I was recently invited on to Ipswich Community Radio for a chat about local history on the mental health discussion programme ‘Clearwater’. Here are some edited clips from the interview.
The history of Ipswich architecture is littered with the rubble of demolished, once great, buildings. If you read a lot of local history books (which, sad person that I am, I do), you’ll see that ancient and impressive buildings in the town have time and again been casually demolished in the name of each century’s idea of modernisation. On this occasion, however, I thought it would be interesting to explore a less common example of an important building in the town that, after a close shave, managed to survive the developers wrecking ball, and the heritage that survives as a result.
In 1967, Trust House Forte, then the largest hotel group in the country, applied for permission to demolish The Great White Horse Hotel on Tavern Street, in order to build new shops and offices in its place. Fortunately, the Ipswich Society and the town’s planners managed to persuade a public enquiry, which had been called to decide the building’s fate, that the hotel should be saved. The defenders of the White Horse cited the architectural quality of the building, as well as its status as an ancient feature of the town centre and its connections to the literary work of Charles Dickens (as a prominent and comic setting for part of his debut novel The Pickwick Papers). In fact, thanks to Charles Dickens, there was perhaps an even more remarkable reason why we should be grateful that the Great White Horse was saved, as we shall see.
The White Horse has stood in its current location since at least 1518 and in medieval times there was a building on the same spot referred to simply as ‘the Tavern’. It would have then been one of the inns used by pilgrims when visiting the nearby shrine of Our Lady of Grace (then one of the most important shrines in the country). Between 1815 and 1818, due to the widening of Tavern Street, The Great White Horse lost its original timber-framed front, which was replaced with the current frontage of Suffolk white bricks. This is also when the well-known sculpture of a ‘rampaging’ white horse that Dickens mentions in Pickwick Papers was first introduced. However, Dickens never saw the present-day statue that adorns the building as the original was later moved to the White Horse in Tattingstone (see picture) and replaced by the current statue.
Clearly, Dickens is by far the most mentioned guest when it comes to the Great White Horse, but there have been other notable patrons over the centuries. George II stayed at the Great White Horse in 1736, it was also here that he received expressions of loyalty from the bailiffs and members of the town’s corporation. Another guest was Admiral Nelson, who retired to the hotel upon discovering that his wife Lady Nelson, who lived in Ipswich, had locked and shuttered up their house Roundwood because she had gone to London to prepare a welcome for her husband there.
As well as individuals, the Great White Horse also accommodated organisations. For some time in the 1800s the hotel was used as the headquarters of the Conservative Party for elections. It also played host to the meetings of a peculiar group of young men called the Rump Ups around 1830. If the members of this group didn’t like a speaker, or he was going on too long, they would ‘throw themselves on the ground and moan loudly while lying on the floor, propped up on their knees and elbows’ according to the local historian Susan Gardiner. Eventually, this group evolved into a (slightly) more respectable musical society and changed their name (slightly) from the Rump Ups to the Rum Pups.
Charles Dickens stayed at the Great White Horse on several occasions around the same time as the Rump Ups were using it as their meeting place. In The Pickwick Papers (1836) he described the place thus:
The Great White Horse is famous in the neighbourhood, in the same degree as a prize ox, or a county paper-chronicled turnip, or unwieldy pig – for its enormous size. Never were such labyrinths of uncarpeted passages, such clusters of mouldy, ill-lighted rooms, such huge numbers of small dens for eating or sleeping in, but beneath any one roof as are collected together between the four walls of the Great White Horse at Ipswich
This is a point that Dickens extracts humour from by having Mr. Pickwick get lost on his way back to his room and end up getting into another guest’s four poster bed by mistake, whereupon he is ejected from the room.
Thanks to the popularity of Charles Dickens, the Great White Horse became briefly world famous. In fact, it’s not too much to say that towards the end of the 19th century it was the most famous inn in the country, as it was chosen to be the building that represented Britain in the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. A full-size replica of the building was constructed for the exhibition that visitors where able to enter for refreshment in order to experience what it was like in an archetypal British inn. However, as you can see from the photograph, it’s likely that the builders of the reconstruction had either never seen the Great White Horse in Ipswich or where basing their design on what the hotel would have looked like before its 1815-18 alterations.
And so, we arrive at the point of this story – an example of how fickle history can be at times. Less than 75 years later, a building that was once considered the example of its kind was close to being demolished. The public enquiry that blocked the demolition of the Great White Horse Hotel perhaps dodged a greater bullet than they realised that day.
After various attempts to modernise during the 20th century (including updating its coaching facilities to cater for the use of motor cars), the hotel finally closed its doors to visitors in 2008. The ground floor has recently reopened as a branch of Starbucks and an outdoors shop, which may not be exactly ideal, but is certainly better than the 1967 alternative. The building continues to retain its well-known façade and lettering, and many of its original interior features. At the time of writing, the current owners of the building are planning to convert the upstairs back into accommodation, this time as flats, so perhaps the building will once again fulfil its previous purpose as a place to stay.
I’m currently putting together a new book called Ipswich in 50 Buildings, so if you enjoyed this blog post, look out for it (hopefully) in the second half of 2018. The book is understandably taking up a lot of my spare time at the moment, so blog posts will probably continue to be quite sporadic until its completed.
The course of the River Orwell has shaped the history of Ipswich and the surrounding area as much as it has the rock, sand and soil that it flows through. In this post, I wanted to investigate what part the river has played in the town’s past and uncover a little of the history that has elapsed on the eleven miles of waterway from Ipswich to the coast.
In the first place, Ipswich is only where it is because of the river – it developed where the fresh water of the River Gipping meets the salt water of the River Orwell, presumably for the duel benefits of access to fresh drinking water for townspeople while maintaining proximity to the coast and the waters beyond.
Ipswich is likely the oldest of all English ports, with an almost continuous record of maritime trading activity, since about the year 600 – all facilitated by the Orwell. As an important port town, along a strategically placed river that led out to the coast facing the European mainland, Ipswich was well connected from an early point in England’s history to the rest of the continent. This led to the early adoption of a reasonably complex economy in Ipswich as one of the few points at which goods were flowing into and out of the rest of the country.
It would be tedious to go into too much detail in this post about the centuries of trade connections Ipswich was able to form with the rest of Britain and mainland Europe through its river commerce, but for a snapshot of what was going on it’s worth referring to some examples provided by Nicholas R. Amor in his book Late Medieval Ipswich, Trade and Industry. Amor tells us that during the 1400s Ipswich was trading with countries across the continent: from Bilbao in the Iberian Peninsula for iron, woad, dyestuffs, oils, soap and sweet wine, to Danzig in Northern Europe for naval stores, wooden products, flax, linen, fish, fur and potash. For its part, Ipswich established itself as one of the very few ports through which wool was exported to Europe.
Largely due to the location of the town along the river in an area distant from the country’s principal centres of power, Ipswich has always tended to be a place of trade and commerce more than a military stronghold, and this has shaped its historic character. For one thing, the focus on river trade enabled the emergence of an established merchant class by the late medieval period, along with all the wealth and fine housing this allowed for, particularly along the waterfront. In consequence, levels of education for prosperous families rose too. Not just material goods, but ideas, were brought to the port along the River Orwell. Ipswich was ideally placed to smuggle reformation texts into the country from Europe, and found willing receivers in Ipswich’s literate merchant class. The embracing of reforming Puritanism that followed, in turn helped to set the town’s political course during the 1600s.
Like most rivers, the Orwell has seen its fair share of smuggling in centuries past. During the 1700s particularly, smuggling was a way of life for many people in the villages bordering the river, and the community found a unique way of signalling whether the coast was clear: the story goes that a family living in a small white cottage (Cat House) along the river, decided to have their cat stuffed after it died and placed it in the window where the cat had formerly loved to sit. However, there was more to this tale than might first appear – for it seems the cat always disappeared from its favoured spot whenever the Preventive men of the district were more than ordinarily vigilant. Cat House still stands today by the river in the small village of Woolverstone.
Keeping the River Navigable
Of course, when a river is instrumental in the prosperity of a place it becomes important to maintain its flow. There are many examples in England’s history where the silting of a river has led to the ruin of an urban population, a nearby example is Aldeburgh, which was a thriving fishing and boat building town until the silting up of the River Alde. You can read a previous, more in-depth, blog post I wrote about Ipswich’s efforts to keep the Orwell navigable here.
Ship Building and Naval History
The River Orwell’s location also encouraged ship building from early on – according to Robert Malster, the tradition of building wooden vessels in Ipswich dates back to at least the 13th century. By the 18th century ship building was reaching its pinnacle along the Orwell with the work of John Barnard, a shipbuilder with yards in Ipswich and at Harwich by the mouth of the river. Barnard built a succession of both merchant class and Royal Navy ships at ship yards on the river. In addition to Barnard’s successes, at the end of the 18th century Stephen Teague launched the warship Cruizer from the river’s Halifax yard, which went on to give her name to one of the most numerous class of warships built in the age of sail.
The dockyards of the Orwell continued to churn out a continuation of first-class ships during the 19th century, particularly, during the first half of the century, under the Bayley family, who, across generations, were responsible for building warships, East Indiamen and even wooden steamers.
The Orwell has occasionally played a military role in the nation’s history, but when I tell you that perhaps it’s finest hour came in 1340, when King Edward III mustered the English fleet just above Harwich harbour, you’ll gain some perspective on its status as a military backwater. Having said that, in the event, Edward did go on from this to win an astounding victory against the French in the battle at Sluys, which secured the English Channel for many years to come, but it might be pushing it a bit to attribute that to the River Orwell.
Artistic connections and inspirations
The river Orwell has also made its impression on many artists over the centuries. John Constable painted ships on the Orwell near Ipswich (shown here) and even Thomas Gainsborough spent several years in Ipswich painting the scene around the river when he could get away from his more lucrative career as one of the country’s most celebrated portraitists. In the world of literature too, the Orwell is no stranger: It has been well argued that Eric Arthur Blair took his famous pen name (George Orwell) from the river as he spent a lot of time in Suffolk during his 20s and 30s. Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, loved spending time on the river so much that he set one of his much-loved children’s books there called We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea.
An interesting footnote:
The Orwell Park House estate, which borders the river, was the seat of Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) twice mayor of Ipswich, who was responsible for the introduction of the drink and word ‘grog’ to the navy. The admiral took to wearing a cloak aboard ship made of a French material called gros grain, this became corrupted in the mouths of sailors and they came to refer to him as ‘Old Grog’. At the time, drunkenness in the navy was a real problem and the measure Admiral Vernon took to curb this was to water down the rum, hence it came to be called ‘grog’.
It’s very easy to miss things that have been right under your nose for some time – I had cause to consider this point on more than one occasion over the Christmas season when, after eating a mince pie or two, I would catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror to find a dusting of icing sugar on my beard.
In that spirit, it occurred to me it would be interesting to uncover some of the historic and interesting things we walk past in Ipswich regularly but that go unnoticed – usually because it involves raising our gaze above shopfronts or because they are slightly hidden away. So, here follows some things worth looking up for:
Note: some of these finds I have come across myself over the past few years, but much additional information comes from Borin Van Loon’s Ipswich Historic Lettering website, which is an encyclopaedic record of historic signs and lettering in the town that continues to be regularly updated. If you would like to explore this topic further on his website please click here
Please click on images to enlarge them.
A Tudor Doorway and Beam
Hanging upon the brick wall facing the back of St. Stephen’s Church (now the Tourist Information Centre) is the last known wooden beam from the Tudor house of Thomas Rush, which once stood not far away in Brook Street. Rush represented Ipswich in the parliaments of 1523 and 1529 and was appointed Attorney in the building of Cardinal Wolsey’s ill-fated Ipswich College. Click here for more information on Wolsey’s College. The beam itself, which I must have walked past routinely for years without noticing, is intricately carved with mythical beasts, as well as with Rush’s merchant’s mark and his initial ‘R’.
Nearby on the south side of the church one of the buttresses, on closer inspection, actually contains a blocked up doorway. It seems Rush paid for a chapel to be built on the south side of the nave dedicated to him, for which this side door was the entrance. All that remains showing his connection to the former doorway now is his initial ‘T’ on one side of the buttress (presumably the ‘R’ on the other side has worn away over time).
Faces Under the Eaves
Have you ever walked along Eagle Street and noticed this strange plaster face staring down at you? Me neither, until I read about it in Susan Gardiner’s book Secret Ipswich and went to have a look for myself. Gardiner explains that it is very hard to say how old the face is but that it probably dates to the 1800s and that the face “has led to all kinds of strange tales, including a story about the house having been lived in by an ogre.”
On a similar note, I came across this strange face under the eaves of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill On the Buttermarket a couple of years ago, but haven’t managed to find any more information about it since then.
Ghostsign at Pickwicks
On the side of Pickwicks Coffee and Tea House in Dial Lane you can see an interesting example of a ‘ghostsign’ (an old shop sign painted onto brickwork that remains even though the building it is painted on has been re-purposed). This sign was hidden under newer layers of paint but was rediscovered in 2013 by a decorator working on the outside of the building. The sign, which is painted in a style that creates an optical illusion making it appear to be chiselled into the wall, reads “Spectacle Specialist Optician By Appointment to East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital” You can read more about this discovery in a BBC news article here
It’s also worth noting the unusual iron gates by the entrance to Pickwicks as they clearly point to the building’s past as an opticians, depicting as they do, a pair of spectacles.
