The disco started at 8pm. Pints were poured, game soup was served and, as 11pm drew near, the music stopped so the landlord could play Land of Hope and Glory. A few people started to cry. It was January 31, 2020 and, finally, Britain had left the European Union. “It was such a relief,” the landlord tells me. “We’d stuck our heads above the parapet and won. There was a sense of togetherness — that things would finally get better.” And have they? “No. Boston is awful. The situation is perilous. The Government has blown it.”
Three years on, the Robin Hood Inn has closed. If you want a drink on this street in Boston, just south of the town centre, you’ll have to make do with the Eastern European off-licence a few doors down.
Surrounded by fens to the north and marshes to the south, Boston looms over a dank sea of flat expanses; an island town that has always been the exception. Once, it was the biggest port in England after London. Today, it is the fattest town in the country, the least integrated, the lowest paid, the most murderous, and the most Brexity.
According to new polling by UnHerd, Boston remains the capital of Brexitland, albeit not by its 2016 margin, when 75.6% voted to leave. Still, Boston and Skegness is the only constituency in the UK that does not think it was wrong to leave the EU: here, 37% of voters believe it was a mistake, while 41% disagree. Our polling also reveals it to be the most concerned about immigration: 72% believe “levels are too high”.
Todor arrived here from Sliven, Bulgaria, a few months before the 2016 referendum, looking for the “breadbasket of Britain” and its promise of jobs for those who work hard. “I came with my friends after reading about Boston on the internet. We lived out of town in a caravan and picked cabbages, down on our knees for 10 hours at a time.” Now 29, he works in a food-processing factory, packing flowers, broccoli and potatoes for £350 a week. He can just about afford to rent a bed-bug-infested, one-bedroom flat with his girlfriend and month-old baby. “My friends and I were the first to come to Boston from Sliven,” he says proudly. “Since then, another 2,000 have followed.”
Sitting in his coffee shop on the corner of the town’s cobbled marketplace, Moroccan-born Anton Dani points out these new arrivals. “They come on a daily basis,” he explains. “You can tell who is new and who is not.” He gestures to the small groups of young men standing around the square; they are smoking, staring, whiling away the time until they can register for work. Dozens of families are milling about the city centre, too. “Often you know they are new because they are very poorly dressed — and they are with children who should be in school but haven’t been enrolled yet.”
Anton grimaces when I ask about Brexit: he is a Ukip-then-Conservative councillor, and was the town’s leading campaigner for Leave and its Mayor on Brexit Day. “I don’t think it’s made things better… Now we have a lot of migrants from Bulgaria and many of them are gypsies.” Brexit, everyone here agrees, has failed to stem the number of migrants arriving — though what that figure is remains unclear. We know that between 2004 and 2014, Boston’s migrant population grew by 460%; and we know that there was a tenfold increase between 2011 and 2021. But these are only the people who have registered their presence — and as Anton explains, “there are a load of houses with up to 10 people living in them”. Whatever the true number is, many locals feel like the town is no longer theirs.
The problem with Boston, Anton says, is not that people from the EU have come to live here, but that there is no infrastructure to support them. The local hospital is overstretched; traffic is a permanent blight; at one primary school, translators had to be employed after it emerged many of the children couldn’t speak English. “Brexit is failing,” he admits. “If immigration is to work, you have to integrate. But we’re not demanding this from people.”
Back in 1900, a local journalist predicted that, within a century, Boston will “be served by elephantine emporia”, while “aeroplanes will wheel and pirouette around the pinnacles” of St Botolph’s. The church still dominates the marketplace, but there are few elephantine emporia. Instead, Boston has West Street — known variously as “Polak Street”, “Little Poland” and “East Street” — with its scattering of Eastern European shops, bakeries and job centres. And rather than pirouetting planes, you are more likely to see the speeding minibuses which transport workers to the nearby factories or farms each morning. To those Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian immigrants yet to arrive, this is the Bostonian Dream.
But for many of the migrants who have settled, as well as those locals who have always lived here, that dream has soured. “There was nothing wrong when they first came, but look at the marketplace now.” Stan Turner, who is 85 and has lived in Boston all his life, nods towards a group of young Bulgarian men smoking in one corner. “They are intimidating. I always used to walk around but now I’m too scared.” Many locals I speak to say the same, and each has a story to hand: about gang-on-gang vendettas, about a friend being stabbed for not having a lighter, about Eastern European off-licences illicitly staying open beyond closing time. “We now tell those staying with us, particularly old people and women on their own, not to go out at night,” one hotel manager tells me.
