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Ipswich: England’s oldest town was a wealthy centre of commerce in medieval times

11:59 25 March 2013



A Victorian view of Fore Street, Ipswich looking at the junction of Fore Hamlet (right) and Back Hamlet (left). The Duke Street roundabout is now where the Earl Grey public house (behind the wagon) was. Photographer William Vick was standing where the entrance to the site of The University Campus Suffolk is in Fore Street today.

EADT 24.11.08

EADT FROM THE ARCHIVE NOSTALGIA CONTRIBUTED PHOTO REF DAVE KINDRED A Victorian view of Fore Street, Ipswich looking at the junction of Fore Hamlet (right) and Back Hamlet (left). The Duke Street roundabout is now where the Earl Grey public house (behind the wagon) was. Photographer William Vick was standing where the entrance to the site of The University Campus Suffolk is in Fore Street today. EADT 24.11.08

AS you walk around the historic streets of Ipswich, you are walking in the footsteps of our English ancestors, the 50 generations or more of people who have inhabited the town since Anglo-Saxon times.


There is a continuity of history that makes Ipswich the oldest English town.

The footsteps include those of kings, queens, great merchants, artists, writers, adventurers, churchmen, philanthropists and the ordinary men and women who made their homes here.

It is not impossible that King Raedwald himself might have inspected the new port. King Edward III and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth; Henry VI; Henry VIII; Queen Katherine of Aragon, King Edward; Queen Mary I; Queen Elizabeth I; Charles II; Queen Elizabeth II are among the documented Royal visitors to the town. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was born in the town, Geoffrey Chaucer’s family owned a tavern there; Thomas Gainsborough resided there.

On the next page you can see the sites of its five priories, its existing 12 medieval churches and the remaining great houses as well as the locations of other merchants’ mansions which once existed.

There are also a number of historic landmarks marked and a time line that traces the history of Suffolk’s County Town.

On the page that follows, a map shows Ipswich’s Anglo-Saxon “horseshoe” of streets, marked with the main features and buildings of the town.

The town has been lived in for around a millennium and a half, and its fortunes have varied. It was once one of the most important and wealthiest towns in the realm. Abundant with churches and priories, Ipswich was once a place of pilgrimage and a centre of commerce. Merchants built mansions and, with a weather eye on their places in Heaven, endowed the town with almshouses, educational establishments and funded public works.

The Anglo-Saxon heart of the town, centred on Tavern Street, Buttermarket, Dogs Head Street and Falcon Street remains tacit in the street plan today although, of course, the buildings that stood in Gipeswic are long gone, replaced over the years by the business communities who dwelt here from medieval times to the present day.

The Ipswich Star has launched a campaign, to designate Ipswich “England’s Oldest Town”, attracting visitors to experience the atmosphere of its ancient pathways, the glory of its medieval churches, the pleasure of exploring its museums while also enjoying the vibrant waterfront with its restaurants and cafeteria, looking out over the river that Ipswich was founded on and traded on.

In medieval, Tudor and Stuart times, in fact, the townscape had so many churches, priories and grand mansions it left little space for markets, shops and ordinary dwelling houses.

Up river from the docks, to the west of Stoke Bridge, and to the south of the river, surrounding land was marshes and meadows. They belonged to the Corporation which, in 1587-8, gave the rents from the land towards the Armada campaign.

The town’s arteries have spread outwards until today they extend over the marshes, meadows, arable fields and pasture that enclosed its early boundaries.

And yet, despite the development that has taken place, Anglo Saxon Ipswich largely remains in its road patterns.

In 2013 the town still tantalises historians and archaeologists, who are determined to uncover more of its extraordinary past. Notably, Dr John Blatchly, former headmaster of Ipswich school, scholar and author has done much to restore Ipswich to its rightful place among England’s most important towns. The restoration of the St Lawrence bells and recognition of Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Ipswich-born Cardinal Sir Thomas Wolsey with a statue on Curson Plain, St Peter’s Street have done much to raise its profile.

Archaeologist and author Keith Wade, who has provided the Anglo Saxon map’s annotation, has been instrumental in surveying what lies beneath the surface of our town and preserving and recording its heritage.

With so many centuries of town life behind it, there is still much to discover.

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  • "the vibrant waterfront" - can we please stop with this? We are only encouraging the council to further neglect the other 99% of the town.

    Report this comment

    Winston Barrington Jr.

    Monday, March 25, 2013


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    Monday, March 25, 2013

  • where is my previous comment? you really are a fascist paper ... any criticism and you suppress it ... this will not get published as you cannot take criticism ...

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    Monday, March 25, 2013

  • Duke St roundabout? You need to update your photo archive, that's long gone. Have your journalists no knowledge of the roads in Ipswich?

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    On Two Wheels

    Monday, March 25, 2013

  • Your up against the stars lickspittle, blowing with the wind approach . .. like they rename St. Peters, 'St. Peters By The Water' no water in sight, no water for 150 yds ... a sad attempt to fall in with the populist rubbish the star excels in ...

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    Monday, March 25, 2013

  • Good point, Winston. I sometimes think there is too much emphasis placed on this part of Ipswich to the detriment of other neglected parts, notably in the east central area. I don't think of "The Waterfront" (how American that sounds to me) as vibrant. It was vibrant when it was a working port. I liked to hang about the docks in my teenage years watching the men unloading and loading the boats at the quays and the truck loads of goods being pulled along on the railway lines that went around the entire length of the docks and the island site too. It was a hive of industry then, apologies for the cliche. It is still an interesting part of Ipswich and one that I like to stroll along occasionally but it is not the same lively, work place that it used to be, despite the cafe culture and yacht owning community. The heartbeat of old is missing, the workers have gone. Still, times change and I cannot stay rooted in the past I suppose. Is anything ever going to be done about the neglected east side of the town centre? The empty cinema, the neglected and vandalised former County Hall, the burnt-out late-Victorian church and farther down "The Wash" (as Upper Orwell Street was known by older residents) the wanton demolition many years ago of some of the shops on the west side with nothing put in their place, not even the tidying up of the area. Sad to see it all.

    Report this comment

    Ken M

    Monday, March 25, 2013

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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