Ipswich Icons: Was Freston Tower a way to flaunt wealth to visiting monarch?

Freston Tower

Freston Tower - Credit: Archant

Dendrochronology is the scientific art of dating timber by comparing the patterns in the end grain of a sample from the building in question with the known growth of typical trees at the time, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.

Freston Tower

Freston Tower - Credit: Archant

Rather like bar codes, tree rings grow thick or thin, darker or wider spaced dependent on the rain and temperature during the spring and summer of the year in question. In a good year trees grow thick and fast, in a dry summer little moisture is conveyed and the ring is dark and tight.

Using dendrochronology historians can reasonably accurately date buildings, thus we can be reasonably sure that Freston Tower was built between 1578 and 1579. Freston Tower is a folly on the bank of the Orwell just downstream of the Orwell Bridge. What we cannot be so sure about is what purpose did it serve, who built it and why?

Thomas Gooding, an Ipswich merchant and mercer, who like the other 11 Portmen of the town was relatively rich (his wealth accumulated from the wool trade), owned Freston Hall, parts of which remain in the private house adjacent to the tower. Gooding had purchased the property in April 1553 when he was about 50 years old which together with the adjoining land had cost him a substantial £1,190. This was Gooding’s ‘country estate’; he also owned the Manor (parish) of Kesgrave, east of the town and an extensive portfolio of property in Ipswich.

Wool was the making of Ipswich, and its merchants. The Black Death some 200 years previously caused a substantial drop in the population, probably close to 50% of able-bodied adults died (substantially more children and elderly people). This led to a marked shift from arable farming, small collective field strips, to sheep that was less labour intensive.

Sheep thrived on the light thin soils of eastern England, particularly north Essex and south Suffolk; Breckland, the Stour valley and the Sandlings. Initially the fleece was exported, to Flanders and northern France, but as the wool trade developed it was woven into cloth in what have become known as the wool towns; Hadleigh, Lavenham, Long Melford and Nayland. Ipswich grew rich on both the export market and on the return of the merchant vessels carrying wine, wode (blue dye) and manufactured items, to be sold by the merchants of Ipswich to the growing population.

By 1450 Suffolk was responsible for some 15% of national wool production and Ipswich was growing rich on the trade. It was, at the time, one of the top ten towns in the country by size.

Most Read

The prosperity of Ipswich attracted the Queen (Elizabeth I) who announced she would visit the town in August 1579, and the only feasible means of arrival was by sailing up the Orwell. Did Gooding build the tower, an impressive landmark, to flaunt his wealth? Or was it simply a lookout from where he could see his, and his business rivals’, ships coming and going in the river, a Prospect Tower?

There is a fairytale explanation, which explains the six storeys and rooftop lookout. A place of education for Gooding’s daughter with a different subject delivered on each floor, one on each day of the week culminating with astrology from the rooftop, a nice idea but there is no evidence that Gooding had a daughter!

When Thomas Gooding died the hall and tower passed to his son Robert, and when he died to his son, who sold the hall but retained the tower for his own use. In 2001 the tower was gifted to the Landmark Trust and is now a holiday home available to rent. It is usually open to the public on Heritage Open Days (the second weekend in September).

See more here