Local woman documents 900 years of Suffolk village’s history

Yvonne Martin has just released a comprehensive book on the history of Kersey

Yvonne Martin has just released a comprehensive book on the history of Kersey - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Today, Kersey is home to around 350 residents. But don’t let its small population fool you, as what it lacks in people it makes up for in its rich and fascinating history. 

And one local resident has just published a book covering said history.  

Meet Yvonne Martin. A retired editor and writer, she now spends some of her time as the local history recorder to Kersey and has just written ‘Kersey Through the Centuries: The Evolution of a Suffolk Village’.  

Covering 900 years of history, Yvonne’s book documents Kersey’s trajectory through time – starting at its humble beginnings and finishing off just at the tail end of the Second World War. 

But what inspired her to write such a comprehensive read?  

Kersey

Kersey - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“It was a Covid project, and it gave me something to do during lockdown. I wanted to make sense of all of the village records and to provide a coherent narrative of Kersey’s past – especially why it has such fine buildings, and the history behind them,” she explains. 

Yvonne, who previously wrote a family history book, was also inspired by her predecessor, Kersey’s former village recorder Ann Maltby. “Ann wrote a book called ‘Kersey in Living Memory’ in 2000, and it covered the social history side of the village. She’d interviewed everyone in the village for it, and it’s since become very popular in the parish.  

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“She had lots of documents left over from when she was writing it, so her daughter gave them to me, and that was my starting point.” 

Yvonne – who has always had an interest in history – had no trouble getting to grips with her source material, and was excited to put together a piece on the place she’s called home for nearly two decades.  

Kersey today

Kersey today - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“I’ve always loved the past and old buildings – and as part of my role as recorder, I set up the local history page on our village website so I had some information from that. Some of the original village records were also translated from Latin by local historian Chris Briggs, and during lockdown a lot of records were digitised and became more accessible which was incredibly useful.” 

In terms of photos, a few were taken by Yvonne herself – while others came courtesy of former village postmistress Norah Orriss. 

With an abundance of information at her disposal, Yvonne’s project only took her around six months in total. And during that time, she became incredibly engrossed in unravelling the history of Kersey.  

Where did Kersey get its name from?  

“We don’t actually know where the name Kersey came from, giving us the freedom to speculate. There are though a number of theories as to the origin of the name ‘Kersey’, not least due to the fact that before standard English spelling was introduced, there were many variations in how the name was written,” she explains. 

One of Kersey’s previous names, ‘Caersig’ or ‘Caeresige’, is said to have been first recorded in 995 or 999, according to Eilert Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names.  

“Ekwall suggested it meant ‘a wet area with cress’, and this is thought by some to refer to the area around The Splash, or even the site of Kersey Mill.” 

Ekwall then noted the name, ‘Careseia’, as the parish of St Mary appeared in the Domesday Book in 1086. The settlement later appeared as ‘Karsee’ in 1220 in the book of Anglo-Saxon charters published by Walter de Gray Birch in his three-volume Cartularium Saxonicum from 1885-1893.  

Other iterations of Kersey throughout the years include recordings of ‘Karsee’ in 1220, ‘Kereseye’ in 1279, and ‘Keryson’ in 1315.  

Kersey with St Mary's Church in the background

Kersey with St Mary's Church in the background - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Names aside, the settlement of what is now modern-day Kersey has been occupied in some capacity since the Anglo-Saxon era – but it was the establishment of Kersey Priory that is of particular historical significance.  

“Thomas de Burgh is said to have founded the hospital or free chapel of St Mary and St Anthony at the Priory in or before 1218,” explains Yvonne.  

The grant for its founding was witness by Thomas’ brother, Godfrey de Burgh, Archdeacon of Norwich. “However, it was Thomas’ wife, Nesta de Cockfield, who converted it into a Priory of Canons of the order of St Austin. Rather than being a hospital in the modern sense, in medieval times religious houses were called hospitals if they offered hospitality or rest.  

“Augustinian canons were an open order and mixed with the local community. Although less strict than some monastic orders, they were bound by the rules of obedience, poverty, chastity, the hours of prayer and ecclesiastical fasts. Unlike monks, they were allowed to serve parishes owned by their priories, which is why we have records of the canons preaching at St Mary’s Church.” 

Kersey’s cloth trade 

Around the time the Priory was founded, Kersey, along with the rest of Suffolk, soon began to grow in terms of both wealth and significance.  

