It would be nice to start at the beginning. That’s usually a good place to start, but, predictably enough, it’s not that simple. Historians, if they’re honest with themselves, can do little more than venture educated guesses as to when the site that has now come to be known as Ipswich first came to be permanently settled. Peter Bishop in The History of Ipswich – 1500 years of triumph and disaster suggests that it was sometime around 550AD after Wuffa and his fellow marauding Swedes landed on the Saxon shore, whereas Carol Twinch in her equally originally named The History of Ipswich thinks it likely that Ipswich has maintained constant habitation from at least 450AD.
What is certain is that it was a long time ago. We can at the least say that the Ipswich area has been constantly populated with various peoples for at least around 1500 years and by more than 50 generations. 50 generations might not sound like a lot when casually inserted into a text like this, so let us just put that into a more meaningful context. A useful tool for this is the genealogies of the Old Testament. If you take a generation to mean around 30 or 40 years then since the time of Adam and Eve and their largely denounced fruit of knowledge nibbling (which was obviously a very long time ago), we’ve moved on to the tune of around 150-200 generations – I don’t know about you but I was expecting that figure to be higher. Anyway, of that amount 50 is evidently a sizeably proportion and it might get you scratching your beards to consider the fact that Ipswich (or Gipeswic as it was then known), had been well established for well over a thousand years before even the first glimpse of the continent which was to become known as America was reported back to the western world.
Where the name Gipeswic came from is yet another matter for conjecture. Depending on which local historians you care to listen to you will hear that the name certainly came from the town’s eponymous founder Gippa, or that he did not exist at all, and that in fact the town was named for the shape of the river Gipping. The argument for this is that the old English word ‘gipa’, meaning an opening or corner, fits the description of the river as it flows through the area where archaeologists believe the town was initially founded. The other story, as mentioned, is that our old friend Gippa turned up at the river fresh from his travels and decided this looked like a good place to set up a market sometime around 550AD. In Gippa’s time it was common for people to be named for a prominent characteristic they possessed, and as ‘Gipian’ is the old English verb to yawn, some people have made the leap to suggest that Gippa was excessively prone to yawning and that therefore a rough translation of Gipeswic into modern English is ‘Yawnsville’ – this alone gets this explanation my backing, but in fairness it is important to point out that there isn’t really any evidence or reason to trust this suggestion other than its romance.
How Gipeswic or Gippeswyk (again depending on your historian of choice), became Ipswich is much easier to explain convincingly. The ‘G’ before ‘i’ in ‘Gipe’ is silent, making the ‘i’ short, so this would have meant that gippa would have been likely to have been pronounced as Yippa. Over the next thousand years or so spelling eventually followed speech and with the occasional excursion into variants in between, such as ‘Gypewic’ and ‘Ipswiche’ (in medieval times the rule seems to have been: if you’re not sure just stick on an ‘e’ for good measure), we have eventually landed on Ipswich, which now, thanks to the widespread use of the written word should mean we won’t have to update our address books again anytime soon.
Well there you have it, there’s a taste of the history of this little, forgotten town in the heart of the 8th largest county in England. Now we know roughly how old it is and possibly where its name originated from. I hope you’ve found this first blog post as informative and interesting to read as I have found it to write.