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Axholme in 1835

AXHOLME, or AXHOLM, ISLE OF, a river-island in the county of Lincoln. It is bounded on the eastern side by the Trent, and on the northern and north-western sides by the old river Don, which flowed by Crowle, Luddington, and Garthorpe, into the Trent, and formed in part of its course the boundary between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. The old rivers Torne and Idle formed the western boundary ; and the ancient Bykersdyke, or Vicardyke, which runs from the Idle to the Trent, may be regarded as completing the circuit. In early times the old Don was navigable, and boats could pass by it into the Trent. (See Dugdale’s History of Embanking and Draining.)

The Isle of Axholme is about seventeen or eighteen miles long from N. to S. ; and, on the average, five or six miles broad from E. to W., except in the northern part, where it becomes narrower and ends in a point. It includes a small portion of the county of Nottingham in its circuit, namely the village (and probably the township) of West Stockwith. Leland in his Itinerary (drawn up in the reign of Henry VIII) gives the dimensions of Axholme as ten miles in length, and six in breadth.

The name Axholme is a corruption of Axel-holme formed from the name of the principal place Axel (now Haxey, a mere village), and the termination holme, which was used by the Saxons to denote a river-island.

In the middle ages, and indeed till within the last 200 years or thereabouts, Axholme was covered in a great degree with marshes, especially in the western and southern parts. At a remote period it was a forest, part perhaps of the great forest of the Brigantes who inhabited Yorkshire. This will appear by the following extract from the work of Sir William Dugdale already referred to, which was published in 1662 :

‘Being now come into Lincolnshire, I shall first begin with the Isle of Axholme, which for many ages hath been a fenny tract, and for the most part covered with waters ; but more anciently not so : for originally it was a woody country, and not at all annoyed with those inundations of the rivers that passed through it, as is most evident by the great numbers of oak, fir, and other trees, which have been of late frequently found in the moor, upon making of sundry ditches and channels for the draining thereof : the oak trees lying somewhat above three foot in depth, and near their roots, which do still stand as they growed, namely, in firm earth below the moor ; and the bodies for the most part N.W. from the roots, not cut down with axes, but burnt asunder somewhat near the ground, as the ends of them, being coaled, do manifest. Of which sort there are multitudes, and of an extraordinary bigness - namely, five yards in compass, and sixteen yards long ; and some smaller of a greater length, with good quantities of acorns near them ; and of small nuts so many that there have been found no less than two pecks together in some places.

But the fir-trees do lie a foot or eighteen inches deeper ; of which kind there are more than of any other, many of them being above thirty yards in length : nay, in the year 1653, there was a fir pole taken up by one Robert Browne, of Haxey, of thirty-six yards long (besides the top), lying near the root, which stood likewise as it grew, having been burnt and not hewed down, which tree bore at the bottom ten inches square, and at the top eight.

‘About twenty years since, also, in the moors at Thurne (near five foot in depth), was found a ladder of fir of a large substance, with about forty staves, which were thirty-three inches asunder ; but so rotten, that it could not be gotten up whole. And in Haxey Carr, at the like depth, a hedge with stakes and bindings.

‘The truth is, that there are so great a number of trees thus overgrown with the moor, through a long time of stagnation by the fresh waters in these parts, that the inhabitants have for the space of divers years last past taken up at least two thousand cart-loads in a year.

