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Why is Ipswich’s Silent Street named how it is?

PUBLISHED: 19:00 03 September 2017

Nine Silent Street. The Claude Cox bookshop was on the left. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

Nine Silent Street. The Claude Cox bookshop was on the left. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

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Made a ‘ghost road’ by plague, or deadened by straw to aid sick soldiers? John Norman looks at Silent Street

Merchants House, number 11 Silent Street, is a relative newcomer. Picture: JOHN NORMANMerchants House, number 11 Silent Street, is a relative newcomer. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

There are two theories why Silent Street is so called. Both are speculative and you might have your own ideas.

Today the street is a major thoroughfare for late-evening party revellers moving between the night-spots around the Old Cattle Market and those on Cardinal Park.

There are, however, no pubs in Silent Street, but this wasn’t always the case.

It hasn’t always been known as Silent Street. The oldest name I can trace is Half Moon Street – after a pub of the same name?

The pharmacy at the junction of Silent Street and St Nicholas Street. Picture: HARRY WALTERSThe pharmacy at the junction of Silent Street and St Nicholas Street. Picture: HARRY WALTERS

On Ogilby’s Map of 1674 it is Cole Hill. This was probably derived from “le Colhel”, one of the places in town where “night soil” was dumped.

There was no municipal sewage system in Ipswich until the late nineteenth century (designed by Peter Bruff, the railway engineer) and the disposal of human waste, particularly in densely-populated areas, was a problem.

It had a value as a fertiliser and there were some scattered arrangements by farmers and market gardeners to cart it away.

For those residents with sufficient space, a cesspit was often dug, into which everything that didn’t burn (and a few loaves that did) was thrown.

Today they are a rich source of archaeological evidence.

Other residents, particularly in more rural areas, had earth closets: a hole in the ground, with earth being scattered over the deposited waste, layer upon layer.

But the majority of ordinary residents deposited the contents of the bed-pan on the Cole (cold) Dung Hill: a large mass of stinking, rotting vegetation, rubbish and that other unmentionable.

There was at least one other such dump in Ipswich: Cole Dunghills close to Rope Walk.

The first explanation for the use of the name Silent Street was possibly in the 1650s and relates to Curson House, previously the residence of Lord Robert Curson which, coincidentally, happened to be Thomas Wolsey’s dream home.

Wolsey had persuaded Curson to move out, and was planning to retire to the property whilst overseeing the development of his college. Wolsey died in Leicester before any of this came to fruition.

During the Dutch Wars of the 1650s Curson House was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and, to ensure they got sufficient rest, straw was laid down in the street to deaden the sound of horses’ hooves and metal-clad cart-wheels rumbling over the cobbles.

Feasible, but I cannot see this process going on for long. Straw was a valuable commodity in the seventeenth century.

Following the building’s use as an army facility it became a general hospital, then a brewery and later still a public house: the Elephant and Castle. (To be pedantic, this was on Curson Plain, rather than Silent Street).

The second explanation dates from before 1760, when the name was applied to a street devoid of residents – all killed by the plague which had spread from London (Great Plague of 1665) and become endemic throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Again, this explanation lacks credibility. I can’t imagine an Ipswich street full of houses but bereft of people remaining so for 100 years.

By 1778 and the publication of Pennington’s Map, Silent Street was clearly marked.

There are a couple of properties in Silent Street worth drawing your attention to.

The former Wolsey Pharmacy on the corner with St Nicholas Street has been well documented. Next-door, numbers 5-7, was, until recently, Claude Cox second-hand bookshop, a wonderful emporium of printed material with a strong emphasis on local material.

The shop is in the process of being converted into residential use but will be open for Heritage Open Days, September 9-10.

Note the flying freehold where one property overlaps the adjacent.

They were once one: a lodging house for the servants and entourage of guests at Curson House.

Number 9 is residential and, across the gap, number 11 is an intruder. It was demolished in Waterworks Street in the early 1980s (to make way for the Star Lane gyratory scheme) and has been re-erected here for use as an office.

Regarding my point about public houses: the residents of Silent Street rather do wish that late-night revellers would observe the name of the street and proceed in silence.

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