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Ipswich Icons: Picturesque Butt and Oyster pub on banks of River Orwell at Pin Mill has 500 years of history

PUBLISHED: 10:00 24 January 2016

Harry King's boatyard

Harry King's boatyard

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The River Orwell between Ipswich and Harwich Haven was a significant ship building centre from Tudor times and for the next 250 years vessels were constructed from the timber which grew on the banks of the river, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Icons -A Thames barge outside The Butt & Oyster Icons -A Thames barge outside The Butt & Oyster

The county was frequently referred to as ‘Oaken Suffolk’ during the reign of Elizabeth the First. Ship yards were set up not only in Ipswich but also on the banks of the Orwell at John’s Ness, close to where the timber had been cut, where a slipway was possible and there was some deeper water reasonably close to the shore.

Vessels constructed of oak did not use iron nails, which would rust, instead they used oak pegs or pins cut from the smaller branches of the tree and turned on a lathe, mass produced in a mill, a Pin Mill? Alternative theories suggest that the local mill owner was called Pynne or that the name was derived from ‘pynd’ meaning pen (possibly a pen for fish, keeping them alive and therefore fresh in the shallows of the river).

It is almost certain that the oyster, as in the Butt and Oyster refers to, as you would expect, the molluscs farmed locally in the shallows of the river, although the nearest oyster beds we know of were at Bourne Bridge. The Butt could be derived from barrel, a wooden tub in which oysters were transported, but it much more likely refers to flounders, the local name for flat fish caught in the river close to the oyster beds.

The Butt and Oyster was first recorded as a public house in 1553 when licensing laws began, and the Port of Ipswich’s bailiffs and burgesses held Admiralty Courts in the premises between 1546 and 1552.

The Butt & Oyster The Butt & Oyster

The Butt & Oyster has been reliant on the river for its customers throughout the majority of those years. Today Ipswich residents can drive the half dozen miles and enjoy a meal in the Butt and Oyster but the pub has been successfully attracting customers from afar for half a millennium, sailors, working bargemen and able-bodied seamen.

The River Orwell has almost always been commercially successful. Before being dredged in the early 1800s the stretch from Butterman’s Bay to Common Quay was an unforgiving challenge of zig zags and narrow channels. The wide sheltered water off Pin Mill was a good place for sailors to stop and rest and for cargos to be transhipped from sea-going sailing vessels into smaller boats (lighters).

The latter could navigate the shallow and meandering river upstream of Pin Mill and sail into Ipswich. The constant changing of ships and crew out in the river ensured a stream of customers for the pub.

Commercially, Pin Mill has always seen some industry. Today it is boat building and hospitality for visitors but there have been maltings, brick making and a coal merchant. One key business activity was the transportation of septaria, a clayey limestone which was dredged from the bed of the river and crushed and burned to become Roman cement. Pin Mill was home to a fleet of smacks and bawleys (both boats, smaller than a barge) that dredged the seabed off Harwich and transported the stone to the Roman cement works in Ipswich. Some went to Erwarton or Waldringfield but the boats would return to Pin Mill overnight. By the First World War this source of septaria had almost been exhausted and these small boats were used for fishing.

Pin Mill by Mick Webb Pin Mill by Mick Webb

The one profitable commercial activity for which there are no financial records is smuggling. For as long as men have gone to seas in boats then they have gone out of their way to avoid the Customs men on return, and without being derogatory Pin Mill is no exception.

Pin Mill Common is a community facility in the village where commoners (villagers) can ‘lay’ their dinghies, ‘tan’ their sails (clutched with a mixture of red ochre, fish oil and horse urine (if available, otherwise seawater), and enjoy ‘all the fun of the fair’ during the Pin Mill Regatta (held annually since 1883).

Probably the most famous resident was Arthur Ransome, author of children’s adventure stories ‘We didn’t mean to go to sea’ and ‘Secret Water’, who spent some time at Alma Cottage just up the lane from the pub.

Pin Mill is one of East Anglia’s most picturesque villages, an ideal centre for sailing, walking by the river or simply enjoying refreshments in the 500-year-old Butt & Oyster.

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