A couple of years ago I spent my university summer holidays decorating my grandma’s house after my grandpa died. I had to spend a lot of time clearing rooms of furniture that had accumulated fifty years or so of peaceful marital debris, before I could begin painting and re-carpeting. Often, while I was moving cupboards and bookcases from room to room, I would find interesting forgotten items – National Geographic magazines from the mid-1950s, toys from my childhood and German silver tankards from the second half of the 19th century among other things. One bookcase I moved out of my Grandpa’s room was a particular gold-mine for this sort of thing and was full of interesting books and pamphlets. Because I’m such a weed I needed to take the books from the bookcase and move them a bundle at a time into another room before I could carry the bookcase itself. Mid-way through this process I came across two thin books that grabbed my attention – being as I am a remarkably dull person – called Ipswich Remembered in Victorian and Edwardian photographs and Ipswich Remembered 2 in a second series of early photographs. As I often did when I made these kinds of discoveries, I decided that what I deserved right about now was a break and a cup of tea, and I spent the next half an hour sat on a large bucket of emulsion interestedly flicking through the pages of these photo-books, only to discover on standing up that my shorts were dripping paint onto the floor.
All this is a long, roundabout way of saying it’s really quite odd to look at pictures of your hometown taken only a century or so ago. First you see images that look completely alien, then you slowly recognise the curves of streets and pick out church spires and shop fronts that look vaguely familiar, until you realise that this is the street that you bought a pair of trainers on not more than five days ago.
So much has changed – often for the worse. But the really sad thing is that when we look back at photos like these we think that we’re viewing a by-gone era of solid Victorian trustworthiness and a time before the desecration of towns by newer, uglier buildings that often result in an unattractive mix of architectural styles. In fact, a lot of damage had already been done to the historically attractive and interesting parts of Ipswich Town Centre by then; this was actually its heyday. The Victorians and Edwardians (at least in Ipswich), it turns out, were just as bad as us in modern Britain in this respect.
One of the major casualties of Victorian age Ipswich was the Georgian Rotunda first opened in 1794, a domed circular building that was situated on Cornhill. This was Ipswich’s first ‘supermarket’ and housed all manner of shops and stalls. This was pulled down in 1812 – to be fair to the developers the Historian Robert Malster writes that reports survive that tell of the poor ventilation within the Rotunda, but if only photographs had existed then what an interesting thing it would be to see now.
(An artist’s sketch of the Georgian Rotunda)
The Tudor Market Cross, which had been the centre of town life since 1510 when it was given to the town by a well-to-do merchant called Edmund Daundy, and had been ‘beautified’ at the restoration of Charles II, was also replaced with today’s Town Hall. In 1812 town planners made the decision to demolish the Cross ‘in furtherance of the improvements that were then taking place’. But there remains plenty of evidence that this was not done without much regret from local people. According to G.R. Clarke the cross was in ‘excellent preservation’ and was actually very difficult to pull down.
(The Tudor Market Cross before it was torn down)
Perhaps most ruthless was the tearing down of the ancient Chapel of St Mildred in the name of modernisation, which had been built by the Wuffinga kings in around 700. St Mildred’s had stood for well over a thousand years and is sometimes referred to in literature of preceding centuries as ‘one of the most beautiful buildings in Ipswich’.
This is not to say that the Victorians didn’t bring their share of improvements to the town. The old Post Office and Town Hall date back that far, even if they did replace some pre-existing places of interest, and the Victorian regeneration of the Wet Dock helped serve to save the town from almost complete financial decline and obscurity. In many respects Victorian town planners actually did a good job of developing the town, it’s just a shame that in the process they also destroyed large chunks of its character.
(Victorian Ipswich still didn’t look too shabby)
History repeats itself constantly in this regard; just like the Victorians were keen to pull down much of what made the Ipswich of the past what it was – such as its central meeting place – and replace it with something more modern, but almost definitely less special, we are willing to do the same now. Towns and cities have to change over time in order to stay relevant to the people who live in them, it’s natural and necessary. What we should learn from the past however is the price that is often paid in the name of modernisation. Sometimes the things that make a place special aren’t the most practical to maintain and it’s easier to tarmac over them and build a new supermarket, but we have an obligation to ourselves and future generations to weigh that up against what we can lose in the process.