Ipswich Icons - Symbols of the ages look down from the Town Hall

The figures carved into the pillars of the Town Hall, Ipswich

The figures carved into the pillars of the Town Hall, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

If we were to build a new Town Hall today whose head would be carved in stone and erected upon the portico? asks John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

The town hall clock, Ipswich

The town hall clock, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

Who commands sufficient notoriety to be remembered and celebrated for the next 150 years? Is there anybody who has made a greater contribution to the history of Ipswich than the three guys whose heads adorn the front of the Town Hall?

Who are these noble men gracing the most precious of Ipswich’s buildings? They are Thomas, Richard and John or to give them their full names Thomas Wolsey, King Richard and King John

The bust on the left is Richard I, the King whom the Burgesses of Ipswich had lobbied for a Charter, unfortunately he died before he had the opportunity to sign the document so the task fell to his successor King John.

King John (1199-1216) reputedly signed Ipswich’s Charter while in France during the first year of his reign but the document was formally pronounced and celebrated in St Mary le Tower churchyard on June 29, 1200. The bust on the right is King John, resplendent with beard. The basics of the Charter were the right to self- governance, to raise taxes and to hold markets, broadly speaking the beginnings of local democracy.

Few would argue that Thomas Wolsey deserves a place, and given his contributions to the town he occupies centre stage. Arguably Ipswich’s most famous son, Wolsey was born in St Nicholas parish, the son of a butcher, and rose to become the second most powerful man in England. As Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII he had control of the purse strings, the ear of the Court and as Archbishop of York command of the Church.

In addition to the three heads there are four full-size figures; actually they are some 10% larger than life to compensate for their distance from the ground. Classical buildings in the Victorian era were frequently adorned with female figures representing the economies of the town, those creators of wealth that made Ipswich different from say Norwich.

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Bellamy and Hardy, the architects of the Town Hall, commissioned Barnabas Barrett to carve these figures: representations of commerce, agriculture, law and learning. Each of these figures has an identifying feature, cornucopia (horn of plenty) for commerce, a blindfold and a sword for justice (the scales are missing from her left hand), a scroll and book for learning, and a scythe and flowers for agriculture.

It is interesting that manufacturing, particularly engineering, does not get a mention given its prominence and domination throughout the previous 50 years, although this omission is corrected on the Post Office (Johnson: 1881). The figures here represent industry, electricity, steam and commerce and the crowning glory, the Royal Coat of Arms with the figures of genius and science, all very fitting for the main Post Office in the commercial and industrial centre of the county.

The Royal Coat of Arms was used extensively by the Royal Mail for obvious reasons, the figures of genius and science are said to represent Sir Roland Hill who developed the Penny Post, and Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone, who developed the forerunner of the teleprinter, which in turn became the precursor of modern printed communication.

The four seated female figures are said to underline the use of modern (in 1881) technology to ensure that the commerce and industry of Ipswich could communicate with the rest of the world. The statute representing commerce holds a wreath and a caduceus, (a short staff entwined with two serpents), industry is a beehive, electricity is broken and steam has her hand on a small boiler.

These symbols of the age must have been magnificent when first unveiled, standing tall and proud above the Cornhill, and how relevant, not only to the economics of the town in Victoria’s reign but also relevant today, if only they were clear and bright.

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