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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


Richard Austin

Boston has a long history of importing timber and trading it throughout the UK. Most of this trade was, and still is, with the Baltic countries which have always had strong trading links with the town. Timber from the Baltic was used in the building of Boston’s St Mary’s Guild Hall in the 14th century. Over the centuries that followed, spars and masts for Nelson’s Navy, floor timbers for houses and factories, telegraph poles, coal-mine pit props and railway sleepers along with wood for DIY outlets have all been imported through Boston.

An engraving of Boston docks. There are many large ships with sails moored at either side of the dock. In the foreground several man are stood on a floating raft, which has two small row boats mooored at it. The men appear to be moving thick wooden beams.

Railway sleepers being unloaded at Boston Dock. (engraving by C Howard, 1890)

A black and white photograph of Telegraph poles being sawn. Two in flat caps men are operating a powered saw.

Trimming telegraph poles. (Calders)

In Victorian times large quantities of wood were required for the building of the new railways. For example, in 1848 eight vessels arrived simultaneously from the Baltic carrying railway sleepers. By 1884 when the new dock had been built and the railway link to the Midlands was operating, timber vessels that had frequently left empty could now leave with cargoes of coal. Boston’s geographical position helped make it the cheapest port for importing timber into the Midlands, a situation that persisted until the 1980s.

The local companies involved included W.H. Lewin which was founded in 1859. This became Harrison & Lewin in 1880 and by 1939 had six timber yards and a storage area at the dock. J.S. Towell, another local company, was founded in 1917. A Northampton firm, E.T. Trenery and Sons, with John Atlee as Chairman, began to import timber through Boston in 1925 and in 1928 a Bristol company, May and Hassell, opened a Boston branch. This company soon dominated Boston’s general timber trade. Up to the 1970s, timber yards were a very prominent sight near the docks and around the town.

A black and white photograph of the wood yard and the railway crane. Wood is stacked throughout the yard. There is a railway crane in the foreground, and another crane futher down the track that leads down the middle of yard.

Wood yard with railway track and crane. (Calders)

A black and white photograph of wood planks in storage. Stacks of planks are lashed together in blocks and stacked on top of one another. The wood is being stored in a large warehouse.

Timber ready for market. (J.S. Towell)

The Scottish company Calders established a creosoting plant in 1896 at the dock and then in 1930 began to import and treat poles for telegraph and power lines at a new site in Wyberton, complete with its own railway sidings. In 1959 they became Calders and Grandidge. Among their present-day products are treated fence posts, rails and panels. The Great Northern Railway Company created their own sleeper treatment works at Hall Hills to the north of the town, but this was destroyed by a major fire the year that Calders moved to Wyberton.

After the Second World War, May and Hassell became the dominant importer of Russian timber. Cargoes arrived between July and October when the Baltic was free of ice, and timber ships queued up to be unloaded. In the 1960s it developed a riverside site on the old golf course at Fishtoft, moving their offices to there from the dock in 1982. May and Hassell acquired both Harrison and Lewin and Trenerys but were themselves taken over as trading became unprofitable. Hillsdown Holdings bought the company in 1977 which was then sold to Wickes and finally to Finn Forrest. Today it is owned by Metsä, a Finnish company which describes itself as a responsible forest industry group.