It’s been a long time since I wrote my last post and it took me a while to get back into the swing of things, particularly when coming to chose a subject to write about. whilst casting about for a topic it struck me driving past a road sign welcoming me to ‘Ipswich the County Town of Suffolk’, that I had no idea why Ipswich, of all Suffolk Towns, had become the County’s top dog.
There have been well established settlements in Suffolk for longer than nearly anywhere else in the country and yet it remains almost stubbornly non-metropolitan. While Suffolk has largely clung to its rural roots, there have been small pockets of urbanisation that have vied for supremacy within the county for centuries. Why it is that Ipswich emerged and remained the most dominant of these and became the County Town is the subject of what follows.
The location of Ipswich has thrown up several road blocks for the town over the centuries and could well have seen Ipswich’s importance diminish quite considerably if history had taken any of several slight deviations. This was particularly true when it came to Ipswich’s role in the Shire Moots/County Courts since the earliest developments of the country’s parliament. This was important because considerable power followed the judges who sat in them.
During the 13th and 14th centuries Ipswich played host to the early Shire Moots where the Kings judges, that did not then sit in one place but perpetually moved around to various sites, pronounced their verdicts. They did this in shirehouses, although the knowledge of the exact placement of Ipswich’s original shirehouse has been long since lost. For some reason the inhabitant
s of Ipswich allowed their shirehouse to rot away and thus when combined with Ipswich’s awkward location, the king’s judges decided to make Bury St. Edmunds their new stop off point for the courtly affairs of Suffolk upon their circuit between Cambridge and Thetford.
Things remained this way until 1698 when Ipswich, led by Sir Samuel Barnardiston its Member of Parliament, secured a grant of £300 from the county towards building a new and up-to-date Sessions House. In fact, even this could not persuade the judges to cover the longer distance to Ipswich and it was only the fear of smallpox in Bury in 1740 that drove them to the new hall at Ipswich and led to it becoming customary to divide the assizes between the two towns.
Ipswich’s location in the far south-eastern corner of Suffolk has been a drawback in the past, not just in attracting judges to the town but also, perhaps more importantly, in attracting trade. What overcame this problem for Ipswich was the navigability of the river Gipping into the heart of the county. From the middle ages onwards the waterway had been used to transport heavy materials and goods such as wine, salt and stone from the coast further inland, but only after the Navigation Act of 1793 was it opened up to large scale traffic through the spread of canal networks, allowing barges to deliver coal throughout the county as far as Stowmarket. The river routes from Ipswich into the county made it all the more centrally important to the county because there was a lack of good roads in the surrounding area until relatively recent times. This reliance on water transport made Ipswich, near the coast and on the river, an obvious centre of business and communication.
The introduction of railways to Suffolk only served to strengthen the position Ipswich had as a centre for commerce in the county, drawing in more businessmen, labourers and customers from the surrounding smaller settlements. Ipswich market grew as a result and ever since all the villages of south-eastern Suffolk have made Ipswich their centre for shopping, amusement and business.
Ipswich had become a centre for entertainment in the county by the Tudor period, by this time the docks had established Ipswich as a reasonably prosperous place, this was reflected in the high concentration of knights, gentry and wealthy merchants who lived in the town, who in turn made it possible for the development of theatre and dramatic performances that mainly took place in the Moot Hall. At the same time, what we might now consider, less high brow entertainment was becoming available in Ipswich; bear baiting became a regular feature on the Cornhill and players of the cornet and lute walked the streets in the hope of adding to their yearly wage.
After the years of Puritan control, when entertainment across the country was for the most part eliminated, (In 1637 the Ipswich bailiffs actually paid the king’s servants not to play in the town) Ipswich once again became a hub for amusement. New theatres including one on Tacket Street were built and horse racing came to Ipswich by the mid 1700s taking place on the nearby heath.
Other sports popular at the time that attracted large audiences to the town included cock fighting, most notably at the aptly named Cock and Pye Inn, which still remains so named today. Ipswich was fortunate to be well endowed with many good Inns and Hotels and remained well visited for entertainment and holidaying well into Victorian times, the author Charles Dickens often staying in the regionally famous White Horse Hotel and writing it into his first novel The Pickwick Papers. All of these attractions helped make Ipswich an obvious place to develop county infrastructure.
Another factor that has made Ipswich central in importance in Suffolk has been its role in caring for the sick of the county. During the 19th century when inoculations against illness became widespread, Ipswich became a hub for such treatment for East Suffolk, so much so that in the early days of small pox inoculation doctors refused to inoculate patients from outlying villages because the large numbers of people crowding into the town threatened an epidemic.
The East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital was opened in 1836 for about 50 in-patients and has continued to expand ever since, spreading to different sites around the town, cementing the role of Ipswich as the principal care provider for a large area of Suffolk.
Ipswich has managed to develop and maintain features that have made it vital to a largely rural backwater county like Suffolk. It has provided a source for entertainment, important trade links from the coast into the heart of the county and secured a prominent role in courtly and administrative affairs over the previous centuries. It has also become a regional base for essential services such as the police and healthcare system in the local area. Through all this it has also dealt with competition from towns such as Bury St. Edmunds and Stowmarket as a provider of goods, resources and other attractions of power to become regarded as of central importance to the region and become the county town of Suffolk.