Sleaford is a market town and civil parish in the North Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, a non-metropolitan county in the East Midlands of England. It is on the edge of the fertile Fenlands, approximately north-east from Grantham, west from Boston, and south from the city and county town of Lincoln. With an estimated resident population of 17,671 at the time of the 2011 Census, the town is the largest single settlement in North Kesteven, and makes up roughly 15% of its total population. Bypassed by the A17 and the A15, Sleaford's road transport links connect it directly with Lincoln, Newark, Peterborough and King's Lynn; its railway station lies on the Nottingham to Skegness (via Grantham) and Peterborough to Lincoln lines.
The first settlement in the Sleaford area formed during the Iron Age, around the crossing of a prehistoric track with the River Slea. It operated as a tribal centre and home to a mint for the Corieltauvi during the 1st centuries BC and AD. Evidence of Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlement has been uncovered and, by the late Saxon period, it appears that the town was a local economic and jurisdictional centre, hosting a court and market. During the medieval period, records differentiate between Old and New Sleaford, the latter emerging in the areas around the present day market place and church; a castle was constructed in the 12th century and the town was frequented by the major land-owners, the Bishops of Lincoln. Granted the right to hold a market in the mid-12th century, New Sleaford developed into a market town and became locally important in the wool trade, while Old Sleaford declined in the medieval period.
From the 16th century, the Carre family, who owned much of the land in and around Sleaford, operated tight control over the town and it grew little in the early modern period. The enclosure of the town's fields in 1794, coincided with the canalisation of the Slea and heralded in the first steps towards modern industry; known as the Sleaford Navigation, the latter brought economic growth to the town until it was superseded by the railways in the mid-1850s. In the 20th century, the sale of farmland around Sleaford by the 6th Marquess of Bristol, the indebted land-owner, led to the development of large housing estates. The subsequent availability of affordable housing combined with the town's educational facilities and low crime rates to make it an attractive destination for home-buyers. As a result, the town's population underwent the fastest growth of any town in the county during the 1990s.
Sleaford was primarily an agricultural town until the 20th century, supporting a cattle market. Seed companies, such as Hubbard and Phillips, and Sharpes International Seeds were established in the town in the late 19th century, and its rural proximity and railway lines made the town favourable to malting and contributed to the development of the Bass Maltings in 1905. All these industries have declined and, as of 2011, the most common occupations for Sleaford's residents tend to be in wholesale and retail trade, health and social care, public administration and defence and manufacturing. Regeneration of the town centre, meanwhile, has led to the redevelopment of the old industrial areas, including the construction of the National Centre for Craft & Design on one of the old wharves.
Sleaford's market place is L-shaped, with the Grade I listed Parish Church of St Denys' (described above) on the west-side and in front of it is the War Memorial, unveiled after the First World War. The 15th century vicarage, with an extension of 1861, is to the north of the church, while the north-side of the market place is bounded by 18th century buildings. To the eastern side is a 20th-century set of buildings which replaced the old printworks constructed in 1819 for Charles Milhouse; in 1916, W.K. Morton, the occupiers, left and the works were demolished in 1929. Adjoining them to the east is the Grade II* Sessions House; constructed in H.E. Kendall's Gothic style in 1830 by Charles Kirk, they replaced earlier buildings of 1755 and served as the magistrates court until 2008, after which it became a restaurant and snooker hall. Opposite the court is a fountain, erected in 1874 to the memory of Frederick Hervey, 2nd Marquess of Bristol by his tenants. The southern side of the market place is bounded by Eastgate.
Along Eastgate is the Grade II* Carre's Hospital, built in Gothic by Kendall in the early 19th century; its chapel has a large perpendicular window over-looking a courtyard. Further north is Lafford Terrace, now North Kesteven District Council's offices, which was built in the 1850s by Kirk & Parry; further north is Kingston Terrace of 1857, the Alvey School ( 1850) and then Cogglesford Mill, sited on the banks of the River Slea, with buildings dating from the 18th century; further still up the road is the Gasworks, which date from 1839 and are built in stone, again in the Gothic style. Off Eastgate is Carre Street, where Navigation House (1838), the former canal office, is situated; further down the road is Money's Tower Mill, built 1798 and rebuilt/altered 1810; it operated until the miller filed for bankruptcy in 1895; it was converted in 1985 and as of 2014, serves as a café. On Southgate is Charles Kirk's Jacobean house; built in c. 1850, it has been part of the High School since 1902. Further down, at the junction with Boston Road, is the Handley Monument, inspired by the Eleanor crosses, it was erected in memory of Henry Handley, an MP for South Lincolnshire, designed by William Boyle and built in 1850. Lastly, the railway station was built in stone in 1857 and extended with brick in 1882. At the junction of Westgate with Northgate/Southgate is a Jacobean bank (1903), further down the street is the old theatre built in the 19th century and, off the road and on the site of St George's Academy is Westholme House, "an ebullient essay in French 15th century domestic Gothic", constructed c. 1849.
