Meet the man who has documented the entire history of a Suffolk village
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Head out anywhere across the county, and you’ll no doubt make your way through dozens of tiny villages and hamlets - some with populations no bigger than a few hundred people, or less.
Have you ever stopped to wonder: who lives there? And how did it become the place it is today?
For one man, his quest for that very knowledge led him to uncover the entire history of his settlement – which resulted in him producing a 400-page compendium that has gone down a storm with locals.
Former history teacher David Dray spent five years researching the history of Whatfield, and has just released his findings in a book entitled ‘Whatfield: A Suffolk Village Across Time’.
David, who moved to Whatfield in 2014 with his wife Christina, felt inspired to document the village’s history after relocating there from London for early retirement.
“We’re originally from Bexley Health, and we both spent our lives working as teachers in a large secondary school,” explains David.
“I introduced local history studies there, and found it very interesting because I was born and raised in the area. I found it a privilege to teach local history because teaching it in turn taught me more about my own background and where I’d always lived.”
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As rewarding as David found teaching, it was no doubt taxing, and the thought of early retirement sounded tempting – so escaping to the country became top of the couple’s agenda.
“When I was 57 and my wife was 55, we decided to up and move so we could enjoy a different life after living in an urban area our whole lives. Even though we enjoyed our time there, I’d always hankered after a rural life somewhere.”
Unsure on where to settle, the two first tinkered with the idea of Somerset before realising it was too far from their nearest and dearest in south London and Essex.
“But then we started looking at Suffolk” he says.
The pair holidayed in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury – but it was a fateful internet listing that helped them settle on the tiny village of Whatfield, just a few miles north of Hadleigh.
“I was online one day and I saw an image of a house in Whatfield. It was surrounded by trees and fields, and looked very beautiful. So we booked to view the house, and when we arrived we were overwhelmed. It was so different to anywhere we’d ever lived before, and having all of that space and fresh air around us seemed fantastic.”
The two made an offer – and in November 2014, it was theirs. “We’ve enjoyed every minute we’ve been here ever since,” he adds.
During the house buying process, David and his wife met the home’s previous owners, Marion and Trevor, on a couple of occasions – and before they moved out, they left David a housewarming present.
“I explained to Marion that I was interested in history, especially local history. And when she moved out, she left me a book which had a note that simply said: ‘I think you’ll find this interesting’.”
And that book? ‘A Suffolk Childhood’ by Simon Dewes.
Simon Dewes was the pen name of teacher, novelist and biographer John Muriel, who lived in Hadleigh in the early 20th century.
“Simon’s book was filled with his memories of being a youngster in the county, and within in it is a small section on Whatfield. The way he described it, and the people and how they lived caught my imagination.
“And from that point on, something in my heart and head said I needed to look into Whatfield and write something about it.”
This, coupled with the fact there wasn’t an in-depth historical book on the settlement, inspired David to get to work.
“The only thing that came close was a book written about the village in the 18th century by Reverend John Clubbe – but it he wrote it as a satirical piece, filled with jokes. After I read it, I thought I could do better than that.”
Eager to get to work, David began speaking to his neighbours and went from there.
“People were kind enough to give me bits and pieces such as photos and documents they had, so I could scan them. Then someone told me about a body of work done by a wonderful lady, who, like me, was an outsider and came to live in the village many years ago.”
That woman was Joy Wellings, and she had taken it upon herself to become the first recorder of the village. She spent many years researching Whatfield, and compiling her findings into folders over the decades.
“Joy took it seriously, and she did it well. But I was told she left the village in 2008 and moved to Wales. So I asked if anyone else had taken over her role, and a woman by the name of Joy Green had. I went and spoke to Joy, and she was able to share with me her information. Both of their work gave me such a wonderful starting point, and I found it made my job so much easier.”
And after asking for permission to use their findings, David spent what would become the next five years working on his magnum opus.
“I scanned every single document and photo I could find of the village - I also asked other people if they had anything they could share with me.”
David estimates he made his way through around 7,000 to 8,000 sources in total, spanning across a variety of documents, photos and press cuttings.
As the history of the village over the years began to slowly piece together, bit by bit, it was Whatfield's never-ending sense of community that really stood out.
“One thing that struck me about Whatfield, like many other ancient East Anglian rural villages, is that the people who were brought up here were all part of this community, where everyone knew everyone.
“Whatfield wasn’t a rich village – it didn’t have the wool and cloth trade like many other Suffolk settlements. It was a farming village where crops were grown, and not much else,” he explains.
Whatfield was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Watefelda’, which translates to ‘where wheat is grown’.
And while its residents may not have been financially rich, they were rich in community spirit.
“The people of Whatfield were self-sufficient, and there’s a proud tradition of helping each other out. When I first moved here, one of the first things I did was try to interview every person I could find who had been born and lived their entire life here.
“They would tell me in great detail what life was like in Whatfield 60, 70 or 80 years ago, and it was marvellous to sit there and listen to these stories about village life. It’s an absolute privilege that people gave me their old photographs which showed their relatives working in the fields.
“During the harvest, the school would close early so the young lads could help their parents. I’ve got photos of the youngsters helping pick potatoes in their spare time in the 1960s to earn a bit of money. Old ladies would also help pick crops on the weekend to help supplement their income.
“In the book, there are also stories of people raising money in the local pub in the 1920s and 30s to club together money to help anyone who injured themselves and were unable to work. That sense of community is certainly one of the most wonderful things about Whatfield.”
However, as times went on and technology advanced over the years, this in turn saw drastic changes across the village.
"We once had two garages and two shops – they're now gone. We also had a pub, The Four Horseshoes, which was the community’s gathering point. That went in the 1990s, and is now a house. Instead, we now have a village hall, which was built by the determination of the villagers who raised the money for it in the 1970s.”
Keen to keep that sense of community going the village, which today has a population of around 400 people, hosts a makeshift bar in its village hall every Friday called The Fifth Horseshoe.
“We still have a beautiful 14th century church which hasn’t changed much, and is still treasured by the local community. But beyond that, I’d say most things are no longer here. Older residents will often say to me it’s changed so much, and there’s so much traffic on the ancient road that goes through here.
“One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to document its transition from a working farming village, to what it's since become which is a place where we live but seldom work in agriculture. Its landscape has certainly changed, but I feel lucky to live somewhere with such a wonderfully rich history.”
David’s book, which took him 18 months to write following years of research, has been well-received by the local residents since its release.
“I felt an enormous sense of relief when I finally published it, having spent years working on it. I wrote it as a thank you to the local community, for welcoming me to the village.
“The most satisfying thing is when people who’ve lived their whole lives here, and have been here for generations, come up and thank me for writing the book. I still live with the fear that I’ve left something out though!”
David’s book, ‘Whatfield: A Suffolk Village Across Time’, is available from Avis Newsagents on Hadleigh High Street, and at the Post Office in Elmsett.