Grim history of town landmark

PRISON, executions and world famous court cases, all part of the history of St Helen's Street, Ipswich, when the County Hall with the town jail and courts was still part of everyday life.

David Kindred

PRISON, executions and world famous court cases, all part of the history of St Helen's Street, Ipswich, when the County Hall with the town jail and courts was still part of everyday life.

Rod Cross grew up in Clifford Road, Ipswich, and his main route to and from the town centre was via St Helen's Street.

I started Rod's nostalgic look at the street last week. This week Rod takes a look at the section of the street closer to the town centre.

Rod said: “From its junction with Argyle Street and Grimwade Street to Major's Corner, St Helen's Street was dominated by the County Hall. Originally built as the county jail in the 1780s, it was never intended to be a thing of beauty.

At one time it contained a treadmill, as a means of punishing rather than providing exercise for the prisoners and when needed, a set of gallows was erected behind its castellated walls.

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As recently as 1926, well within my parents' lifetime, men were being hung within its walls for committing murder and one could still detect a slightly dark and foreboding atmosphere around the place.

“Like most children, I found it impossible to resist running up the steps on one side of the main entrance and back down the other, though I never actually ventured inside the building itself.

“The same cannot be said of two of my ancestors, very distant I might add, who made involuntary appearances before the magistrate back in the days when it was the County Court.

“One appeared in 1860 on a charge of 'deserting his family' and received 21 days 'with hard labour'. Another was charged in 1882 with being drunk and disorderly and was given the option of a week's imprisonment or a fine of six shillings, with costs of 20 shillings.

“History doesn't relate which option he chose, but I trust it was the latter!

“Overlooking County Hall was the County Hotel. Accommodation here would have been in great demand during local murder trials and also of course, during the famous divorce proceedings of Mrs Wallis Simpson, then a Felixstowe resident, and later the wife of King Edward VIII following his abdication. Between Grimwade Street and County Hall was another row of shops, including a greengrocer's and florists, which had flowers in buckets standing outside on a low green wooden shelf; and a furniture shop displaying highly-polished antique tables and ornately upholstered chairs. There was also St Helen's post office, which become another victim of the rush to kill off local post offices.

“Opposite was a very large house, possibly a doctor's, which stood in its own grounds well back from the road and the May Bush public house. The latter closed in the mid 1960s and was taken over as a social club by the Royal Air force Association.”

“I would occasionally make a short detour down Bond Street to peer at the fire station and the engines and then would return past the now gone Mitre Tavern on the corner. Just past the Mitre, was a little confectioner's, which sold sweets at 4�d a quarter, rather than the 6d a quarter elsewhere. They also did a nice line in pink or white sugar mice at 1d each. Next door was a little caf� and, before Upper Orwell Street was reached, yet more shops. Of these, the one that has stayed in my memory is the milliner's run by Miss Pansy Norton. Dating from an era when ladies wore hats as a matter of course, this little shop stood there as long as I can remember. I cannot imagine a shop devoted exclusively to ladies' hats would survive long today in Ipswich. Botwood's garage stood opposite. It specialised in Austin cars. When nobody was looking, I'd occasionally sneak into the showroom and escape with one or two glossy brochures, featuring models such as the Westminster or Princess. It was something to aspire to!

“The most prominent building on Major's Corner was the Gaumont. Can there be a single Ipswich resident who, at some time in their lives, has not been here to see a film, a show, a live performance? My first experience of the Gaumont was in 1957 and I remember to this day sinking back in my plush red seat with a cone of popcorn as Debbie Reynolds sang the title song to the film 'Tammy'. A magical moment, though not a film I'd probably choose to see again! The Gaumont has since reverted to its original name The Regent, just one of the countless changes seen up and down St Helen's Street during the last 50 years.

“At one time, I can recall counting five traditional English butcher's shop. Now there is not one left. Tobacconists, wool shops and hardware shops have all bitten the dust and long-established names like Akester's laundry and Newstead's bakery have been replaced by businesses such as Indian takeaways and world food stores.

“Opposite the Gaumont is a sandwich bar. It was empty and in poor condition some years ago, but was refurbished and the original beams exposed. The date, 1636, had been carved on one of the upper beams and as the numerals would appear to be original. A little bay protrudes from the first floor and above that is a tiny dormer window. We may be able to describe the changes to St Helen's Street during the last 50, 100 or even 150 years with some degree of accuracy, but anyone looking through that window 373 years ago would have encountered a very different scene. What they might see in 373 years time?”

- What memories do you have of St Helen's Street, Ipswich, including the shops, public houses or even the town jail? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN. Or e-mail