“It is believed that Suffolk had reached the height of its early importance and prosperity in the 13th century. During this period, landlords and their main tenants reacted to a growing population and its demands for food by using more land so that those with little or no land sought other types of work, such as crafts (clothmaking, in the case of Kersey), retailing and brewing.” 

Clothmaking played a pivotal part in Kersey’s success, and in 1252 the settlement was granted a licence for a weekly market. “Although market towns had been a feature of life in Suffolk since Saxon times, there was a surge in the creation of new markets from 1200, and local historian Norman Scarfe estimated that 70 new markets were established in Suffolk between 1227 and 1310. 

“The market in Kersey would have occupied a much broader space than what is now regarded as the marketplace just off Church Hill, next to The Splash and opposite River House. Over time, that area has been re-landscaped.” 

Specialising in mostly cloth, Kersey Market also sold other goods such as spices – an extremely valuable commodity and form of currency at the time. “For instance, Philip Basset paid ‘one pound of cumin’ annually for the ‘service’ or labour of John Snelling of Whatfield,” adds Yvonne. 

“The market attracted local merchants and clothiers who were the lynchpins of the wool trade, and drapers from as far away as Hertfordshire and Essex.” 

This prosperity can still be seen in modern times, by way of a number of the village’s ancient buildings which still stand to this day. “Many of the houses which are typical of Kersey today were built in the late 14th and 15th centuries as properties for well to do clothiers and rented weavers’ cottages. These buildings are a legacy from the wealth of Kersey’s cloth industry, as can be seen in high status properties, such as River House and Kedges End, as well as the weavers’ cottages and their workshops which despite their lower status have managed to survive along The Street.” 

Typical of many Suffolk villages of the time, Kersey was also a farming village – but cloth was its main trade for centuries. “The period of 1450 to 1530 is regarded as being the peak of the Suffolk cloth industry, especially the broadcloth industry concentrated in the triangle between Clare, Bury St Edmunds and East Bergholt – of which Kersey was near the centre.” 

At that time, Kersey was also ranked 10th out of 57 places in Suffolk that produced cloth, and third out of five places in the Cosford hundred.  

River House and The Splash in July 1912

River House and The Splash in July 1912 - Credit: Kersey Archives

Elsewhere in the village however, the Priory wasn’t doing as well. It faced serious difficulties in the 15th century, with evidence of its failure long before the Reformation in the early 16th century.   

“After the monastic enthusiasm that characterised the 12th and 13th centuries, monasteries and convents became less venerated by the 15th century, in some cases due to the bad behaviour of monks. Pious benefactors were diverting their wealth instead to parish churches and other forms of philanthropy, as we have seen from records of Kersey wills. As a result, the number of monks, or canons in the case of Kersey, declined. Priories became more impoverished and sought other ways to raise income, such as taking in paying guests.” 

Due to financial struggles, Kersey Priory was eventually dissolved between 1443 and 1444. In addition, Kersey Priory and all its lands were acquired by King’s College by written order of King Henry VI.  

Thanks to a number of donations, the tower of Kersey Church was built from 1430, and completed in 1481 – and still stands to this day. “The building of the church tower physically transformed the local landscape. Where once the Kersey Priory chapel would have dominated the opposite hill, St Mary’s Church was now the focal point of the village.” 

Kersey and the New World 

As the years went on, it wasn’t just Kersey’s landscape and skyline that went through changes, as Yvonne explains. “The early 1600s were turbulent and troublesome times for the people of Suffolk. By the 1630s, the woollen industry was depressed by competition and low prices. Suffolk and Kersey were also affected by religious, social and political upheaval. Protestantism continued to take hold, as evidenced by the fact that in 1627, eight people in Kersey were accused by the clerical courts of being negligent in attending church and receiving communion.” 

Such religious divides in Suffolk eventually led to local figures such as John Winthrop, Robert Sampson, and William Clarke emigrating to what is now modern-day America.  

“It was in 1630,  10 years after the Pilgrim Fathers, that about 650 puritans emigrated from Suffolk to New England, including John Winthrop of Edwardstone and Groton Manor. He was the man who became the first governor of Massachusetts and brought a total of almost 1,000 immigrants to the USA.” 

A member of the gentry, John Winthorp was born at nearby Groton Manor, as estate which also owned land in Kersey. His fellow passengers, Robert Sampson and William Clarke, hailed from Kersey and Semer respectively.  

