Water Meadows at Stamford, Lincolnshire

Water Meadows at Stamford, Lincolnshire

Unimproved pasture, flood meadows of the River Welland

Ancient open common lands at Stamford were once freely grazed by the privileged ‘Freemen’ of Stamford. The rights to graze over the lands created restrictions to town development and were, as in Sudbury for example, a cause of political unrest. The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act brought many changes to the old ‘open fields’ operations along with the town government. By a Parliamentary, Enclosure Act, 1871 the meadow lands were divided between the Burghley Estate of the Cecil family, the Freemen, and the Town Council.

The Town Council is responsible for the land from the Town Bridge to the first complete fence across the Meadows. The next two fields (are covered by rights belonging to the Stamford Freemen. Maintenance of the meadows is the responsibility of the Town council who employ a contractor to mow the grass from April to and including October. All the maintenance and collection of litter etc along with the Allotments is carried out by Cemetery staff. Worthy of a mention is that members of the Scholes family, leading freemen of the town, keep an overview of the Freemen’s lands.

In 1975 the Millstream was demained. Cleaning of the Stream is the responsibility of the landowner on either side. The water authority has no responsibility for the Millstream, only the River Welland. The Freemen’s field, formerly used for grazing is now open under the CROW Act and is popular for dog walking and quiet recreation. Freemen theoretically, have rights of grazing over 33 acres of meadowland and a right to place a stall on the market.


Stamford (meaning stony-ford) originated from a small settlement on the route of the old Roman Ermine Street linking London with Lincoln. The settlement grew during the Danish occupation in the 9th century, and Stamford became one of the five controlling burghs of the Danelaw. Edward ‘the Elder’ developed a Saxon burgh close by the Danish settlement which grew in such proportion that King Edgar named Stamford a Saxon Borough. It was one of the first places where pottery was wheel thrown following the Romans. Stamford became wealthy for its woollen cloth weaving called haberget. The Town’s medieval wealth can be construed by its church buildings. In 1075 there was a castle and two monasteries. The town being close by the river Welland meant navigation by flatbottomed boats could access the North Sea making it an excellent trading port.

Known particularly for its pottery it had a mint and weekly markets. By Domesday 1086 it had a population of 2,500. In 1256 King Henry III gave Stanford a charter granting the towns people certain rights. Famous among their merchants were the Browne family. William Browne founded an Alms-house and the Browne’s charitably assisted many constructions in the Town. The town declined in the late 15th century but regained some seniority when William Cecil became Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth 1. His palatial mansion ‘Burghley House’ sits close by the town.

Stamford’s location became a useful and prime coaching stop for many years until the advent of the Railways in the 1830’s. The town became bypassed by the travelling public. The effect of this caused a considerable downturn in its commercial activities as traffic passed through from London to the North.

A well-known Stamford tradition was its ‘Bull Run’ annually on 13 November St Brice’s Day. It was discontinued in 1839 by the forerunners of the RSPCA.

The Enclosure Act 1871 – Divided Common Land between Burghley Estate, the Freemen, and the Town Council.

In the ‘Open-field’ land there was 130 acres of meadowland. This lays to the south and west of the town between the river Welland and a series of man-made water courses, cut probably, to drive the corn mill which lay in the lea of the few remains of the town’s medieval fortress and given the name ‘Castle Meadow’. Beyond, to the west, and extending into the nearby parish of Tinwall, lay Bredcroft and Broading Meadows, the origin of whose names are ancient.

The remaining 250 acres or so of the open-field area is made up of pasture, wasteland, access roads and uncultivatable spaces. Largest of the waste was the Lings at the top end of Pingle Field, once the site of the town’s gibbet. This area extended to some 46 undrained acres, but much has subsequently been lost under the plough (by encroachment). In the 1850s it was described as ‘undrained waste’. A significant area of pastureland was formed in a belt of waste on the outskirts of the Town, following the line of the old town walls.

Management of the open-field system lay in the hands of the Court Baron, under the Lord of the Manor’s land agent. The court met once a year at Easter. Its business was to elect open-field officials (Field Reeve, Netherherd, Pindar, and Shepherd) and the five Constables of the parishes of Stamford. It also dealt with fines of entry and declarations of fealty.

The Lings, together with the area of waste around the town were stocked all year round by beasts of all kinds. The Court Baron fixed the ‘Stint’. A right of common over the open-fields was an exclusive privilege of the Freemen of the Borough of Stamford. On the eve of the Municipal Reform Act 1835 there were 324 Freemen. Their numbers declined as the avenues of privilege were closed. In 1837 only a third of their number were taking part. Two years later only 30 freemen were turning out beasts to graze.

At Stamford, the largest freeholder was the Marquess of Exeter, head of the Cecil family, and lord of the Manor, who owned 985 acres of land. The second largest freehold, 176 acres, was in the hands of the Torkington family, prominent members of the Stamford community. The Corporation of Stamford owned 79 acres. Most of the remaining area was in the hands of the Church. There were also some few freeholds in charitable hands, 64 acres, with Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, and 66 acres for Browne’s Hospital.

Lord Exeter, the largest leaseholder in the open-fields, leased most of the land. Both freeholder and leaseholder enjoyed the rents of some seventy-five tenants in the 1840s and, of these, sixty had some or all of their holdings on land which was owned or leased by the lord of the manor.

Rights of Common came under fire as piecemeal enclosures began taking place. In 1843 the Freemen, exasperated by growing resistance and erosion of their rights, chose to strike a blow and broke down fences. The customary cultivation of the open fields fell asunder. From 1844, field officials have no longer been appointed by the Court Baron.

The Freemen’s rights of common were then as now confined to the meadows where the eternal patronage of Lord Exeter suffered them to survive. Court Baron ceased to meet frequently and for the last time in 1863. In 1871, an Act of Parliament heralded the devolution of the Open-fields system. The belt of waste that skirted the town was contested with Lord Exeter by the Freemen over its Freehold. Clearly compensation was too expensive, and this led to an Agreement.

The Common lands at Stamford came under investigation for registration under the national ‘Commons Registration Act, 1965’ and certain decisions are appended to these notes. Registration as ‘Common’ along with the allowances of the ‘Country Rights of Way, (CRoW) Act, 2003 allow public access on to registered meadowland for walking and quiet recreation. These subsequent Acts must pay full observance of the Local ‘Enclosure Act of 1871’.

Commons Registration


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