Gainsborough is a market town that once served as a the most inland post in England being more than 55 miles from the North Sea.
The earliest reference to a town or settlement in this area is in 1013 when it is referred to as a borough or 'burgh'. This is from the Old English word of 'burh' meaning a fortified piece of land; possibly no more than a farm defended by a simple ditch system or an earthen bank or both with a wooden stockade fence surrounding it. It was originally a part of the kingdom of Northumbria and would have perhaps been considered a strategic point on the boundary with the kingdom of Mercia.
The name Gainsborough is of debated origin. The most likely theory is that it is derived from the tribe 'Gainas' who first settled in this general area. (Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, is claimed to have married a princess from the Gainas tribe, called Elswitha.)
Gainsborough's position on the Trent has brought both prosperity and invasion and provided a link with the midlands and the north of England as well as the North Sea and Europe. But as well as enabling Gainsborough to trade with the rest of the world, it has brought conquerors. In 1013, the town was attacked and devastated by Sweyn, King of the Danes and his son, Canute. Sweyn brought his vessels up the Trent and the whole of Northumbria as well as Lindsey were defeated by his army. Sweyn died the following year in Gainsborough and is thought by many to be buried here, possibly at Castle Hills which was close to his camp at Thonock. At this point in its history, Gainsborough was not an ideal place to visit or settle in.
Gainsborough is very well known for its Old Hall. Sir Thomas de Burgh's original hall was burned by the Lancastrian army in 1470 but he had rebuilt it by 1484 in time to entertain Richard III. It was extended around the year 1600 and is considered to be one of the most extensive and perfect examples of a medieval manor house.
Throughout its history, the Old Hall has featured in national history. Henry VIII stayed there and in the seventeenth century it had close links with the Pilgrim Fathers. Baptist Minister, the Revd John Smythe, having been sacked from his living for 'preaching strange doctrines' was offered refuge at the Hall, along with around sixty other separatists, by its then owner, William Hickman.
The numbers of separatists grew and eventually, all who rebelled against the church were exiled. They sailed to Holland in 1607. In 1620 the rebels boarded the Mayflower and set sail on their historic journey to America.
Until the early part of the 14th century the area was mainly agriculture, the Angles were the first to turn the marshy land into water meadows and to clear the oak woodland for arable fields. The Vikings were also strong influences in the area as reflected in local place names: Lea, Marton, Morton, Torksey, etc.
The people of Gainsborough wished to remain neutral during the Civil War, however, the town was seized for the King and, in July of 1642, Charles I passed through Gainsborough on his way from York to Newark. A force of Parliamentarians attacked the town in 1643. The Battle of Gainsborough (or Battle of Lea) took place on 28th July 1643. Cromwell led the attacking force and the commander, Colonel Cavendish, was killed. On 20th December 1643, a large Parliamentarian force stormed the town and for the duration of the Civil War, Gainsborough was under Parliamentarian control.
The building of the original bridge over the Trent was authorised in 1787 and built in 1791 at a cost of just over £10,000.
Land use around Gainsborough was historically open arable land until on Friday 22nd May 1795 when an Act of Parliament enforced enclosure to the land around Gainsborough. The three commissioners took six years to complete their task including the staking out of eight new public roads. Although the whole project was completed by 1801 it was not formerly awarded until 24th January 1804.
From the end of the 16th century boats carried coal from the Nottinghamshire pits. The 18th century saw the transportation of goods of all kinds, including iron products, ale and linen and woollen goods to London. During the Napoleonic War, ammunition passed through Gainsborough's port. During the first part of the 19th century, shipbuilding was prominent in Gainsborough including the development of steamships. Ships up to 700 tons were built in the yards as well as sloops, brigs and small sailing vessels. Steam-packet services ran from Gainsborough to Hull; from Gainsborough to Doncaster and from Burringham to Gainsborough throughout the late 1800s bring people to and from the town especially on market days.
The coming of the railways signalled the decline of the shipyards, as did the silting of the river and partial blockage by wrecks. The opening of Gainsborough as a port coincided with the beginning of the decline in river traffic. Two railway lines were constructed and still run through Gainsborough. These were both built in the early part of the 1840s.
In 1881 the port closed, due partly to the competition from the railway and partly to a deterioration in the state of the river. Fluctuations in the depth of the Trent due to silting and wrecks in the channel below Gainsborough, with no-one in authority to clear them away, meant that boats had to lighten their loads to clear the bottom of the river.
By 1918 the older heavy industries were in decline. Then, Gainsborough became a victim of the 'de-industrialisation' and rise of unemployment that took place over much of Britain during the 1980s. The large heavy industry factories have closed or now run on a much-reduced scale. New small 'light' industries have opened on designated industrial estates, and the power stations at West Burton and Cottam provide some employment.
Today, Gainsborough is undergoing a major regeneration. Marshall's Engineering Works was founded in 1848 by William Marshall, a millwright. It covered a sixteen-acre site with eleven-and-a-half acres taken up by buildings. The company exported agricultural machinery all over the globe. During the First World War, the company employed 5,000 people, manufacturing weapons. By the 1920s it was a market leader in the design of the internal combustion engine for tractors and the stationary oil engine. In March, 1936, a new company was founded which became involved in the manufacture of the midget submarine.
Now £19 million is being spent to develop this site into a retail and leisure park. The Britannia Works was a Grade II listed building and the new building will retain Marshall's historic frontage and the plans for the old works will create many new jobs in the area. Over recent years the town's riverside has benefited from a complete facelift with new flood defences, pieces of art work, landscaped gardens and redevelopment of the former riverside warehouses into residential accommodation.