to the area in the 7th century and built a monastery and church next to an existing settlement. The settlement was renamed Botolph’s tun (town). However, this story is disputed by some historians who believe its name has a different origin.

Boston was not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. However, it probably grew into a little town in the late 11th century or early 12th century. At that time international trade was booming. Boston was well situated to trade with Europe and it soon became a busy little port. Boston also became a focal point for the surrounding villages. It grew into a market town.

As well as weekly markets Boston had an annual fair by 1125. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Merchants came from all over Europe to buy and sell at a Boston fair.

In the Middle Ages wool was England’s most important export. By the 13th century, wool exports from Boston were booming. In the early 13th century Boston paid more tax than any other town except London. Apart from wool some salt, grain, and lead were exported. The main import was wine (the drink of the upper class). Timber and fish were imported from Scandinavia. Spices were also imported into Boston.

In the 14th century, only certain towns were allowed to export wool. They were called staples. In 1369 the king made Boston a staple. However, in the 15th century, the wool industry shifted away from the East Midlands to other parts of England. As a result, Boston began to decline. Furthermore, the River Witham began to silt up which hindered shipping adding to the decline of the port. 

Medieval Boston was surrounded by a ditch called the Barditch. The bar is the old word for a gate. Just to make life complicated the street name ‘gate’ as in Bargate is derived from the old Danish for street ‘gata’.

Medieval Boston was a large town. It had several thousand inhabitants. To us, it would seem no more than a large village but by the standards of the time, when settlements were very small, it was a large and important settlement.

However, although it was a busy port Boston, was not a manufacturing center. Nevertheless, it did have the same craftsmen found in any Medieval town such as carpenters, shoemakers, tanners, butchers, and bakers.

St Botolph’s church was constructed during the 14th century. The tower, known as the Boston Stump was added between the early 15th century and the early 16th century. It stands 272 feet tall. For centuries it acted as a landmark for sailors.

In the late 13th century friars came to Boston. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 4 orders of friars in Boston, the Dominicans (known as blackfriars because of the color of their costumes), Franciscan or grey friars, Carmelites, and (from the early 14th century) Austins or Augustines. (The refectory or dining room of the friary was made into a theatre in 1965. It is now Blackfriars Arts Centre).

There was also a ‘hospital’ just outside the town called St John’s Hospital. It was run by an order of monks called the Knights Hospitaller. Here they cared for the poor and the sick as best they could.

In 1281 Boston suffered a fire, which destroyed much of the town. (Fire was a constant danger in Medieval towns as most of the buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, if they did burn they could easily be rebuilt).

Several buildings in Boston have survived from the Middle Ages. Shodfriars Hall probably dates from the 14th century. (Some friars were called shod friars because they wore shoes unlike the Carmelites who were ‘unshod’). Pescod Hall is part of a house built in the mid-15th century.

St Mary’s Guildhall was also built in the 15th century. (In the Middle Ages some people joined religious guilds, which looked after members’ spiritual well being). Hussey Tower was built in the mid-15th century as part of Hussey Hall. (It was named after Lord Hussey who once owned it).


Boston in the 16th century and the 17th century

In the mid-16th century, Henry VIII closed the friaries in Boston. However, Boston continued to be a busy little town. However, Boston was not made a borough until 1545 when King Henry VIII granted it a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights). Furthermore, from 1552 Boston sent 2 MPs to parliament. Boston Grammar School was founded in 1555.

Nevertheless, in the 16th century, Boston was much less important than it had been in the 13th century. The wool trade had almost stopped by 1500. The main trade from Boston was coastal trade. (In those days it was easier to transport goods by water than by land and many commodities were shipped around the coast of Britain).

In the mid-16th century, a writer named John Leland described Boston thus: ‘The greatest and chief part of the town is on the east side of the river, where there is a fair marketplace and a (market) cross with a square tower.’

Leland said the Church of St Botolph was: ‘so risen and adorned that it is the chief (church) of the town and for a parish church is the best and fairest in all Lincolnshire.’

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the population of Boston continued to grow. (This was despite outbreaks of plague in 1587-88, 1603, and 1625). Maud Foster drain was dug in the mid-16th century. Then in 1604 James I granted Boston a new charter.

In 1607 a group of Puritans from the Gainsborough area, led by William Brewster, attempted to escape to Holland from Boston. At the time such ’emigration’ was illegal but they bribed a captain to smuggle them on board a ship. However, he betrayed them to the authorities before they could set sail. Nevertheless, most of the Puritans were soon released and the next year they escaped in a ship from the Humber.

Boston in the 18th century

The writer Daniel Defoe visited Boston in the 1720s and he was impressed. He called it ‘large and populous’. However Boston only really began to revive in the late 18th century when Holland Fen was drained. The newly drained land was rich and fertile and soon Boston began to ‘export’ cereals from the area to London.

In 1794 the River Slea was made navigable from Sleaford to the Witham, which increased the amount of traffic travelling through Boston. The Grand Sluice in Boston opened in 1766.

In 1713 a charity school opened in Boston. It was called the Blue Coat School because of the color of the uniforms. A new Customs House was built in Boston in 1725. Fydell House was built in 1726 by William Fydell who was mayor of Boston 3 times.

In 1776 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Commissioners with the power to light the streets of Boston and to appoint watchmen to patrol the streets at night.

In 1774 Boston gained its first bank and in 1795 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines.

Boston in the 19th century

In 1801 Boston had a population of 5,926. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large market town.

In the early 19th century the coastal trade to and from Boston continued to flourish. Then in 1884 new docks were built downriver of the town which greatly boosted business. Meanwhile, Maud Foster Mill was built in 1819.

Although Boston was a market town there was some industry in the 19th century such as making farm implements and in the late 19th century a label-making industry.

An outbreak of cholera in Boston killed more than 600 people in the town, however, there were some improvements to Boston in the 19th century. From 1825 Boston had gaslight and a waterworks company was formed in 1845. The railway reached Boston in 1848. A volunteer fire brigade was formed in 1855. Also in 1855, a Corn Exchange was built in Boston.

Boston in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Boston was 15,000. It rose only slowly in the early 20th century. In 1931 Boston still had a population of only 16,500. By 1951 the population had risen to 24,000 but this was largely due to boundary changes. (The boundaries of Boston were extended to include other communities).

In the 20th century, Boston was still a busy port. Grain, fertilizer, and animal feed were imported. So was timber. Wheat, potatoes, and beet sugar were exported. Industries in Boston included making tags and labels, food canning, and making beds and pillows.

In the 20th century amenities in Boston improved rapidly. The first cinema in Boston opened in 1910. Centenary Methodist Church opened in 1911. A new town bridge was built in 1913. Then in 1919, the council bought Central Park. In 1924 Boston gained electric light.

Meanwhile, a War Memorial was erected in Boston in 1921. County Hall was built in 1927. Also in the 1920s, the first council houses were built in Boston.

The Guildhall was turned into a museum in 1929. In 1938 the American Room in Fydell House was opened by US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.

Sutterton Enterprise Park opened in 1997.

Boston in the 21st century

The Pescod Shopping Centre Opened in Boston in 2004. Boston is also a busy and important port. In 2023 Boston had a population of 45,000.