Ipswich Icons - Edwardian Nina Layard unearthed Anglo Saxon cemetery in Hadleigh Road

Foxglove Gardens

Foxglove Gardens - Credit: Archant

There is a dip in Foxhall Road, a depression that is in geographical terms the start of the Mill River, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.

Nina Layard

Nina Layard - Credit: Archant

No sign of water just here but the valley runs south and then east, across Bixley Road and then parallel with Bucklesham Road, where the first surface trickle is encountered. It continues onto Purdis where it forms ponds on Ipswich Golf Club’s course. On to Foxhall then Newbourne where it gets a name on the map, and finally to Kirton Creek, where it discharges into the Deben.

In a mere eight miles and a few feet of descent the trickle has become a small river with a wealth of wildlife but it is at the Ipswich end that our journey starts. Opposite Henslow Road today is a children’s pocket park, entered through marching band-shaped gates of fascinating interest.

Foxgrove Gardens is an estate of 288 flats and town houses, built in the late 2000s by house builder Barratt Eastern on the 14-acre site previously occupied by Bull Motors and Celestion Speakers. Prior to this it was a brickworks, and a considerable number of years before that the very earliest Europeans lived here. They were hunter gatherers, chasing animals, collecting berries and living an existence lifestyle. They lived here in the Palaeolithic period – about half a million years ago. How do we know this?

It is primarily due to the dedicated work carried out by an Edwardian lady, Miss Nina Layard. She was born in Stratford, Essex, in 1853, lived in a number of different places before she moved to Ipswich when she was 36. Nina had always had a fascination for the earth sciences and in 1898 she began studying Ipswich’s archaeology. She was given some flint tools found in Levington Road when the houses there were being built (1894-1901). These were Nina’s first positive indication of the Palaeolithic occupation hereabouts.

At the start of the 20th Century when Valley Brickworks was almost worked out, Nina was taken to the site to be shown what the foreman had identified as flint tools. Flints are a nuisance in the brick-making process and are thrown aside by the labourers digging the clay. As well as the samples she had been shown, she found other worked flints lying in the grass nearby.

She returned to this brickyard again and again where she uncovered more flint implements, mainly hand axes, carefully recording their location and the depth at which they were found. It became clear there had been some silting-up of the valley since these tools had been dropped and some were buried 10-12ft deep. In total there were some 250 finds, of which in excess of 50 were hand axes.

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The finds at Foxhall Road proved to be of national importance; they confirmed not only that there were humans in Ipswich in the Palaeolithic period but that they enjoyed life on the plateau above the Orwell valley. Nina also visited Trinity Brickworks in Cavendish Street and the Dales brickfield hoping to find similar objects but there were very few flints in these locations. Her most significant discoveries were in Hadleigh Road in 1905, the site of an Anglo Saxon cemetery (with 160 graves). She had excavated the Hadleigh Road site with the help of men engaged by Ipswich Borough Council on a ‘workfare scheme’ (opportunities for the unemployed) just ahead of work beginning on a road widening scheme.

Ipswich should have been recorded as a site of national importance but the First World War denied Nina the recognition she deserved and later she was upstaged by discoveries at Pakefield, Suffolk and Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast (indicating humans have lived in East Anglia for almost one million years).

In 1914 Valley brickworks was sold, and in 1922 Bull Motors moved to the site. By 1968 factory space had become available and this was occupied by Celestion Speakers. The Celestion factory closed in the 1990s and Bull Motors moved to Birmingham in 2000 thus the site again became available for human occupation.