Locals avoid the marketplace at night. It is empty when, at around 8pm, men arrive five-to-a-car and wait. They don’t prowl. They park up in the middle of the square in pairs, trading words and more with those in the vehicle next door. The atmosphere is charged; headlights are kept on. They don’t hide. The point, I suspect, is to be seen. They sit there, presiding over an unnerving restlessness that feels like it could tip into violence at any time.
It was shortly after 6pm on a balmy July evening that Lina Savicke’s daughter was stabbed and killed on Fountain Lane. “My two daughters were playing outside my shop here, when I heard my youngest scream ‘Mama!’, and then…” Lina pauses to wipe her eyes. “And then it happened.” There were people milling about. Dusk was yet to descend. Lilia was just nine.
There are rumours within the Lithuanian community that it was an organised hit, paid for by a disgruntled family member back home. “But at the moment, we don’t have a clue,” Lina tells me. I ask if she thinks it could happen again. “Yes… It’s dangerous here, especially at night. There is hardly any CCTV or police presence. It means you can do anything you like. This is what happens when a town falls apart…”
If Brexit was about taking back control, in Boston, the opposite seems to have happened. Since 2016, the year the town was named the “Murder Capital of Britain”, Boston’s crime rate has increased by 25% — yet last week, Lincolnshire Police, the lowest funded force in the UK, announced it was cutting PCSO numbers by almost half. Today, it is not uncommon for people to install CCTV cameras on their houses, even in the town’s more deprived areas, such as Fenside. The owner of one house there, flying the Union Jack, has reinforced his garden wall (“they kept ramming their cars into it”) and installed seven cameras. “I just want to keep my daughter safe,” he tells me.
Further up the road, I meet Nichola Williams. “I voted for Brexit,” she tells me. “It has nothing to do with immigrants who have jobs — I’ve worked with some fantastic foreigners here.” But, she continues, “you can go into town now and see others sitting around. We’ve had more murders and often it’s between themselves.”
This is borne out in Boston’s crime reports, though, as Nichola can attest, locals are hardly left unscathed by the anarchic cloud of insecurity and instability that the violence produces. “I lost one of my sons five years ago,” Nichola tells me. “He was only 32. He was the youngest and the cleverest and…” She tails off. I later learn he had mental health issues, lost his job working on the land, and started to drink heavily and take drugs. He was found by paramedics on a nearby riverbank in the middle of the day; a post-mortem report stated he had laid down and frozen to death after taking heroin and cocaine. “Then again,” Nichola adds, “I met someone from around here. You can’t say I made a mistake, but in many ways I did.” Is she blaming her son’s death on her decision to raise him in Boston? “Well… Yes and no.”
Unlike Lilia’s stabbing, the death of Nichola’s son received only a passing mention in the local press, but perhaps it is a more fitting symbol of Boston’s malaise. His actions keenly speak to the hopelessness and desperation that have taken hold in Boston in the past two decades. Ask anyone what they think of the town, and the standard response is “terrible”, “awful”, or “shit”. Ask why they think that is, and their answer feels fearful: a fear that their community is being dismantled, that the future looks bleak, and that all the institutions they once identified with — from the town’s defunct harbour to West Street in its prime — have been lost.
To some extent, Boston’s atomisation began well before the EU referendum. Perhaps it was sparked in 1970, when its direct rail service to London was canned, or, eight years later, when the medieval town was carved up by a dual carriageway. Or perhaps it started in May 2004, when the UK opened its labour market to Europe. Whatever caused it, by 2016, Boston’s decline was plain to see: in its extraordinary crime rates, especially when it comes to violent crime, and its sagging infrastructure.
Brexit was supposed to fix this. Forget taking back control of Britain; voters here would have settled for taking back control of Boston. Instead, immigration and crime continued to rise — and their town slipped from their grip.
This is where politics should step in, but, as Nichola tells me, “they’re all useless”. And to an extent, former Mayor Anton Dani agrees: “All politicians assume that people will forget things quickly. But the people here will not forget.” The legacy of this perceived betrayal is written in UnHerd’s poll results: in the fact that the root cause of Boston’s Brexit vote (its concern about immigration) remains strong, but voters’ belief in a political solution (Brexit itself) has plummeted. Politics was tried and failed.
“After Brexit vote, immigrants feel a town turn against them,” read one headline in The New York Times shortly after the referendum. Today, it is the locals who feel their town has turned against them — and many have given up on trying to win it back. That is the tragedy of Boston as Brexitland. It was supposed to be a Land of Hope and Glory, but the party only lasted one night.