‘As to the time when this woody level (which extends itself into Dikes Marsh and Hatfield Chase in Yorkshire) became first thus overflowed I can say nothing, there being not any memorial thereof transmitted to us from the light of history or records ; but that it hath been so for divers hundreds of years the depth of the moor doth sufficiently manifest, which could not in a few ages grow to that thickness it is of. Howbeit, as to the occasion thereof, I may rationally conclude it to have been through the muddiness of the constant tides, which, flowing up [the] Humber into [the] Trent, did in time leave so much silt (or sea sand] to obstruct the currents of [the] Idle, [the] Don, and other rivers, that, having not their free passage as formerly, they flowed back, and overwhelmed that flat country with water, insomuch as the high ground became an island, as it is still [we see] called; and a place so defensible, in respect of the spaciousness and depth of the waters environing it, that Roger Lord Moubray, an eminent baron of this realm in King Henry II’s time, and then lord thereof, adhering to young Henry upon his rebellion in those days, repaired thither and fortified an old castle, which had been long ruinous ; for reducing whereof to the king’s obedience the Lincolnshire men, having no other access thereto, transported themselves by shipping in the year 1174. (The ruins of this castle, which was near Kenard’s ferry over the Trent, are described by Leland as on the south side of the churchyard of Oxton - now Owston. The castle was taken on the ocassion above mentioned and rased.)

So likewise in [the] 50[th year of] H[enry] III, after the battle of Evesham, wherein the rebellious barons were discomfited, some of them fled hither as to a place of security, for the reasons above expressed. But after that time it was not long ere the inhabitants of these parts, imitating the good husbandry of those in other countries, who had by banking and draining made good improvements in such fenny places, did begin to do the like here ; for in [the] 1[st year of King] E[dward] III, I find that Robert de Notingham and Roger de Newmarch were constituted commissioners to view and repair those banks and ditches, as had been made to that purpose, which were then grown to some decay.’ (ch. xxvii.)

Many commissioners were appointed for a like purpose in after times, but still a vast extent of marshy waste remained in Axholme Island, in Hatfield Chase in Yorkshire, and in the neighbourhood, the whole forming a vast level. The impediment to the natural course of the rivers continued ; and the water even in summer was in many places three feet deep, so that boats laden with plaster passed over Hatfield Chase, and large boats, with twenty quarters of corn in them, crossed the island from the Idle to the Trent. Sixty thousand acres were estimated to be thus overflowed. (Dugdale, as above.)

In the reign of Charles I, however, the drainage of this level was attempted on a large scale. It had, together with Hatfield Chase, come into the hands of the king as feudal superior ; and he, in the second year of his reign (1626), concluded an agreement with Cornelius Vermuden, or Vermuyden, then of London, but by birth a Dutchman, a native of the province of Zealand, who undertook, with the support of many of his countrymen, to drain the marshes at his own charge, on condition of receiving one-third of the land so recovered, ‘to hold of the said king, his heirs and successors, as of his manor of East Greenwiche, in free and common soccage.’ The owners of all lands in the level were to receive compensation at the award of four commissioners, two to be named by Vermuyden, and two by the Lord Treasurer of England for the time being ; persons having the right of common pasturage were to receive a compensation in land or money ; and a corporation was to be appointed by Vermuyden, and lands assigned by him, for the preservation of the works.

The work was forthwith entered upon, and completed within the space of five years, at a cost of £55,825: ‘the waters which usually overflowed the whole level being conveyed to the Trent through the Snow sewer’ (in the southern part of the island) ‘and Althorpe river’ (which seems to include what are laid down in the maps as the new rivers Don, Torn, and Idle, for these empty themselves into the Trent near the village of Althorpe), ‘by a sluice, which issued out the drained water at every ebb, and kept back the tide upon all comings in thereof.’ (Dugdale, ut .supra.)

The work was no doubt an excellent one ; and Dugdale, specifying the advantages resulting from it, states that, since the draining of Haxey Carr (‘carr’ is a generic term for a morass), a great part of it had been sown with ‘rape and other corn’ for three years together, and had borne plentiful crops ; and that many houses had been built and inhabited in sundry places of the said Carr. The productiveness of the land may be estimated by the assertion that it had risen in annual value from sixpence to ten shillings, and from two shillings to thirteen shillings and fourpence per acre ; that fifty quarters of rape seed had been got from ten acres ; that the usual produce was three and a half quarters of wheat, three quarters of rye, and eight quarters of oats per acre ; and that seven quarters of oats per acre had been obtained for six years together.

