Ipswich Icons: Shops we’ve loved and lost through the years

H Wells Butcher, Fore Street

H Wells Butcher, Fore Street - Credit: Archant

There was a time when the retail businesses of Ipswich spread across the town centre and enjoyed custom and success aplenty, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.


Sneezum's - Credit: Archant

But at some stage in the illustrious history of the town retail retreated, shrank into one street, a so-called golden mile of retail outlets in Carr, Tacket and Westgate Streets.

Gone from the Butter Market are the department stores, no longer do we call into E Brand and Son in Tacket Street, or Maples in Princes Street. The vestiges of earlier trade have been replaced by specialists which are only occasionally visited by busy shoppers.

There is no single cause behind this demise but today we blame the internet, online shopping, the convenience of home delivery and out-of-town supermarkets, but there are other reasons. Take for example the provisions market, it operated very successfully from a purpose-built market place under what is now the Buttermarket Shopping Centre (and there’s a misnomer to prove my point, does anyone shop in the Buttermarket these days?).

The retail market came together with the amalgamation of specialist markets which were held in different streets in the town centre. The Shambles was where the Old Post Office now stands; poultry was sold in Tower Street and dairy products in the Butter Market. The fish market was also in the Butter Market but William Sparrowe of the Ancient House had it moved to Upper Brook Street.


Priceright - Credit: Archant

This new provisions market was opened in 1810 and enjoyed 70 years of success before being moved into the newly-built Corn Exchange, a building opened in 1882 with its major purpose limited to one day each week, corn was sold on Tuesdays leaving the other days for the general public and a provisions market.

Then disaster struck! The provisions market was moved to Greyfriars, the traders didn’t want to go and the public didn’t want to lose their market from the centre of town. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely the fault of the borough council. Greyfriars had been built as a shopping centre for a predicted increase in population of an additional 125,000 people, London overspill.

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New estates were planned to the south west of the existing centre and Greyfriars was ideally placed on the right side of town. A change of government policy meant the overspill went to Milton Keynes and Greyfriars stood unloved and empty, devoid of the very lifeblood that would have ensured success.

Elsewhere in the town it was the shifting population that moved customers away from what had been their local shops. In the 1930s the ‘Potteries’ (St Clement’s parish) were demolished and the people moved to the new Racecourse estate. Without customers, shops like Wells pork butchers in Fore Street couldn’t survive. Extensive queues on a Saturday for pork sausages and a joint of meat for Sunday roast dwindled to an odd customer or two and the shop closed.

The other major factor in the demise of Fore Street as a retail centre was the drift away from the Wet Dock as a commercial shipping centre. Cliff Quay had been opened before the war and ever larger ships could no longer enter the town through the lock gates. Quartermasters phoned their orders and the provisions were delivered by van directly onto the vessel.

Fore Street had been the centre for goods essential to keep barges and lighters shipshape, from sails and sheets to blocks and tools there was a specialist outlet in Fore Street.

Without these wooden sailing vessels and their constant need for replacement parts there was no need for the retailer. One by one they closed their doors for the last time and the shops went dark, H&R Sneezum, Sidney Wilson’s, Smyth Bros, and Martin & Newby all distant memories.

Similar tales can be told of Wherstead Road and St Peter’s Street, although the latter is making steady progress towards a comeback. St Helen’s Street suffered the same loss of population as Fore Street although the presence of County Hall kept some retailers busy until 2004.

So what’s next for the town centre? As part of the £21million Fit for the 21st Century revamp, Queen Street is about to be pedestrianised and will accommodate the market, moved from the Cornhill to the wider part of the street (outside Music World) which will allow the town centre square to be levelled. Did I mention that the traders don’t want to go and shoppers don’t want to lose their market from the centre of town?

For more information on The Ipswich Society, visit their website or email the secretary.