Lettering above Carphone Warehouse
Some more ghostsigns are to be found above the frontage of Car Phone Warehouse on Tavern Street, which appears to have been a hairdressers that expanded into an emporium of sorts run by the Wootton family. The remaining painted signs above the current shop facade list the services and wares once on sale at Wottons including: “LEATHER GOODS, STATIONERY, TOYS & GAMES, FANCY CHINA, HOT BATHS, FANCY COMBS, ‘PERMANENT WAVING’ and FACE MASSAGE.” To see a full transcribed list of all the text, visit Borin Van Loon’s excellent Ipswich Historic Lettering website here
Cyclists’ Touring Club
Here’s an unusual looking sign that features upon a wall on Upper Brook Street above a charity shop. This symbol comprising of three wings within a wheel and the initials ‘C T C’ is actually that of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, a forerunner of the modern-day Cycling UK. This sign was a seal of approval that these premises, once the Coach and Horses Inn, provided good accommodation and service to cyclists. According to the Ipswich Historic Lettering website it is thought that it was placed on this building “in about 1887”. To find out more click here
Police at the Town Hall
Above this side entrance to the town hall on Corn Hill the words ‘POLICE STATION’ can just be made out above the Roman numerals MDCCCLXVII (1867), being the year the current town hall was constructed. The town hall went on to host a police station for just over a century until 1968.
Although fairly innocuous, this doorway actually appeared in a cartoon drawn by the well-known cartoonist Carl Giles, which can be viewed on Borin Van Loon’s Ipswich Historic Lettering website here
Symonds for Kodaks
This sign, which probably dates to the early 1900s, was an advertisement for J.A. Symonds’ chemist’s shop that once occupied this building on Upper Brook Street. The American George Eastman introduced film rolls in 1883, this soon paved the way for his Kodak camera which brought photography to the wider public instead of just the privileged few who had previously owned plate cameras. Symonds was obviously a seller of this new equipment in Ipswich. I’m not quite sure how successful the sign itself was in advertising this, as I must admit I hadn’t really noticed it in over quarter of a century living in Ipswich until a few months ago, but then, maybe that says more about me than the sign.
Here’s an interview I did with BBC Radio Suffolk about Basil Brown’s excavation notebooks for their ‘What’s in the Box?’ series. Basil Brown was a Suffolk archaeologist who worked for Ipswich Museum and was responsible for the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. If you want to find out more you can also check out my blog post about Sutton Hoo here
You may remember learning about the Puritans from your school days – they were the killjoys that cancelled Christmas and closed theatres in 17th century England. As it happens, there was much more to them than this, but allow me to provide a similarly inadequate sketch of who they were, to put you in the picture before we jump in to their importance in Ipswich. The Puritans were a religious movement that grew out of those that felt that the church during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) was not Protestant enough; they felt that the reformation that had begun under Henry VIII, after his break from Rome, needed to be extended so that all forms of ritual and anything that came between the individual and God were removed. This is why they disliked statues of saints and stained glass windows in churches for example.
Ipswich was “a Puritan stronghold in a county that was noted for its opposition to Roman Catholicism and High Church Anglicanism” according to Robert Malster. This was predominantly due to two factors: first, Ipswich’s geographical location as a port town on the east coast of England made it an ideal place to smuggle reformation texts into the country. Indeed, in the early years of the reformation many books were brought into Ipswich by boat, hidden in casks, spreading ideas from continental Europe. Second, Ipswich already had a long history as a place of trade by the beginning of the 17th century. As puritanism tended to flourish in the merchant classes it is perhaps not surprising that it was strongly embraced in Ipswich.
Ipswich was so renowned as a hotbed for resistance that a court play of the period called The City Match describes a character as being “inspired from Ipswich” when she models her sweetmeats into the forms of people from Actes and Monumentes (John Foxe’s famous book that describes protestant martyrs). This tells us two things: Ipswich was nationally renowned for its nonconformist Puritan views, and the Tudors enjoyed playing with their food. England was primed for alphabetti spaghetti, but would have to wait some three hundred years for its common adoption. An England controlled by Puritan reformers was a prospect much closer to hand.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Ipswich Corporation had begun appointing its own town lecturer/preacher. A succession of Puritan town preachers, who outlined their views on how the reformation in England should develop, followed. Samuel Ward was the most enduring and influential of these town lecturers. He was appointed in 1605 at the age of 28 and served the town in this capacity until his death in 1640. Ward, who became known in the town as ‘Watch Ward’, was a successful and popular appointment – he was elected town lecturer for life after only two years in post and his wages continued to rise throughout his time in this position.
