Ipswich: Revealed 50 years on – Laughable claims for the despised Greyfriars

St Peters Church with the then new Greyfriars development in the background. The road layout round S

St Peters Church with the then new Greyfriars development in the background. The road layout round St Peter’s has changed a great deal since Bob took this photograph from the silo. Barclay’s bank on the corner of Greyfriars Road and the Hand in Hand public house in St Peter’s Street were where now thousands of cars pass through every day. The industrial buildings behind the church tower are where the Novotel hotel stands now. - Credit: Archant

For anyone who was around Ipswich in the 60s and 70s, Greyfriars summed up everything that was wrong with modern architecture.

Conceived as a new town centre aimed at encouraging car-based shoppers, the development, consisting of shops, housing and a car park, was despised by local people even before it opened – and never attracted the business that was needed to make it a success.

A Pricerite supermarket took one of the largest units – but survived only a few years. The market moved to Greyfriars to allow the redevelopment of the Corn Exchange, but the move did not work and it then started its journey to several different sites around the town.

Within a few years much of Greyfriars was empty. Only 15 years after it was completed, a lot of the centre had been demolished.

But when the proposals for the building were first unveiled in 1963, they were presented in the most glowing terms.

A copy of the brochure was given to the Ipswich Society – and with 20/20 hindsight looks almost laughable in its language.

With Ipswich now trying to exploit its heritage as the oldest English town, a caption which says: “The Ipswich of a bygone age will give way to a lasting tribute to the architectural and building skills of the 1960s,” seems incredible.

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The aim of the development, which was priced at the huge sum of £2.5 million in 1963, was to provide a new centre for the town which was expected to grow significantly between the late 60s and mid-70s.

It was to be part of a new inner ring-road which was designed to surround the historic town centre – and the centrepiece of Greyfriars was supposed to be the 950-space multi-storey car park.

In the brochure, the architect behind the centre, Edward Skipper, said: “The basis of our thinking all along has been that while giving Ipswich the amenities asked for, top priority must be for really adequate car parking, so that people can enjoy those amenities.”

In the event only about half the inner ring road, from Tower Ramparts, along St Matthew’s Street, down Civic Drive, to St Nicholas Street, was built.

A campaign led by the then-recently formed Ipswich Society prevented the destruction of historic buildings east of St Nicholas Street.

By the early 70s sentiment was changing, new solutions were sought, and the expansion plans for Ipswich had been dropped.

Internationally-renowned architect Sir Michael Hopkins, who had been part of the team who designed the Willis building, was commissioned to transform Greyfriars and in 1984 the empty shops and plazas were demolished.

The remaining buildings are used as a staff car park and offices for Willis, with other businesses and civil servants in the re-designed tower block.

The block of flats has also been refurbished in recent years.

Ipswich Society chairman John Norman said the Greyfriars development had been a failure from day one – partly because of the decision not to go ahead with the large new communities on the edge of town.

He said: “This building was as bad as everyone says it was! But to some extent the developer was sold a pup – the proposal was based on the idea that Ipswich town centre would be the heart of a much larger community.

“Greyfriars went ahead but the other developments did not so there was not the demand for it and no-one liked it from day one – it was a very brutal design.

“In a sense Ipswich was saved by Milton Keynes – and overspill developments in places like Cornard, Haverhill and Thetford.”

The Ipswich Society was founded in 1960 and led the fight to retain some of the town’s historic buildings. The town avoided the fate of some other cities that had lost many more historic buildings.

Former Co-op manager Bill Knowles arrived in Ipswich as a young management trainee while Greyfriars was being built.

Bosses at the society dismissed any thought of taking one of the shop units in the centre: “We never thought people would like it.

“There was a Pricerite supermarket there but it didn’t last long. The centre never worked at all – it showed that you cannot build a big centre like that without tenants being committed from the start.”

Mr Knowles, who is now a Labour councillor in the borough, said that as the public stayed away from the centre at the start, it was almost impossible to attract them later.

“And it was not a very attractive place, to say the least!” he added.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer found the brochure amusing with hindsight – especially the reference to it being a tribute to the architectural skills of the time.

“It is a perfect example of the hubris of the 1960s and shows how people at the top thought they knew best.

“In the 70s we went back to more human-scale building and when there were large buildings, like Willis, they were far better than this brutalist architecture.”

Current council leader David Ellesmere said schemes like Greyfriars could not happen now: “Today we are far more aware of heritage issues and ensuring new developments fit in with their environment.”