The two old manor houses are still standing. The oldest, which was situated in Old Sleaford, is Old Place; located off Boston Road, it was the home of Lord Hussey and then passed to the Carre family. The present buildings were erected in the 19th century. The Manor House and adjoining Rhodes House, Northgate, are grade II* listed; a complicated group of buildings, the Manor House dates from the 16th century, though with many 19th century Gothic additions and alterations; Rhodes House is mid-Georgian. Also on Northgate is what Sir Nikolaus Pevsner calls the "most remarkable house in the town", which sits between Sessions House and the neo-Baroque Lloyd's Bank (1905), it is late 17th century, baroque and in stone. It was built for William Alvey (died 1729) and became the home of Anthony Peacock and Benjamin Handley's bank in 1803. Many of the buildings along this road are Victorian or earlier; further northwards are the Almshouses, which were rebuilt in 1857 by Charles Kirk in a neo-Gothic style, and the Grammar School, the oldest sections of which date to 1834.
The now ruined Sleaford Castle was constructed some time around 1130 by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln. King John is recorded as having stayed at Sleaford Castle in 1216, while unwell after travelling across The Wash; he moved on to Newark, where he subsequently died. The Castle fell into decline in the Elizabethan era, and a grant of 1604 by a local land-owner refers to the "late fair" castle, implying that it has been taken down by that time. It is now a listed building, but only a small section of wall still stands.
The large Bass & Co. maltings complex, near Mareham Lane, is grade II* listed. The frontage of the buildings span nearly 1,000 feet in length and are made entirely of brick. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in Buildings of England that "For sheer impressiveness, little in English architecture can equal the scale of this building." It was constructed from 1892 and opened fully in 1905. During the Second World War, production declined and most of the complex fell into disuse; production ceased in 1959. A fire severely damaged the buildings in 1974, though it remained structurally intact. In the 1970s, G.W. Padley (Property) Ltd. bought the site and used it to rear chickens. The buildings were abandoned again in the 1990s, with further damage sustained in a fire in 2014.
The earliest record of the place-name Sleaford is found in 852, when it is recorded in a charter as Slioford and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Sliowaford; in the Domesday Book (1086), the settlement is called Eslaforde and in early 13th century it is recorded as Sliforde. In some 13th century works, such as the Book of Fees (13th century), the name appears as Lafford. It is formed from the two Old English words sliow and ford, which, taken together, mean 'ford over a muddy (or slimy) river'.
Evidence of Bronze Age and earlier settlement in the Sleaford area is relatively sparse; the remains of a sword dating from the Bronze Age, found near Billinghay in 1852, being one such example. Other archaeological material from this period has been recovered, and further excavations have shown that there was human activity in the vicinity during the Late Neolithic period and Bronze Age, but that this was not sustained and the evidence does not indicate that there was any settlement there before the late Iron Age. The earliest known settlement of the area dates from the late pre-Roman Iron Age and originated where a track running northwards from Bourne crossed the River Slea. Although only sparse pottery evidence has been found for the middle Iron Age period, the remains of a late Iron Age mint, dated to 50 BC–50 AD, has been uncovered south east of the modern town centre, south of a crossing of the River Slea and near Mareham Lane (an area known as Old Sleaford). Its size has led archaeologists to consider that Old Sleaford was probably the largest Corieltauvian settlement during this period and may have been a tribal centre.
During the Roman occupation of Britain (43 AD–409 AD), the settlement at Sleaford was "extensive and of considerable importance;" it is known that it was occupied continually up to at least the 4th century AD and possibly into the next century as well. Its location along the fen-edge may have made it economically and administratively significant as a centre for managers and owners of large fenland estates. There is also evidence to suggest that a road connected Old Sleaford to Heckington (approximately east), where Roman tile kilns have been uncovered, something which may imply the presence of a market at Sleaford. When the first main roads were constructed by the Romans in Britain, Sleaford was bypassed due to it being "less conveniently located" and more "geared to native needs". However, a smaller road, Mareham Lane, which the Romans renewed, ran through Old Sleaford, and southwards along the fen edge, towards Bourne. Where it passed through Old Sleaford, excavations have revealed a large stone-built domestic residence with associated farm buildings, corn-driers, ovens and field systems, all dating from the Roman period, as well as a number of burials. Further Roman remains, including a burial, have been excavated in the town.