While very popular in Ipswich, Ward was never too far from controversy in the wider nation. Ward preached against set forms of prayer and in 1621 published caricatures of the (Catholic) court of Spain – normally this would have been viewed as patriotic, but it came at just the wrong moment, as King James was then negotiating with the Spanish over the marriage of his son and after a complaint by the Spanish ambassador Ward was thrown into prison. Ward humbly petitioned the king and was soon released, only to be prosecuted again a year later for nonconformity. Somehow, yet again, Ward escaped unscathed with the final judgement in the matter finding him to be “not altogether blameless, but a man to be won easily by fair dealing.” Clearly, if nothing else, Ward was a man capable of getting out of the stickiest of situations.
Ward may have been granted reprieves for his outspoken views, but others were less fortunate. The pamphleteer William Prynne wrote and published Newes from Ipswich, which attacked those higher up in the church of “detestable practices” including the removal of “orthodox and sincere preachers” and “ushering in popery.” Although Prynne had published the work under the name “Mathew White” he was discovered and, having already lost his ears for publishing a previous dissenting text, this time he was sentenced to have the roots of his ears removed, to be branded on both cheeks with the letters “S.L.” for “Seditious Libeller” and to be imprisoned for life.
When it came to the civil wars of the 1640s Puritan Ipswich, unsurprisingly, backed parliament in its fight against the Royalists. Indeed, according to Twinch “Historians agree that in no other shire was support for parliament more widespread than in Suffolk, and there were few towns in England where the corporation was more thoroughly sympathetic to parliament than in Ipswich.” This can be largely attributed to its reforming, puritan fervour. Fortunately for the townspeople, military action didn’t come to Ipswich. However, it is a sign of how trusted the community was in its support of parliament’s cause that England’s eastern supply of gun powder, and much of its shot, was moved from Cambridge to Ipswich during the conflict as a measure to increase its security.
Although the Puritan base of support for parliament was strong in Ipswich, it would be unfair to say that all, even of a Puritan bent, supported everything that parliament did. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the decision to execute Charles I in 1649 after his defeat by the parliamentary forces. It is hard for us to grasp just how extraordinary this event must have been for people living in England at the time – most people saw the king as ordained to rule by God; for this man to be executed by his subjects was unprecedented and for many incredibly unsettling. A much quoted phrase of the time, all these centuries later, still sums it up best “the world turned upside down”.
In Ipswich, Nathaniel Bacon, the well-respected town Recorder, laid down his pen in sadness upon hearing the news of Charles I’s execution. Bacon concluded his records by stating ‘I have summed up the affairs of the government of this town of Ippeswiche under the bayliffes and whoe are happie in this, that God hathe established their seate more sure than the throne of kings.’
Soon Ipswich’s Puritan rulers found themselves freed to put their tenets into full practice. On the Sabbath day there was to be “no sporting or playing, […] no unnecessary rowing in boats, no bathing or washing in the river, no leaping nor running not sporting with horses” according to Redstone. Despite lists like this giving the Puritans a reputation as killjoys, they also did plenty of good especially in creating an environment in which learning flourished. Eager to spread the word of God to ordinary people, the Puritans opened public libraries and reorganised the Grammar School and Christ’s Hospital in Ipswich.
Those, like Nathaniel Bacon, who were sad to hear of the execution of Charles I, would not have to wait too long for the re-establishment of the monarchy. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. After a failed attempt by his son, Richard, to command the confidence of the army and continue the office of Lord Protector, internal divisions within the Republican Party led to his resignation. In 1660 Charles II was invited to return to Britain as king in what is now commonly known as the Restoration.
There were celebrations around the country, even in Puritan strong-holds like Ipswich. The most notable surviving relic of the monarchy’s restoration in Ipswich is to be found adorning the front of one of the town’s best known buildings, Ancient House. The Royal Arms of Charles II were placed there by the Sparrow family at the time of the Restoration. The Sparrows were long-time supporters of Charles II and even went on to claim they had hidden him in the house during the Civil War.
An interesting footnote
Samuel Ward’s brother, Nathaniel, travelled to New England to take up residency in Ipswich, Massachusetts. While there he wrote the first code of laws in North America called the Body of Liberties, which was adopted by the Massachusetts General Court in 1641. Some have argued that this work began the American tradition of codified liberties that would eventually lead to the United States Constitution.
Malster, Robert, A History of Ipswich, Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2000
Malster, Robert, Ipswich, an A to Z of Local History, Wharncliffe Books, 2005
Redstone, Lillian, Ipswich Through the Ages, East Anglian Magazine Ltd, 1948, republished 1969
Twinch, Carol, The History of Ipswich, The Breendon Books Publishing Company Limited, 2008
Image of Samuel Ward reproduced with kind permission of Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, Ipswich Borough Council collection