A Visit to Bourne, Lincolnshire


Larry Pearce

April 1, 2001

According to the Original Austen-Pearce Family Narrative, transcribed earlier in this series, Richard Pearce and his twin sister Sarah had come from Bourne, England. [Lincolnshire County, perhaps? No, we believe now it was a village in Wiltshire, to the southwest.] They married sister and brother Susan and Charles Austen in London in 1813, emigrated to America in 1821, and the rest is family history. In June of 1996 my wife Susan and I spent several days touring away from our three weeks of volunteer work at the Wycliffe Bible Translation Center at High Wycombe, which is

located just off the M40 superhighway between London and Oxford (see WWW.STREETMAP.CO.UK for all locations). After several previous outings with others behind the wheel, we borrowed one of the organization’s cars, held our collective breath over driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and headed northeast to where we believe my ancestors had originated. I had consulted Halbert’s World Book of Pearces and written to seven families named Pearce in Bourne before leaving the US, inviting them to contact me at Wycliffe to arrange an interview. Only two responded: Dr. Victor Pearce, a world renown evangelist and author, who explained that he had been adopted and that his mother Adelaide had just died the year before [We’ll present his amazing biography in a future article]; and Colin Pearce, who works for the regional electric company and lives with his wife and daughter in Bourne. Colin invited us to spend an afternoon with his family, so we planned to stop there first.

Driving on the M was actually easier than on the two-lane country roads. With four and six lanes, one need only to stay far to the left out of the way of cars and trucks whizzing past. But, eventually, all good things come to an end, and we had to leave the northbound expressway and head east. We found that if we always talked out our driving intentions, particularly in the round-abouts, the novel equivalent to American cloverleafs as hilariously portrayed in the film European Vacation, we could concentrate more easily and, should we make a mistake, the other could correct us. So, for example, as we entered a round-about, I would exclaim, “Look right, turn left,” and drive in counter-clockwise. If a half-dozen other roads converge into the circle, one simply stays in the inner lanes until he has enough courage to wonder outward and make the left-hand turn onto his route. That’s where the partner helps again. Susan would shout, “Oh, there’s the Stamford Road! Opps, you missed it. Let’s go around again. Get in the outside lane, now.” Americans, it seems, would rather put up with stop lights!

My brother Paul and sister-in-law Cynthia had visited Bourne several years earlier, so we knew a little bit about the area from stories and photographs. We had lunch in the neighboring historic town of Stamford on a beautiful, sunny day at one of the many picnic tables that line the pedestrian thoroughfare (see WWW.STAMFORD.CO.UK). This little town is located between Peterborough and Nottingham, about 7 miles southwest of Bourne in the region called the East Midlands. I was amazed at the similarities between the lush English countryside and the backroads of Pennsylvania. On the way to Bourne we passed the Toftrees Golf Club (“Toft” means “cottage,” so literally “cottage in the woods”). We have a Toftrees Golf Club on the road to Penn State. Later, when I discovered that Colin was an avid golfer, I invited him to play a round with me there, if/when he visits America. Also, of course, there are the countless flocks of sheep and endless herds of cattle, not any different than in our Somerset County. As we got closer to Bourne, particularly in the fens (literally “swamps” or land reclaimed from the sea over hundreds of years), we saw fields of corn and other grains. We were told that sugar beets were a staple also, developed during the Napoleanic (1803-15) threat, as discussed in an earlier article, when Caribbean sources of sugarcane had been cut off.

Finally arriving in Bourne, we spent several hours with Colin, his wife, and teenage daughter in their comfortable home in a fairly new section of town with enchanting street names like Godiva Crescent. If you study the town website [WWW.HOMEPAGES.WHICH.NET/~REX/BOURNE] you’ll see that expanding population and over-development is a real concern now, as it is with many small towns. These things threaten the quaintness and the charm of all rural villages. We gave him a copy of our family history and he was intrigued, but he explained that most British aren’t particularly interested in finding their family roots. We agreed that it’s probably because their national history is so much longer than America’s and there isn’t that great divide from which to measure a family’s origins like the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. But, as we shared photos of our families, I noticed that the old black and white of his father in his younger days looked amazingly like that of my father Ralph at that age: high cheek bones and jet black hair. I promised that I’d send him a picture of Dad when I got home. I thought as we posed for a group photo in the back yard (or “garden” as they would say), “Whether we’re directly related or not, it really is a very small world where families are just trying to survive and be happy.”