About two hundred families, Dutch and French (of the French Protestants who had taken refuge in Holland), settled in the recovered lands ; and a chapel was built at Sandtoft, in the island, a spot previously consecrated by religious associations (a cell for one of the religious of the abbey of St. Mary at York had been once placed there), and central to the whole drainage. This was in 1634. Here service was performed in the French and Dutch languages. The original inhabitants made, however, considerable opposition to the whole work. Proceedings in the Exchequer Chamber were commenced, by the participants in the engagements of Vermuyden, against those persons of the manor of Epworth, in the island, who possessed the right of common on the waste of that manor (amounting to thirteen thousand four hundred acres) ; and at last the affair was referred to the then Attorney-General, Sir John Banks ; but his award of six thousand acres to the commoners, to be preserved at the cost of ‘the participants,’ and of the remainder to ‘the participants’ for their own share and the king’s, did not give satisfaction. This was in 1636. The freeholders were dissatisfied with the award ; and the poor had lost the power of fishing and fowling in the marshes. Tumults arose, but were put down by the law ; the evil disposition towards the new settlers, however, remained ; and after they had continued about seven years in tolerably quiet possession of their lands, at the commencement of the great civil war a general attack was made upon them. In 1642, upon a report that Sir Ralph Hansby, who supported the king’s cause at Doncaster with great zeal, intended to march into the island (the inhabitants of which were in the interest of the parliament), the flood-gates of the Snow sewer were pulled up by order of the parliamentarian ‘committee’ at Lincoln, the waters of the Trent overflowed the levels, and the new settlers were injured to the amount of £20,000. In 1645, in consequence of great tumults and injury done to the settlers by the destruction of the banks, ditches, &c., on part of the Epworth common, the parliament made an order to the sheriff of Lincolnshire to protect them in the reparation of their works ; but when he arrived in the isle he was forcibly obstructed by a body of four hundred men, headed by the commoners’ solicitor, Daniel Noddell. Again, in 1650, when the award of Sir John Banks was confirmed, a still more violent riot took place. The rioters defaced the chapel at Sandtoft, demolished the little village which had been formed round it, destroying there and in the neighbourhood above fourscore habitations, besides a windmill and out-buildings, such as barns, stables, &c., and all the corn and rape growing on that part of the settlers’ share of Epworth common which had not been attacked in to former riot.

During the Protectorate, the confusion in the island seems to have continued, and for half a century after the restoration of Charles II a state of insubordination prevailed such as no other part of England at that time presented. Nearly three years after the original compact between the crown and Vermuyden, a further grant of the remaining interest of the crown in the level was made over to the latter, for a specified sum and a rent of about £620 a year. This rent had been granted by Charles I to the second Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and upon his being declared delinquent, had been seized by the state. During the civil war, and the troubled times which followed, it had run much into arrear. In 1655, one Nathaniel Reading, a barrister (a man who, while making the tour of Europe, had engaged in the extraordinary affair of Massaniello, at Naples, and had been secretary to that personage), was appointed to collect rent and the arrears, and to keep down the insurgents, which he engaged to do for £200 per annum. In a memorial drawn up by him in the latter part of his life (1702) he states that he had obtained ‘several writs of assistance, and orders of the House of Lords, and deputations from the sheriffs of the three counties (York, Lincoln and Nottingham);’ had provided horses, arms and necessaries, with twenty hired men, and often more, with a surgeon in ordinary ; and had, after thirty-one set battles, wherein many of his men were killed, wounded, and lamed, besides numerous mutual indictments, prosecutions, and actions at law, reduced the riotous inhabitants to obedience, repaired the church, settled another minister, and rendered the levels safe, quiet, and flourishing. In 1693, or 1694, his fences and corn were burnt; in 1696 he and all his family were nearly burnt in their beds by the islanders ; and, notwithstanding his boast of having rendered the district quiet and safe, his son’s crops were destroyed in 1712. Few probably suspect that such disorders could have occurred in England at that time for so long a period.

