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.

The Orwell, from Wherstead Road
Victorian photograph of the River Orwell

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.

Cat House

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.

Plan showing proposed changes to the River Orwell

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 its 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

Shipping on the Orwell, near Ipswich by John Constable
Shipping on the Orwell, near Ipswich by John Constable

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’.

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