Our next stop was the Bourne Public Cemetery, just south of town. We went immediately to the caretaker’s office and asked for the giant book that listed all the burials by date along with the ages of the deceased. After writing down about 20 Pearces from as far back as 1869, many of whom had familiar family names, we were escorted to several plots. We noticed that many of the older markers were very close together. The caretaker explained that by British law all citizens are entitled to a free burial plot, but that after 50 years the cemetery has the right to bury someone on top of someone else. We Americans can’t imagine such a thing, but the rough, old man laughed and informed us that after 50 years, “There’s nothing left but a few pieces of bone.” Some of the older Pearces there would have been alive when and if our family emigrated from this town: Thomas (died 1887 at age 91) and Mary Anne (died in 1884 at age 76). Could they have been relatives? We desperately want to believe that somewhere in the not too distant past, we are related. We found a beautiful stone tribute to Adelaide Pearce, Dr. Victor Pearce’s mother, who at age 96 could have told us so much about this town and the Pearce family, but we were a year too late.

Driving back into town, we stopped at the Bourne Public Library and asked to see their local history collection. They were most helpful, and I was able to get notes and copies of several booklets answering some of my questions about other Pearces and the origin of the town. For example, I learned that the Romans are still highly regarded after over a millennium and a half. Swift says, “In spite of their hardness and severity, the Romans did very much for this part of England. They drained the fens, dug the Carr Dyke, embanked the rivers and made good roads in all directions.” Another truth is that they made slaves of the former inhabitants, the Celts, and made them do the work. Researchers have found the remains of an old Celtic camp built many years before Christ just to the west of a town landmark known as St. Peter’s Pool. The Roman garrison built a fort there to protect the canal and its barges laden with corn and supplies headed for Lincoln and York and other northern outposts. Bourne was half way from London to York, and archeologists have found many valuable artifacts around the area. After the Romans left, the cruel Saxons took their place [see the earlier Penhey Commentary: Part I] and built a great manor house. Though these pagans eventually became Christians, The Danes drove them out of Bourne in a path of destruction in 870 AD. Alfred the Great subdued them as the first national sovereign. As William the Conqueror approached from Normandy (France) in 1066, he was met by whom Swift calls, “the darling of the Saxon people, the hero of countless ballads, and the inspiration of many poems,” Bourne’s own Hereward the Wake [pronounced HARRY-ward. Do an MSN.Com search for some real adventure stories. Several local families still carry the surname of Wake and are considered relatives to The Lord of the Manor]. He is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086), a survey of land and peoples by the new ruler. Hereward, knick-named “The Outlaw,” it is said, would attack the Normans in guerilla warfare [probably similar to the way the colonial Americans attacked the British during the Revolutionary War ala the film The Patriot], then retreat to his stronghold on the nearby Isle of Ely. In the end, although he ceased opposition and vowed allegiance to William, several of his own followers betrayed him. Legend says that “without armor and carrying only a sword and small shield, he made such an heroic fight that, before he died, 13 of his attackers lay dead around him” (Swift 7). Tradition says that he is buried in the Bourne Church.

In the years that followed, the principal manor of Bourne was in the hands of Oger the Breton. In the early 12th century, as the British monarchy developed and asserted itself, there was what Swift calls “a great epidemic of castle building, over 1,100 being built in a few years” (8). This, then, was the birth of the great Norman structure called the Bourne Castle, which no longer stands today. It housed nobility until the great civil war of the 1640’s, when it was surrendered and its great stones were “quarried” for foundation materials to be used throughout Lincolnshire. A similar fate had befallen the beautiful Bourne Church and Abbey a hundred years earlier. In 1534 the congregation abandoned Rome for Henry VIII’s new state church [see WWW.BRITANNICA.COM]. Two years later Henry dissolved the local church. Townsfolk at first objected, even to the point of carrying arms, but they eventually “carried off” what they felt belonged to them in the form of lead roofing and cut stones. Somehow the congregation survived and the church was rebuilt, to the point that in 1834 a new pipe organ was installed by the John Gray Company. [We saw other evidence of the name Gray, another of our family surnames, in the area around Bourne. Today’s Grays are mostly farmers, however.] A woman whom we met at the church, and about whom we’ll speak in a moment, said that before the organ was built, local musicians used to play for the Sunday morning service, and having been up half the night before, playing in area taverns, and perhaps having a bit to drink, could get quite noisy at times. The other thing worth mentioning is that the first organist at the church was George Pearce, professor of music. Today, the church is excellent repair, with the showpiece being the magnificent East Window re-pointed in 1986.

Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of the Bourne Abbey was a priest of the 13th and 14th centuries by the name of Robert Manning [or Robert de Brunne, if you’re doing a Web search: WWW.NEWADVENT.ORG/CATHEN/09608a.HTM]. Supposedly a native, he gathered the idioms from all over Britain and formulated one clear grammatical language that could be understood everywhere. Historians today call him “The father of the English language” and say that he “helped make East-Midland English the literary dialect of English.”

Undoubtedly the most important contact we made during our time at the library was Robert J. Penhey, the town historian. After a phone call and some directions, we drove to his house where he had printed the names of some of the Pearces past found in his town database going back as far as 1835. These include, according to the History & Directory of Lincolnshire and Kelly’s Post Office Directory, Thomas (1842), owner of the Marquis of Granby Inn & Tavern; Thomas (1842), watchmaker; Thomas (1856), owner of the Six Bells Inn & Tavern; John Thomas (1876), postmaster, printer, and insurance salesman; J.T. (1900), horticultural society secretary; William (1905), vaccination officer & piano tuner; E. (1922), tennis club treasurer; Marjorie Kate (1930), optician. Are we directly related to any of these? Would the older ones have known our ancestors? Mr. Penhey accepted a copy of the family narrative, promising to do some research and write soon. As you can see from the three-part commentary earlier in this series, Mr. Penhey really was true to his word and did more than we ever expected.

After dinner at a nearby historic tavern called The Kings Head Inn, we walked through an old churchyard and couldn’t believe the age of some of the tombstones. We drove out through the fens at sunset to where the great “Wash” started, a natural bay off the English Channel. This was one of the landmarks for the American bombers coming back from runs over Germany during WW II [more on this later]. The lush and fertile reclaimed land, originally a project of the Romans, seems to go on forever. We finally got to our bed and breakfast, “The Mullions,” just outside of town, by dark. Our second-floor room overlooked a beautiful garden with roses and many other flowers, which we thoroughly enjoyed the next morning after a good night’s sleep and breakfast with fellow guests from Australia.

Our time in Bourne was nearly over. We visited the beautiful and historic Red Hall, supposedly haunted, and the newly remodeled Corn Exchange, a type of auction house. We shopped several of the small stores. We were told that the drug store [“chemist,” as the Brits say] was once W.E. Pearce & Sons Electrical and that the sewing center was once Pearce’s Jewelers. Another Pearce ran the Jubilee Garage and Show Room. We walked to Sts. Peter and Paul Church and were fortunate to find someone from the alter guild arranging the flowers for Sunday service. She gave us a brief tour and a small booklet with 850 years of history. One of the last things we saw was a plaque dedicated to the WW II dead. On it was the name of Harry Pearce. I was reminded of another Pearce, whose real name I don’t remember, but he was nicknamed by townsfolk as “Conshi Pearce.” He had registered as a conscientious objector and so some unknown patriots painted his main street grocery storefront yellow. Bourne isn’t much different than any American town, with people of various persuasions living and dying in the name of personal freedom.

After lunch at the local café, we drove south, past the cemetery and through the cornfields to Cambridge, about an hour away in another county. We had a bus-top tour of this ancient university town flooded with English bikes and punting boats. The tour also included a stop at a military cemetery where the WW II American airbase was, out of which Susan’s father had flown his 35 missions over Germany as a ball turret gunner in the belly of a B-17. Looking back north, we could see the steeple of the cathedral at Ely, a landmark the Americans looked for after coming in over “The Wash” in preparing to land at the base. We were told that another small town named Bourn, without the “e,” is nearby [Penhey mentions this place in his earlier commentary].

Finally, at dark, we got on the M and headed south toward London and the beltway that took us past St. Albans and Hemel Hempstead where our Pearces and Austens of nearly 200 years earlier had lived [see an earlier article]. Our weekend truly was a trip back in time, even if our line of Pearces hadn’t originated in Lincolnshire. We at least had experienced everyday life in a small English town and learned about some other fascinating people named Pearce. Oh, and one more thing was on my mind as we approached the Wycliffe Center: I was glad to surrender the car without a scratch and live to tell about it another day.

Works Cited

Aiken, Ian. “The Organs of Bourne Abbey (1834-1977).” Pamphlet,1978.
Birkbeck, J.D. “A History of Bourne.” Pamphlet from the Bourne Public Library, 1976.
Smith, Jonathan P. “Historic Notes and Walk Round Guide to The Abbey Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Bourne,” Booklet. Bourne: E. Fych & Co., 1988.
Swift, John T. “Bourne and People Associated with Bourne.” Pamphlet,1996.


Sue Draper and Christine Taylor, Librarians, Bourne Public Library
Robert J. Penhey, British Historian
Colin Pearce and family, local residents and possible relatives

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