Other former Kersey residents eventually made their way across the Atlantic, including Martha Harper and her husband John Proctor of Groton. The two and their family settled in Massachusetts in 1635, where John became a wealthy landowner in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts. “However, the New World did not bring the total freedom they sought, as their son John moved to Salem and in 1692 was handed as a witch during the infamous witch trials. 

There was in fact a great deal of paranoia in England as well as America about witchcraft in the 17th century, and while there is no evidence of witch trials effecting Kersey, superstition was still rife. “Markings etched in the beams of many houses in Kersey that were meant to ward off witches can still be seen today. Examples include the letter ‘M’ or a daisy-wheel (hexafoil) carved into door arches.” 

Kersey in the Industrial Revolution and beyond 

After a mass exodus to the New World, coupled with the decline of the once-prosperous cloth trade, Kersey was changing yet again and it was becoming poorer. 

“As in previous centuries, if inhabitants of Kersey were reduced to poverty or homelessness, they became the responsibility of the parish if they were ‘settled’ there. However, a new way of dealing with the poor came in after 1779.” 

In 1780, Semer Workhouse was built. Situated on the Semer parish boundary with Kersey, some of the poorest people from Kersey found themselves living there. But what was life like in a poorhouse?  

The workhouse

The workhouse - Credit: Kersey Archives

“Conditions were harsh. Inmates wore prison-style uniforms, work was very hard and food was strictly rationed, with harsh punishments for disobeying the many rules. Inmates were punished if they ran away, and one such inmate was 12-year-old Ann Baker, who ran away twice in 1785. As punishment, she was transported to Australia, a voyage that took an average of 159 days and in inhuman conditions. We have no record of her ultimate fate.”  

As Britain entered the Industrial Revolution around this time, the cloth trade had become industrialised, and was centred in the north of England – meaning Kersey fell further into economic decline.  

“The only work available for many people in villages like Kersey now was agricultural labour. Population growth was also one of several factors contributing to economic hardship in the 19th century. Kersey experienced a sharp increase in population in the first half of the 19th century, growing from 513 inhabitants in 1801 to 787 in 1841 – more than twice as many today.”  

View from St Mary's in the 1890s

View from St Mary's in the 1890s - Credit: Kersey Archives

Yvonne analysed census records from the time – and noted many residents were living in poverty at the time. “Fifteen out of 72, or 21% of Kersey households recorded by the 1851 census in The Street alone were classified as paupers.”  

By the 19th century, Kersey’s market had also disappeared – but records show a number of businesses had been set up during this time. “White’s 1892 directory lists more shops than 50 years earlier, including a baker and pork butcher, a fruiterer and horse dealer, a shopkeeper and carter at The Tye.” 

A range of agricultural-based businesses were also established, including two bootmakers, two horse dealers, a bricklayer, and a thatcher.  

“Until the Second World War, the village remained almost entirely rural in outlook,” adds Yvonne.  

Kersey farmworkers in 1914

Kersey farmworkers in 1914 - Credit: Kersey Archives

Like a lot of Suffolk until the post-World War II-era, Kersey lacked modern amenities until the mid-20th century. 

“It still depended on wells and springs. There were no mains sewage or electricity. Most houses relied on outdoor lavatories, while only a few had bathrooms. A new village pump, which is still there, had been installed as late as 1937 at the top of The Street. The lack of access to utilities was reversed during the next 20 years. Electricity was first introduced in 1949 and mains water followed in 1953. The first council houses were built in Vale Lane in 1947 and possessed all the ‘mod cons’.” 

As the village became modernised, it soon found itself somewhat of a popular destination in the following decades.  

Kersey's village pump in the 1940s

Kersey's village pump in the 1940s - Credit: Kersey Archives

“With car ownership and increased access to the countryside for town dwellers, Kersey became a tourist hotspot in the 1960s and 1970s. The village featured on car and coach touring trips around Suffolk and East Anglia. Its unspoilt architecture also attracted filmmakers and television producers. 

“However, nowadays the village is quieter. There are fewer amenities than before, and The Street is no longer the bustling place it was in former times. The school still flourishes, but the last post office closed in 2008. There’s now just one public house, The Bell, after the White Horse ceased operation in 2004. All the shops and even the bus service have disappeared.”  

Kersey has certainly had a colourful history, and while things are quieter than they once were, its streets and buildings have some fascinating stories to tell.  

To purchase a copy of ‘Kersey Through the Centuries: The Evolution of a Suffolk Village, email Yvonne on yvonne.martin@uwclub.net. It costs £12.00, or £13.50 plus postage and packing.