Ipswich Icons: Town Hall, Post Office and Grimwades are all fine examples of Victorian architecture

Former Grimwades in Westgate Street

Former Grimwades in Westgate Street - Credit: Archant

The Victorian era, (1837-1901) was one of great change and expansion for Ipswich, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

The town had suffered depression in the 18th Century as the river silted up and trade declined. However, during the Napoleonic wars, barracks and tented encampments for thousands of soldiers and cavalrymen sprang up around Ipswich, providing an outlet for its grain, to feed men and horses.

The river was dredged and deepened and trade, particularly with London, began to flourish. It was during the 1840s that two major improvements occurred; the Wet Dock, providing a deep water port for the transhipment of goods opened (1842) and the railway linking Ipswich and London (1846) arrived at Croft Street station.

Manufacturing industries expanded, and Ipswich saw an amazing upturn in its fortunes; during Victoria’s reign the population increased from 24,000 to 66,000. The businessmen of the day built large and comfortable houses for themselves, many of which can still be seen today, notably in Museum Street and Fonnereau Road.

Victorian times were ones of enterprise and optimism, although the living conditions for the working man were grim. Many lived in hovels, nothing more than hastily constructed sheds in the back yards of terraced property, houses which were themselves pretty simple and devoid of basic necessities such as running water and toilets. Most of these slums were pulled down before the Second World War and those remaining went in the 1950s. Peel Street (the site of Crown House) and The Potteries (the site of Civic College) being typical examples.

At the other end of the scale Ipswich constructed some magnificent examples of fine Victorian architecture, some of which have unfortunately lost their way and await a new lease of life. Typical are those surrounding the Cornhill which are no longer used for their original purpose, (The Town Hall, the Post Office and Grimwade’s being outstanding examples) but these buildings are an important statement of our heritage, they are worthy of preservation and a useful future.

Both the Town Hall and the Post Office stand high on a pedestal to show their relative importance, not only to the passing public but also to deliberately dominate the space they overlook. The Town Hall was built in 1868 following an architectural competition but since the borough council moved to Civic Centre (itself since demolished) the Town Hall has been under-utilised. Councillors strive to find a useful purpose for the building and despite a couple of current occupiers it lacks visitors and turnover; on market days it is cut off from the passing public by the market stalls.

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The Corn Exchange (1880) occupies the same plot as the Town Hall and although it is not on the Cornhill this multi-use building is an important facility within the town centre. Like the others it is under-utilised although the presence of Little Waitrose on the ground floor means that there is an income stream supporting its continued existence. The Corn Exchange is an entertainment centre with the Grand Hall on the first floor and the Film Theatre in the basement but neither can attract average members of the public away from their televisions more than a couple of times a year.

Grimwades, or J H Grimwade & Sons, was built on Bell Corner, the junction of Westgate Street and the Cornhill, site of the Bell Public House which was demolished in 1893. The family firm was founded in 1844 by Richard Grimwade, a tailor and woollen draper in a shop in Westgate Street. When the site on Bell Corner became available John Henry Grimwade, who by now had been running the business for 30 years, built a new shop, and this was extended further down the Cornhill in 1904.

The extension is such a good match of the original it is difficult to see where the two join. Grimwade’s ceased trading in 1994 and a number of other retailers have come and gone since. A long- term use for the building has proved difficult given the different floor levels, even across the ground floor and the vast array of columns where internal walls have been removed are an obstruction to modern trading.

Lloyds Bank was originally constructed in 1890 as Cobbold’s Bank (Bacon, Bacon Cobbold and Co.), later to merge with Lloyds Bank and trade under the latter’s name. The arch was cut through in 1929 to allow buses to escape from the Cornhill without the hassle and busy traffic of Westgate Street or Tavern Street. They were en-route to the new estates along Nacton Road (the Racecourse and Gainsborough) and at the top of Norwich Road (Whitton and Whitehouse), homes that replaced the town centre terraced houses demolished in the early 1930s.

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