The history of Sleaford at the decline of the Roman occupation of Britain is obscure and there is little evidence that the site was settled continuously between then and the Anglo-Saxon period ( 5th century–1066). Nonetheless, the Saxons did eventually establish themselves in the area and a large cemetery which is estimated to contain up to 600 burials, many showing signs of Pagan burial rights, has been uncovered south of the modern town and dated to the 6th–7th centuries. It is possible that the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants were foederati, who were first brought over by the Romano-Britains to defend settlements from other Saxon invaders. Excavations of the present-day Market Place in 1979 uncovered Anglo-Saxon remains, dating from the 8th–9th centuries AD, which indicate some form of enclosure (possibly a market) with domestic features. The earliest documentary reference to Sleaford is found in a charter from the 9th century AD, but there is little evidence of estate structure there until the late Saxon period. In the charter, the town was owned by Medehamstede Abbey at Peterborough, a Mercian royal foundation. The Slea never ran dry nor froze over and by the 11th century there were a dozen watermills in Sleaford; they, along with those at the nearby villages of Quarrington and the lost hamlet of Millsthorpe, constituted the "most important mill cluster in Lincolnshire".
The Domesday Book (1086) has two entries under Eslaforde; one records land owned by Ramsey Abbey, the other land owned by the Bishop of Lincoln. By the 13th century, records show the existence of an "Old Sleaford" at the original Romano-British settlement, and a "New Sleaford", centred around St Denys' Church and the Market Place. Maurice Beresford suggested that New Sleaford was planted in the 12th century by the Bishop to increase his income. However, the evidence uncovered at the market place in 1979 and a reinterpretation of Domesday indicate that it may have been settled before the Norman Conquest (1066) and identifies it as the manor held by the bishop in 1086. Possibly holding a court and market, it likely had economic and jurisdictional importance as an estate centre. Whatever the case, Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln (died 1148) formally granted it a market and built the Castle. In 1258 the town became a borough with 87 burgage plots, and was later home to at least two guilds, which were comparable to those found in developed towns elsewhere. Despite this growth, no formal charter outlining its freedoms as a borough was made and its that status was limited. Tight control by the Bishops meant that Sleaford's economy was primarily geared to serve them and it retained a strong tradition of demesne farming well into the 14th century. The economic initiative then fell more to the burgesses and middle-men, who formed connections with nearby towns, such as Boston; evidence suggests that Sleaford developed a locally important role in the wool trade. Growth was still limited but, by the 14th century, it was the wealthiest settlement in the Flaxwell wapentake. Meanwhile, Old Sleaford, an "insignificant" place since the end of the Roman period, declined and may have been deserted by the 16th century.
During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Husseys were in possession of the manor of Old Sleaford. John Hussey, 1st Baron Hussey of Sleaford (died 1537) was executed for treason due to his part in the Lincolnshire Rising and the manor (as well as his residence at Old Place) reverted to the crown, later being sold to Robert Carre. Originally from Northumberland, the Carre (or Carr) family had settled in Sleaford by 1522, when a wool merchant, George Carre, lived there. His son, Robert (died 1590), was the purchaser of Hussey's land, and went on to buy the castle and manor of New Sleaford from Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln. His eldest surviving son, Robert (died 1606), founded Carre's Grammar School in 1604, and his youngest son, Edward (died 1618), was created a baronet (see Carr baronets), his own son founding the Sleaford Hospital in 1636. The last male descendent died in 1683 and the heiress, Isabella Carre, married John Hervey (died 1751), later Earl of Bristol, in whose family the estates remained until the 1970s. The family had a strong economic influence in the town; in addition to extracting dues from their tenants, the land-owners successfully took leading tradesmen to the Exchequer Court to gain legal force behind their monopoly on charging tolls on market and cattle traders and the driving of animals through the town.
