Scunthorpe: a personal cultural geography

‘Get Carter’, ‘Manuscript in a Red Box’,
​’On the Trent’…

One of the four blast furnaces at the Anchor Steel works. The ‘four queens’: Mary, Bess, Anne and Victoria throw mystical light into the late night sky. Jack Carter, in ‘Get Carter’ compared the light to the Dawn of Creation.

Isle of Axholme to Barton-Upon-Humber

1. Scunthorpe Baths: Jack Carter lived round the corner and chased ‘Thorpey’ to the Baths steps. 2. The glow in the night from the 4 blast furnace ‘Queens’ could be seen rising above the town. 3. Jack met his end in the brick pits. 4. The Sheffields left Mulgrave Castle at West Butterwick in 160 for Normanby Hall. They took the Knights Templar to St Andrew’s Church

The film, Get Carter, is set in Newcastle/Gateshead.  However, the novel on which it is based is set in and around Scunthorpe. In the book, Cliff Brumby did not fall from Gateshead multi-storey car park, but ‘Thorpey’, chased by Jack Carter, did fall down the steps at Scunthorpe Baths!

I am six years old. I leave the light and warmth of my grandma’s house and step into the night. I hold my hand in front of my face and for the first time in my life I see nothing but darkness. I have dared myself to go outside in search of the wild men and ghosts of my uncle’s stories. Then I see them, those inhabitants of imagination.

As a child of the town in the 1960’s, nights were washed in pools of sodium streetlights. Visiting relatives on the Isle of Axholme, barely seven miles from Scunthorpe, a different way of living is revealed to me: outside privies, oil lamps, rabbits hanging behind the scullery door, chickens roaming the empty roads, gun dogs, guns, street lights turned off before ten o’clock. Also, Chapel. Epworth is, after all, home of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. His home was burnt to the ground by locals when he was a boy, arson being a bit of a tradition in this part of the world, as we will read later. But, the biggest difference remained, the night darkness.

Ted Lewis knew that same darkness. He saw it through the eyes of the iconic Jack Carter, as Carter took the train east from Doncaster across the Isle of Axholme to Scunthorpe in the opening pages of ‘Get Carter’, first published as ‘Jack’s Return Home’. Forty years later streetlights stay on all night and that special darkness has gone. But there is one feature the returning gangster would recognise. Rising through the mist of the Trent Vale, on the distant Lincoln Edge, flames still shoot intermittently from the steel works behind the low slung, single street town centre. Carter compares the light glow ‘creeping from the sky’ to a ‘Disney version of the Dawn of Creation’. Scunthorpe, resembling a boom town that has gone bust appears an unlikely setting for a high octane thriller that many think, because of the film, is set in Newcastle. 

Scunthorpe Baths: Jack Carter looked out along the street from here and thought Scunthorpe was ‘as good or bad as any town’. Later, Jack watched ‘Thorpey’ slide down the steps among the ‘Walker Brother’s haircuts’. Across the road stood the Scunthorpe United car park. Jack ‘did’ the tyres on a Jag during the match. Now a supermarket car park has replaced the Old Show Ground – watch your tyres!
The view from Scunthorpe Baths, down Doncaster Road and the High Street. Jack Carter reckoned he could get all he needed from this street. Jack’s lodgings were round the corner from the Baths. The steel works can be seen at the bottom end of town.

If you still have doubts as to the book’s location do as Jack Carter did, stand on the steps of Scunthorpe Baths, and then you will see what Jack saw a town ‘as good or as bad as any other’. It was on these steps that ‘Thorpey’, raced up thorugh a gang of youths with their ‘Walker’s Brothers haircuts’ to hide from Jack, but ‘fell flat on his bloody face’ (p101). On the opposite side of the road the football ground used to stand. Now there is a supermarket. The football car park was on the corner, and this was where Jack Carter, to the ebb and flow of the crowd’s roar, took out a knife and ‘did the tyres on the Jag’ (p157). It is essentially the same view down the main street towards the steel works but, unlike Jack, you will not be able to find everything you need. Much of the shopping has moved out of town. Another Carter location is to be found ten miles to the north. Head for the Humber Bridge, and dip down into Barton-upon-Humber. Can you hear the sound of the lightship bell and, at night, see the glow from the steel works? 

In the book, Jack Carter meets his end at Barton-Upon-Humber, in the brick pits, on the Humber shoreline. Today those pits lay beneath the Humber Bridge.

The wide and often windy shoreline’s purpose has changed like so many other industrial sites. Once dominated by rope and brick works the buildings and workings along the Humber have been adapted for pleasure, heritage and sport. But it is still possible to walk the Viking Way and imagine the brick pits before their conversion to bird and wildlife sanctuaries and see as Ted Lewis did, the perfect site for Jack Carter’s murder – not the iconic beach scene of the film, but the evocative backdrop of industrial dereliction, open water and endless sky.

1. Sandtoft Stockade: a gallows was built by the ‘Participant’ settlers. The commoners responded by attacking the stockade and setting it on fire. 2. Temple Belwood: home of the Vavasours – champions of the commoners. 3. Melwood: Frank Vavasour imprisoned and tortured by Lord Sheffield. 4. Castle Mulgrave: home to the dastardly Lord Sheffield, who threatened Vavasour’s love, Anna Goal, with the rack. 5. Crowle: the two lovers are attacked at Crown Hill. The story is resolved at the town’s inn, The White Hart.

The Manuscript in a Red Box is a novel set in the Isle of Axholme during the seventeenth century. A story based on the real conflict between Dutch and Huguenot ‘Participants’ – brought in by Cornelius Vermuijden to drain the land – and ‘Isleonian’ common holders. ‘Manuscript’ is a Romeo and Juliet story set of the fenland between Doncaster and Scunthorpe. 

