Lincoln’s past: Sibthorp’s steep wager

Steep Hill is an amazing street (Britain’s best, they say), full of ancient buildings and great stories. Here’s my favourite tale of the street: featuring dangerous bets, breakneck speeds, and health and safety. This story, however, is also the story of a colourful and stubborn politician, our protagonist, who I shall now introduce.

Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp MP (or Colonel Sibthorp as he was commonly known) was a man of strong convictions and great eccentricity. Born into Lincolnshire landed gentry in 1783, he was an outspoken and long serving member of Parliament for Lincoln. Despite being loved in his native Lincoln, Sibthorp was an extremely polarising figure elsewhere in the country, due to his aggressive opposition to change.

To Sibthorp, any changes in Britain from his youth were sure-fire signs of degeneracy and the corruption of the country. To this end, he often refused to dress in the modern style, instead opting for the regency style of the 18th century. Sibthorp was also a fierce opponent of Catholic emancipation and strongly detested anyone or anything foreign. This hatred of all things ‘non-British’ eventually put him at odds with Queen Victoria over her husband when he accused the Prince Consort of staging the famous Great Exposition if 1851 (complete with its magnificent Crystal Palace) as an attempt to ‘bring even more of his hypocritical foreigners into the country,’ and hoped the structure was struck by lightening from God.

Steep Hill during the 19th century was much as it appears today. It possessed the same cobbles and ancient buildings we see everyday. Unlike the modern street, however, there were no restrictions for vehicles to travel up or down; it was generally understood and accepted that it was far too dangerous for vehicles to travel down the steep slope, due to the speeds generated and difficulty in stopping. Well, it was obvious to most, but most didn’t include Colonel Sibthorp or his friends.

A cartoon of Colonel Sibthorp and his attempt to limit railway growth. Photo: Richard Hawes/ The Lancashire Gallery

Posterity doesn’t record the date of the supposed bet (some sources claim there were multiple bets over several months or even years), so the story may indeed be apocryphal, but the tale goes as follows.

Sibthorp, never one to shy way from a wager, was challenged to drive his carriage down Steep Hill, at speed. The carriage in question was known as a ‘four-in-hand’, which was powered by (you guessed it) four horses. Taking any horse at speed was a foolhardy action, but four was so dangerous it could be classed as suicidal. Regardless, Sibthorp accepted and somehow managed to win the wager and not injure himself or the horses in process.

According to the tale, following this unashamedly stupid feat, the City Council — fearing a repeat — placed railings half way up the hill to ensure that no one foolish enough to want to try it themselves.

While the story itself is difficult to verify completely, it is thoroughly enjoyable to think when walking up that steep hill those old handrails, far from being placed there to aid ascent and descent, may have been placed to prevent a madman (and a MP no less!) from carrying out his wild wagers and dangerous feats.