Industry was slow to take hold in Sleaford and, by the second half of the 18th century, Cogglesford Mill was the only corn mill still working in the town. Another old corn mill, at the junction of Westgate and the Castle Causeway, was used for making hemp and supplied the growing rope-making business of the Foster and Hill families. However, as local historian Simon Pawley wrote, "in many respects, things had changed little [by 1783] since the survey of 1692", with few of the buildings or infrastructure being improved. Nevertheless, the last decade of that century saw major changes to both its agriculture and industry. From the Middle Ages, Sleaford had been surrounded by three main open fields: North, West and Sleaford Fields. The enclosure of these open fields came in 1794. With over 90% of the 1,096 acres of open land being owned by Lord Bristol, once he was convinced that the profits of doing so outweighed the costs, this task required little deliberation. Despite the costs of fencing and re-organising the new fields, the system was easier to farm, and cottages could be built closer to fields, while the land-owner could charge more rent owing to the increased profitability of the land; those who lost out were the cottagers, who had previously been able to keep a few animals grazing on the common land at no cost and now could no longer do so. This process also allowed for the land boundaries and pathways to be tidied up; Drove Lane, which ran to Rauceby, was shifted north and straightened, for instance.
The other change was the canalisation of the River Slea. Canals in England were constructed from the 1760s to make inland trade easier; Sleaford's businessmen were keen to benefit from this and the improved communication they allowed. The Sleaford Navigation, which canalised the Slea, opened in 1794. It facilitated the export of agricultural produce to the Midlands, and the import of coal and oil. Mills along the Slea benefited considerably and wharves appeared around Carre Street. Between 1829 and 1836 the Navigation's toll rights increased in value by 27 times. The railways emerged in the 19th century as an alternative to canals and arrived at the town in 1857, when a line from Grantham to Sleaford opened. It made agricultural trade easier and improved communication, but led to the decline of the Navigation Company. Income from tolls decreased by 80% between 1858 and 1868; it made its first loss in 1873 and was abandoned in 1878. The town's rural location and transport links meant that the late 19th century saw the rise of two local seed merchants: Hubbard and Phillips, and Charles Sharpe; the former took over the Navigation Wharves, and the latter was trading in the US and Europe by the 1880s. The railway, Sleaford's rural location and its artesian wells, were key factors in the development of the 13-acre Bass & Co. maltings complex (1892–1905).
In the first half of the 19th century, Sleaford's population more than doubled, growing from 1,596 in 1801 to 3,539 in 1851. Coinciding with this is the construction or extension of a range of public buildings, often by the building firm of Charles Kirk and Thomas Parry. The Gasworks opened in 1839, fuelling new gas lamps in the town. Meanwhile, Sleaford's Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 to cater for the town and its surrounding 54 parishes; the workhouse was constructed by 1838 and could house 181 inmates. Despite these advances, the slums around Westgate were over-crowded, lacking sanitation and disease-ridden; the local administration failed to deal with the matter until 1850, when a report on the town's public health by the General Board of Health heavily criticised the situation and set up a Local Board of Health to undertake public works. By the 1880s, Lord Bristol had allowed for clean water to be pumped into the town, but engineering problems and a reluctance to sell land to house the turbines had delayed the introduction of sewers.
In the inter-war period, Sleaford's population remained static, but the Great Depression in the 1930s caused unemployment to rise. The council-housing developments along Drove Lane proved insufficient to house low-income persons after the slum clearances along Westgate in the 1930s; as a result, Jubilee Grove opened in that decade as the first major council development in the town. In the post-war period, there were new housing developments at St Giles Avenue, the Hoplands, Russell Crescent, Jubilee Grove, and Grantham Road. Parts of the town were also redeveloped: in 1958, the Bristol Arms Arcade opened, the Corn Exchange was demolished in the 1960s, and the Waterside Shopping Precinct opened in 1973, as did Flaxwell House, designed to house a department store, though later becoming the national headquarters for Interflora.
By 1979, the major landowner, Victor Hervey, 6th Marquess of Bristol (died 1985), heavily in debt, had sold off the majority of his estates in Sleaford and Quarrington and the estate's office closed completely in 1989. With much of this land being sold to real-estate developers, the following decades saw the construction of new residential buildings and a considerable population increase. According to a Council report, "the quality of life, low crime rates, relatively low house prices and good-quality education" attracted people to the town. From 1981 to 2011, Sleaford's population rose from 8,000 to 18,000; the growth rate from 1991 to 2001 was the fastest of any town in the county. Its infrastructure struggled to cope, especially with increased congestion; two bypasses around the town and a one-way system within it were introduced, a process which Simon Pawley argues accelerated the decline of the High Street. In the early 2000s, the Single Regeneration Budget allowance of £15 million granted to Sleaford improved the town centre and funded the development of the Hub (since 2011, The National Centre for Craft & Design) in the old Navigation wharves area.