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Ipswich Icons: The history of the former Neptune Inn in Fore Street, Ipswich

PUBLISHED: 19:00 23 July 2017 | UPDATED: 08:15 24 July 2017

The frontage of the former Neptune Inn in Ipswich. Picture: ARCHANT

The frontage of the former Neptune Inn in Ipswich. Picture: ARCHANT


This is the story of the Neptune Inn in Fore Street, but before we learn of its history there are two diversionary tales, writes John Norman.

The Neptune Inn building in 1881. Picture: ARCHANT The Neptune Inn building in 1881. Picture: ARCHANT

The first is that of William Burrell, a Glasgow shipping merchant who, after 10 years learning the trade, took over the family business in 1885.

Shipping had been, and continued to be, a very successful business and William became very wealthy − so wealthy, he was able to engage in his passion for collecting art and historical objects.

The entire collection was presented to the City of Glasgow in 1944 and is displayed in a purpose-built house in Pollock Park.

The connection with the Neptune in Ipswich is that when John Cobbold purchased the property in 1845 (it had at the time recently become an inn) he renovated and “improved” it.

The courtyard at the Old Neptune Inn, Fore Street, Ipswich. Picture: DAVID KINDRED The courtyard at the Old Neptune Inn, Fore Street, Ipswich. Picture: DAVID KINDRED

As part of the renovation he sold various artefacts to Burrell’s agent (linenfold panelling, an internal canopy, and carved beams amongst others) − objects now in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

The second important connection is with George Bodley Scott, the managing director of Cowell’s the Printers of the Buttermarket in Ipswich, who purchased the Neptune in 1947.

At that time it consisted of two separate properties: Numbers 86 and 88 Fore Street (although they had interconnecting doors and had been used as one for some time).

Number 86, the Neptune Inn, was run down but basically sound, whereas number 88 was dilapidated, with holes in the roof and extensive wood rot. It had, of late, been the decorators’ shop of a builders’ merchant.

Founded in 1818 the Ipswich firm of WS Cowell (with printing presses in Market Lane, now under the Buttermarket Centre) grew into one of the leading British printers, known for its very-high-quality colour printing.

Cowell’s expanded into retail and opened a department store in the Butter Market; readers may recall their extensive toy department.

The Old Neptune, as can be imagined, proved to be a challenge for George Bodley Scott but he was driven by the desire to restore the building and commissioned The Royal Archaeological Institute to carry out a survey establishing the history of the building.

Their report gives us the basic facts. The building was originally a hall house: basically a single room open to the rafters and built in the fifteenth century (1490).

At the time, Fore Street was the foremost street in Ipswich, with wool merchants dealing with the exports from the wool towns of Hadleigh, Kersey and Lavenham, and each operating out of an extensive complex of buildings between the street and the quay. (Isaac Lord’s is the last surviving complete example of a merchant’s complex.)

The building was extensively extended, both upwards by the addition of a second storey and outwards with wings extending towards the river.

It is this extension that carries the date 1639 on the bressumer beam across the front of the building.

A glance at the front of the building highlights the original building to the right (west) and the new crossway which protrudes forward, jetted out over the street.

The reroofing carried out in Bodley Scott’s time somewhat masks the junction between the two.

Ipswich (oriel) windows were added to the first floor: bay windows that do not extend to the ground. They can also be seen on Isaac Lord’s (No. 80) and the former Wheatsheaf (No. 24 Fore Street), as well as the Ancient House.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the property when it was a trading establishment was an inlet from the river right into the heart of what is today the courtyard.

This consisted of a narrow channel just wide enough for the merchants’ vessels to unload and load directly from the adjacent warehouses, under the watchful eye of the merchant sitting upstairs in his office.

An interesting question: was this a natural inlet? Was it dug into the bank of the river or were the two jetties either side created as reclaimed land on which to build the warehouses? My guess is that it was a combination of the latter two; revetments were driven into the bank at right-angles to the shore line and the space between excavated to become the inlet.

The range of buildings to the east of the courtyard were originally open, colonnaded to provide shelter for goods on the quayside in similar style to the colonnades in front of The Mill.

Today, the old Neptune is a holiday let with 13 bedrooms and space at the dining table for 26 guests, ideally placed on the Ipswich Waterfront.

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