The litigation between the ‘commoners’ of Epworth and the settlers continued till 1719. In 1691 a new decree was obtained, awarding to the commoners (including those of Misterton) 10,532 acres, and leaving only 2,868 to the settlers. This seems to show that the award of Sir John Banks (who had indeed acted as the friend and adviser of Vermuyden throughout the whole proceedings) way unfair ; and that the opposition, however violently conducted, was not groundless. But the commoners were not satisfied. They continued proceedings in Chancery till 1719, when their bill was dismissed with costs, and thus the affair ended. For fuller particulars we refer the reader to Sir William Dugdale’s work already mentioned, and Mr. Hunter’s South Yorkshire.

It may be mentioned, that Vermuyden himself retired from the concern, after sustaining considerable loss, before the year 1635 ; and of the foreigners who settled in the level, few, if any, of the descendants remain in the district at the present day.

The soil and natural productions of the island are thus described by Leland : ‘From the west point of Bikers Dike up along (the Idle) to the great mere, the soyle by the water is fenny and morische and ful of carres (marshes). The residew is meately high ground, fertile of pasture and corne. The principal wood of the isle is at Bellegreve Park, by Hepworth (Epworth), and at Melwood Park, not far from Hepworth. There is also a praty wood at Croole (Crowle), a lordship a late longging to Selleby Monasterie. …... The fenny part of Axholm berith much Galle, a low frutex, swete in burning. The upper part of the isle hath plentiful quarres of alabaster (gypsum), commonely there caullid plaster : but such stones as I saw of it were of no great thiknes, and sold for a xij (?) pence the lode. They ly yn the ground lyke a smothe table, and be beddid one flake under another ; and at the bottom of the bedde of them be roughe stones to build withal.’ (Itinerary, vol. i. fol. 40-42, edit. Oxf. 1770.) Camden, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, gives us substantially Leland’s account ; but he adds flax to the natural productions. The changes wrought by the draining of the great level have been already noticed. ‘It was not till the farmers on these lands (of the great level) were more English than French or Dutch, that anything was cultivated but oats or rye ; nor was it till the beginning of the last century that the plan was adopted of destroying the grub, the great enemy of the crops in low and watery lands, by lime, which then began to be brought in great quantities from Balby and Hexthorpe (near Doncaster). Flax, peas, beans, clover, and wheat, are now the produce of these lands.’ (Hunter’s South Yorkshire.)

Taking the island as a whole, the soil may be described as very fertile ; and in the map prefixed to Mr. Arthur Young’s Agricultural Survey of Lincolnshire (1799), it is included in the ‘rich tract’ which comprehends the sea-coast and fens of that extensive county. ‘The soil of the isle of Axholm,’ says that gentleman, ‘is among the finest in England ; they have black sandy loams ; they have warp land (land formed of the rich mud, brought up by the rivers at high water) ; they have brown sands ; and they have rich loams, soapy and tenacious ; the under-stratum at Haxey, Belton, &c., is in many places an imperfect plaster-stone.’ In 1794, there were in the four parishes of Haxey, Epworth, Belton, and Owston, 12,000 acres of common land in a wretched unprofitable state ; but about the close of the last century an act was passed for inclosing them. When Mr. Young made his report (in 1799) the inclosure was on the point of beginning. At that period, he remarked a resemblance in the appearance of the country to some of the rich parts of France and Flanders. ‘The inhabitants are collected in villages and hamlets ; and almost every house you see, except very poor cottages on the borders of commons, is inhabited by a farmer, the proprietor of his farm of from four or five, or even fewer, to twenty, forty, and more acres, scattered about the open fields, and cultivated with all that minutiae of care and anxiety, by the hands of the family, which are found abroad, in the countries mentioned.’

This will serve to show that the customs of the settlers of the seventeenth century had continued to influence their successors, after the names and families of the foreigners had become in a great degree extinct.

To the agricultural produce already noticed, may be added potatoes, onions, rape, and hemp. Potatoes are cultivated to a considerable extent, but are not equal in goodness to those grown on the banks of the (Yorkshire) Ouse. The moors afford peat or turf for fuel. (See Stone’s (1794) and Young’s (1799) Agricultural Reports.)

The water in the low districts is almost everywhere brackish. At Haxey it is so hard that it is impossible to wash with it. If mixed with milk, and boiled, it causes the milk to curdle.

This island is in the west division of Manley Wapentake, and includes the seven parishes of Althorpe, Belton, Crowle, Epworth, Haxey, Luddington, and Owston. These parishes contain (see Abstract of the Answers and Returns under the Population Act, 1831) 46,980 statute acres, and had, in 1831, a population of 11,515 persons. The area of the township of West Stockwith, which, though in the isle, is in Nottinghamshire, we have no means of ascertaining : the population is 635 ; giving 12,150 inhabitants for the whole island. The most populous parishes are Crowle, 1,889 inhabitants, or including the township of Eastoft, 2,113 ; Haxey, 1,868 ; Epworth, 1,865 ; Belton, 1,597 ; and Owston, 1,409, or, including the township of West Butterwick and Kelfield, 2,207. There are two market-towns, Crowle and Epworth. Crowle is 167 miles N. by W. of London, through Gainsborough, from which it is 18 miles distant. The weekly market which was held on Saturday has been discontinued ; but during the spring (from March to May), there is still a cattle market on Monday in every alternate week ; there are also three fairs, for cattle, flax, and hemp. The petty sessions are held here. The church, which is very ancient, presents a fine specimen of Norman (or, as many term it, Saxon) architecture. The living is a vicarage. There is a charity school, supported partly by endowment, partly by subscriptions ; and two meeting-houses, one for the Wesleyans and one for the Independents. The Stainforth and Keadby canal, which crosses the island and connects the Don with the Trent, passes within a mile of the town.

Epworth is 7 miles south of Crowle, and 11 N. by W. of Gainsborough. It is a long straggling town, the inhabitants of which are chiefly employed in spinning flax and hemp (which, as observed above, are grown on the island), and in the manufacture of sacking and bagging. The market is on Thursday, and there are two fairs in the year. The living, a rectory in the gift of the Crown, was held for many years by the Rev. Samuel Wesley, the father of the celebrated John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan Methodists, who was born here ; as was also his brother and coadjutor, Charles Wesley.

Haxey, once the principal place in the island, is now a mere village.

Axholme is in the diocese of Lincoln, and (except the township of West Stockwith) in the archdeaconry of Stow.

At Milnwood, or Milwood Park, near Epworth, stood what Leland describes as the right fair monastery of the Carthusians, where one of the Moubrays, Dukes of Norfolk, was buried in a tomb of alabaster. It was founded in the reign of Richard II by Thomas Moubray, Earl of Nottingham, and Earl Marshal of England, afterwards Duke of Norfolk. At the dissolution, its revenue was valued at £290, 14 shillings and 7¾ pence, or £237, 15 shillings and 2¾ pence clear of all deductions. The monastery itself was converted into a manor house. There was also a small cell or priory at Hyrst, in this island, founded by Nigel de Albini in the time of Henry I ; the revenue of which was valued, at the dissolution, at £7, 11 shillings and 8 pence. Scarcely a fragment of the buildings is remaining. (Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum.)

The Moubrays had a castle at Haxey ; but we are not aware that any remains of it exist.

In the Philosophical Transactions, vol. xliv., part ii. (1747) p. 571, is a singular account of the body of a woman dug out of the moor of Amcotts, in the parish of Althorpe, in this island. It had very ancient sandals, and the skin of the body was completely tanned, so as to stretch like doe leather, which it equalled in strength. This was caused, it is supposed, by the influence of the moor-water, which is (or was then), by the great quantity of oak and fir timber, turned to a coffee colour. In the same paper it is added, that the oak-wood dug up (as noticed in our extract from Sir W. Dugdale) is as black as jet ; that the firwood retained its turpentine smell, and that, when exposed to the sun in hot weather, the turpentine would drop from it. No worm would touch this wood.