Returning south, travellers heading east or west on the M180 often pass through the Isle of Axholme without knowing it. You could be forgiven for overlooking a landscape dominated by treeless fields, root crops destined for supermarkets, vast car parks of imported vehicles on their way from the docks at Immingham. If you leave the motorway at Junction 2 and look carefully you may discover another reality. 

The road south runs along a barely discernible ridge. This higher land between Crowle and Haxey is hardly recognisable as an Isle. But prior to the drainage of Hatfield Moore and Thorne Waste in the sixteen hundreds most visitors to the Isle would have arrived by boat, or walked across the marsh, ponds, rivers and streams on stilts.  Dropping down from Belton through the old Sandtoft Airfield – home in 1942 to Halifax bombers – and the cars, tiles and trolley buses another story is waiting at the cross roads at Sandtoft – short distance from the site of the Sandtoft blockade and it too, as with the rectory at Epworth, involves arson!

Temple Belwood, now bisected by the M180: ‘Sauntering under the dense shadow of the old trees, or out in the dim stillness of the open sward, startling browsing or drowsing beasts… I grew quiet and when I gained the highest grounding saw the low moon and her long reflection on the broad expanse of water, I was filled with confidence that my own prospect was as bright and boundless as the scene on which I looked.’ [Manuscript in a Red Box 18-19]

‘The Manuscript in a Red Box’ is an historical novel set before the drainage of the Isle of Axholme in 1629 and was presented anonymously in a red box to publishers in London. The author is now recognised to have been John Hamilton, a pastor at Crowle during the late nineteenth century. The adventure is a Romeo and Juliet story for the Isle of Axholme. French Huguenots and Dutch Protestants (called Participants) fleeing religious persecution – drained the ‘slithery bog’ under the direction of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, against the wishes of the local inhabitants (Commoners). This conflict lies at the heart of the ‘Red Box’.  

The ‘Red Box’ explores the struggling romance between a Commoner, Frank Vavasour of Temple Belwood whose family tried to stop the drainage, and Anna Goel, daughter of a Dutch Participant. Kidnap and torture are added to the mix through the dastardly Lord Sheffield, a love rival of Vavasour, who rules the Isle of Axholme from the family seat at Mulgrave Castle in West Butterwick where there are rumours of torture and false imprisonment. At West Butterwick, the castle’s medieval park is commemorated in the name of a local housing estate. In a field next to the estate ‘a large number of corpses’ were found in 1897. Some speculated that these were prisoners from Lord Mulgrave’s tower, or possible Quakers,  or plague victims. 

Owston Ferry, looking north, where once an ancient deer park stood by Castle Mulgrave. Open skies and sparse trees are reflected in the Trent. These skies bring to mind Philip Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Wedding -‘where sky and water and Lincolnshire meet.’ [The collected poems (1993) Faber and Faber]

The Sheffield’s – the non-fiction variety – left Butterwick in 1660 taking a statue of a knight templar with them. They placed the statue in St Andrew’s church at Burton-Upon-Stather.  Sir Reginald, father of Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife Samantha, has an ancestral home, now run by the local council and open to visitors, at Normanby Hall, four miles north of Scunthorpe, close to Burton-upon-Stather, a few miles short of that final violent scene in Get Carter along the shoreline walk under the awesome Humber Bridge.

Melwood Priory: This stretch of water is (possibly the remains of a moat surrounding the Priory) between Epworth and Owston Ferry. Frank Vavasour, the hero of Manuscript in a Red Box, was tortured here by Lord Sheffield’s henchmen.

Peter Hill’s preface to the ‘Red Box’ describes the Isle before the drainage as a ‘mighty rude place…with the people little better than heathens.’  The drainage may have made the Commoners look like Christians, but they did not always act like them. The drainage threatened a traditional way of life: growing corn on higher land, growing and spinning flax and hemp for textiles, pasturing animals on the marshes in summer, fishing, trapping geese, snipe heron and duck. After the drainage the Commoners were offered the poorest land. For their own protection the Participants lived in isolation at Sandtoft but this did not prevent the local Commoners attacking and destroying the Participant’s stockade in 1642, burning it to the ground, flooding the land, forcing many Huguenot’s and Dutch protestants to flee to Bedfordshire.

St Andrew’s Churchyard, Burton upon Stather. The Trent can be seen beyond the trees.

At first glance, in these fields of agrarian industrialisation, where land is flattened and fields extended on an industrial scale, there is little to suggest the strife that tore the Isle apart, except in the imagination of the ‘Red Box’, and the passions of local historians and archivists. But, cross from Isle to Humber on a late afternoon in Autumn or Winter as mist roles along the Trent Vale. Then, it is difficult to escape the brooding sense of isolation as dyke, river, mist and sky merge, and Scunthorpe’s blast furnaces glow as intermittent beacons through the clouds. Take another look at unfashionable Scunthorpe, the gentrification of Barton, and the agribusiness of the Isle through the books inspired by these unlikely places, and imagine its people, some noble, some less so, with their stories of murder, love and survival. Take another look the ordinary places where you live, but let your imagination take you there. 

The White Hart, Crowle: The ‘Manuscript’ reaches its climax here, and Squire Stovin spells out what will happen if Vermuyden drains the Isle:…no more to be enjoyed, of salmon-spearing in Trent, of Otter hunts in Don, of Duck shooting on the meres.’ It would be the ‘Ruin of poorer folk’ – who lived by ‘fishing, fowling, reed-cutting, egg gathering and the like crafts of marsh men.’ (226-7)
Epworth: In 1702 the Wesley home was the target of an arson attack. The young John Wesley escaped through a bedroom window. Arson appeared to be something of a tradition in the Isle of Axholme during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Paintings of Scunthorpe can be viewed on Artuk.org
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