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Maritime Suffolk: How has the sea shaped our lives over 1,500 years?

PUBLISHED: 12:00 31 January 2018

The East Indiaman Orwell under construction at Ipswich, 1817. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

The East Indiaman Orwell under construction at Ipswich, 1817. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

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Adventurers and pirates, traders and tragedies, dreams and danger… All in Bob Malster’s book from Poppyland Publishing

Beachmen in their shed at Lowestoft in about 1900. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING Beachmen in their shed at Lowestoft in about 1900. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

Imagine leaving your home in East Anglia nearly 400 years ago and crossing the Atlantic (in a creaking wooden ship) to begin a new life in a strange land. Or saying goodbye to depression-hit Suffolk a couple of centuries ago to make a similar journey, sustained only by your dream of a brighter future.

Migration’s a hot topic these days, and it’s easy to forget that – in the past – it was our ancestors often gambling with their lives in the hope of something better.

Maritime Suffolk, the latest book from local writer Robert Malster, puts it in sharp focus. Eleven ships carried almost 700 passengers from Ipswich in 1630 in what became known as the Winthrop fleet, for example. The leader of the party was John Winthrop, of Groton, between Sudbury and Hadleigh. He became the first governor of Massachusetts.

“Of those passengers, no fewer than 324 were from south Suffolk and north Essex, a great many of them linked by family ties,” writes Bob. “One of the settlements founded by the Winthrops and those who went with them was given the name 
of Ipswich ‘in acknowledgement of the great honour and 
kindness done to our people who took shipping there’.”

In the 1830s, it was serious agricultural depression that prompted people to leave. Ipswich became a port of embarkation for men and women seeking a better life in the New World.

In 1836 the churchwardens and overseers of Redgrave borrowed £250 to help dispatch several poor locals willing to start anew in Canada. There was even a newspaper ad from Blything

Looking towards the sea, along the line of quays of the Port of Felixstowe. Picture: Mike Page Looking towards the sea, along the line of quays of the Port of Felixstowe. Picture: Mike Page

 Do you remember when colour TV arrived?

Union, wanting to charter ships to send migrants to Quebec or Montreal from Southwold and Lowestoft. It was one way of giving paupers hope and a chance… and perhaps stopping them being a drain back here.

That April and May, 13 ships from Great Yarmouth alone left for Canada, taking 3,057 emigrants. One was the Morning Star, carrying 212 agricultural labourers from Suffolk. What must have been going through their minds as their homeland slipped from view?

The barquentine Thomas on the slip at Lowestoft. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING The barquentine Thomas on the slip at Lowestoft. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

Whatever happens with Brexit,you can’t imagine it quenching the entrepreneurial fire of Suffolk’s future go-getters and grafters. Certainly if the past is any guide. For a leaf through the pages of history produces a cast to put the contestants of The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den in the shade. Folk such as Tudor merchant Henry Tooley, who in the judgment of Bob was “perhaps the most successful and certainly the richest of them all”.

He adds: “East Anglia was not then a region on the way to nowhere, as so many people choose to regard it today, but the most heavily populated area of England and a vibrant region that was in touch by sea with Europe, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and many other parts of the world.”

Tooley traded widely from Ipswich, exporting cloth woven in places such as East Bergholt, Lavenham and Sudbury – “the southern part of Suffolk was in his time the most populous and prosperous area of the kingdom, thanks to the woollen trade”.

Want something more modern?

There’s the Port of Felixstowe, which has grown from a tiny dock dug by hand into Britain’s busiest container port. Now, says Bob, the port’s quays stretch for more than two miles, the water depth of 16 metres allows the biggest container ships to berth (some 400m long), and about 3,000 ships call a year.

His numerous chapters cover aspects such as salvagers and lifesavers, shipwrights and shipyards, and tell the stories of adventurers such as Thomas Cavendish, from Trimley St Martin, near Felixstowe, who was only the second Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

Robert Malster's latest book Robert Malster's latest book

Every page has something to intrigue. Such as:

 In the early 1500s, Suffolk ships were familiar sights loading coal in the Tyne – vessels from places such as Aldeburgh, Iken, Sizewell, Southwold, Walberswick and Woodbridge. Ships from Dunwich alone made 198 visits between 1508 and 1511.

 The herring industry boomed. “Lowestoft was not the only place to take part in the herring fishery, of course. The large village of Kessingland, just five miles to the south, was in the early years of the twentieth century reputed to be the most prosperous village in Suffolk as a result of its involvement…”

Maritime Suffolk: A history of 1,500 years of seafaring is from Poppyland Publishing at £19.95

Bob’s personal story began when he was a junior reporter at Lowestoft and went out to sea with the last of the herring drifters. He’s since written countless books, including Wreck and Rescue on the Essex Coast and Saved from the Sea. His latest title is the final jigsaw-piece in a trilogy on the maritime history of East Anglia, complementing two books on Norfolk. It’s all the fruit of research that started six decades ago. Here are some intriguing facts:

Inside the Crittens’ boatbuilding shop on Southwold beach, circa 1900. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING Inside the Crittens’ boatbuilding shop on Southwold beach, circa 1900. Picture: VIA POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

 When places such as Ipswich were ordered by Edward I in 1294 to build vessels to defend or further the nation’s interests, it appears it was able to take in its stride the construction of a galley and smaller barge. Accounts talk of more than 1,000 planks and 13,000 nails being used.

 When the enclosed dock was made at Ipswich in the mid-1800s it was far bigger than those found at the time anywhere between the Thames and Humber, giving the town an international trade it had lacked and boosting local industries.

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