From January to April this year the exhibition You Are Here: The Making of Ipswich took place at the Ipswich Art Gallery, which featured all kinds of objects brought out of the Ipswich Museums stores to tell stories about the people who have lived in the town over the centuries. One object in particular that caught my attention was a carved wooden figure that I had seen drawings of in history books but until recently had no idea was in the collections. The carving is known as the Bluecoat Boy and is an object that opens the door to telling the story of the way education has developed in Ipswich over the past few hundred years. I started doing some digging and this brief history of the Bluecoat Boy and the school it came to represent are the result.

Bluecoat Boy
The Bluecoat Boy carving on display during the Making of Ipswich exhibition

Bluecoat was a type of dress that came to be associated with a type of charity-based schools from the 1500s onwards, which were set up to educate poor children in towns and cities. Some of these schools survive still today with bluecoat uniforms that nod towards their past, although they have mostly turned into independent or private schools.

The bluecoat boy carving in Ipswich once adorned Christ’s Hospital, which was originally established by a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1572. It was then part of a complex of buildings aiming to serve the poor of the town housed within what was once part of Blackfriars Monastery along Foundation Street. The bluecoat boy figure represents the pupils from humble backgrounds that received an education at Christ’s Hospital in Ipswich for over three hundred years.

The name can be a little confusing – Christ’s Hospital was not particularly a religious institution (although it was based on the former site of a monastery) and wasn’t really a hospital either. In this case the word refers to a place that people could stay (think hospitality not medical centre). It was established to help the needy in the town, as a place of residence for the very young and the aged homeless, as well as acting as a school (of sorts) where boys would also earn their keep by spinning and carding (aspects of the cloth making industry that was a vital part of Ipswich’s economy in the 16th and 17th centuries). Christ’s Hospital’s function as a place of instruction for boys eventually came to be the institution’s leading preoccupation as it became primarily concerned with “maintaining, educating, bringing up, and apprenticing of poor boys” according to the local historian Robert Malster.

The remains of Blackfriars, where the complex that included the school within Christ’s Hospital was originally based

We don’t know the exact date that the bluecoat boy statue, which was to come to represent the pupils of the school, was carved but we do know (from sketches that have survived) that it originally stood at Christ’s Hospital in Foundation Street. It then went on to take pride of place in a specially created niche in the walls of the school when it took up new premises across the river, off Wherstead Road, in 1841. That such special provision for the carving was made in the new building suggests that it was already venerable at the time of the move and would seem to indicate that the statue probably dates from sometime in the 18th century.

Ipswich School

During the Victorian era, in the new school, the boys were instructed in “the three Rs”: reading, writing and arithmetic. However, those in charge still managed to find time to treat the children to a dose of manual labour by involving them in the cultivating of the extensive gardens attached to the school. Christ’s Hospital continued its work until 1883, when its endowments were merged with those of the more prestigious grammar school (now known as Ipswich School), which had recently moved to Henley Road in a new building that still stands to this day.

A stone set in the wall commemorating the school that once stood here

The original site of Christ’s Hospital on Foundation Street fell into ruin along with the rest of the former Blackfriars Monastery that it was based within and has since been built upon, although a fraction of the remains still exist. As for the new school south of the river that was closed in 1883, only one year later the building was demolished and replaced with a set of terrace houses and shops in 1884. Fortunately, the carving of the bluecoat boy was saved from the demolition and donated to Ipswich Museums so that a small piece of this long story of education in the town survives to help give us a glimpse into the past.

Terrace houses on Wherstead Road where Christ’s Hospital once stood


Hi everyone,

You may have noticed that this blog has been relatively quiet the past few months. The reason for the lack of posts is that I have been working hard in my free time to put together my first ever local history book about Ipswich.

The book is a series of ninety photographic comparisons that contrasts Victorian and Edwardian Ipswich with the modern town. If you are interested you can order it from the publishers directly from here:

I am happy to announce that Ipswich Through Time will be available from 15th February 2015. I am also having a book launch at the Ipswich branch of Waterstones on 7th March at 1pm – please come along if you can make it!

I hope to get back to writing some more ipswichhistory blog posts soon

Best wishes,


Ipswich TT event poster


While I was halfway through writing my last post I realised that what was called for in this situation was a bit of historical detective work. What if I went and got those Victorian photo-books, then found the places where the original photographs were taken and took a comparative modern-day photo? To cut a long story short, that’s what I did.

Because photography was still in its infancy in the second half of the 19th century, and it was still the preserve of the rich gentleman who fancied himself something of an artist, it is down only to a few men that any photographs of Ipswich of the period survive at all. So we should take a moment to thank in particular William Vick (1833-1911), Robert Burrows (1810-1883) and Richard Dykes Alexander (1788-1865), who together seem to have taken the majority of the surviving Victorian Photographs of the town. The remaining early photos examined here were taken in the first decade of the 20th century by someone commissioned to produce a series of views for publication in the increasingly popular form of picture post-cards. Unfortunately their name has not survived on record, but it is almost entirely thanks to their efforts that well shot Edwardian pictures of the town exist.

What follows is the result of my afternoon of looking silly, taking photos of ordinary streets and shops in the town centre.

Ancient House – The original photograph was taken in 1858. Ancient House itself was built during the 16th century.

The Buttermarket, further down the road from Ancient House. The exact date of the original photograph is not known, however it is likely to be around the turn of the century due to the lack of tram lines, which were introduced after 1900.

This photo was taken standing on Carr Street looking over to Tavern Street. The original was taken in the early 1900s. The Great White Horse, which featured in Charles Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers, stands to the right of the picture.

A little further back from the previous photo, still in Carr Street, taken in 1906. New shops replace the old timber-framed ones.

A well known shop-front in Victorian Ipswich – Arthur Cross the draper selling all the latest fashionable gear, next to The Great White Horse in Tavern Street. Today the building houses both a T Mobile and 3 store.

Majors Corner in 1908. The street has taken a slightly different form now but you can still see the Co-operative building in the background, which was built in 1884.

Martin and Newby, Established in 1873. It used to be one of the main hardware stores in Ipswich. Now some of the shop-front survives, but the store itself closed down in June 2004.

Looking down Tacket Street, taken from Upper Orwell Street in 1906. The Unicorn is still there in the background.

St Helen’s Street in 1907. Note the tram-lines that ran throughout the town. The numer 23 tram here, which went to Lattice Barn or Derby Road – coincidently my bus route home from town now.

St Nicholas Street 1885. If you look carefully you can see the top of the Town Hall in the background of both photos.

St Peters Street in 1906. Little has changed aside from the addition of some new shops and the removal of the tram-lines.

Stoke Bridge – original taken in the 1880s. An iron bridge replaces the old one and thanks to the renewed regeneration of the docks the scene has changed significantly. In the background of the modern-day photograph you can see the new university building and new apartments including The Mill development.

Upper Orwell Street around 1904. Largely unchanged, the houses and church on the right hand side of the picture remain largely the same today.

Here, I have included a map showing where in the town centre each of these photos were taken.

Anyway, I hope you found that at least vaguely interesting – I did.


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.

%d bloggers like this: