Is Ipswich a land of missed historical opportunities? Terry Hunt reflects on the town's rich links
PUBLISHED: 15:45 15 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:01 15 September 2016
How much do you know about Charlie Chaplin's Ipswich grandparents? Or Geoffrey Chaucer's family, who ran businesses in the town?
Editor in Chief Terry Hunt argues it’s high time Ipswich made much more of these (and other) fascinating historical links - here he tells us more.
When you’re walking through Ipswich, do you stop to look around? Or do you, like me, put your head down and stride determinedly to your destination, ignoring all else around you?
I’m certainly guilty of that, and, as a result, I miss an awful lot of the delights our historic county town has to offer. At ground level, there isn’t a huge amount to get excited about in terms of history, to be frank.
But if you just stop for a moment and look up, the upper floors of so many of our town centre buildings are largely untouched by the 20th and 21st centuries, and have survived intact. It’s then that you begin to appreciate the unique and fascinating history of Ipswich.
Mind you, as I’ve said so many times before, the powers that be really don’t seem to appreciate or understand the gem that is old Ipswich. To walk through the town centre is to journey through a land of missed opportunities, from an historical viewpoint.
Yes, we do celebrate Thomas Wolsey, the most famous and powerful son of Ipswich. The late and much-missed Dr. John Blatchly made sure a fitting statue was erected, very close to Wolsey’s birthplace in St. Peter’s Street. There’s also a plaque telling passers-by that the great man was born nearby. His actual birthplace has long gone, sadly.
But what about Wolsey’s Gate? What a travesty. The gate, standing alone and forlorn in traffic-clogged College Street, is a tiny fragment of the grand college Wolsey built in his home town. It was the water gate, through which those who travelled to Ipswich by boat could enter the seat of learning (the waterfront was then roughly on the line of what is now College Street).
To me, the gate always looks like a breath of wind would see it topple. I’m sure that’s not really the case but, nonetheless, surely it deserves better than this. Floodlighting, perhaps? Or at least some signage from the town telling people where it is, and its significance.
Then there’s the town centre – full of fascinating historical links. But it’s not really obvious, is it? Let’s take Geoffrey Chaucer as a starting point.
Chaucer is the father of English literature, no less. His work has been studied by countless generations of schoolchildren (including me). He is regarded as the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, and was the first to be buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. And his family came from Ipswich.
Yes, the Chaucers, or Malyns as they were known originally, were Ipswich business people and landowners. They ran taverns in the town centre. They moved to London shortly before little Geoffrey was born, but there is evidence that they continued to visit Ipswich regularly, maybe accompanied by the infant Geoffrey.
How many people know this? Not all that many, I’d wager. There is a plaque - set above head height on the side of what is now H&M, in Tower Street - but I’m certain thousands of people walk past it each week without even noticing.
Now let’s walk through the shopping centre and go to Carr Street. A century and a half ago, it was already a busy shopping thoroughfare. One of the shops, a butcher’s, was owned by a young man called Spencer Chaplin. He married a Trimley girl called Ellen.
One of their children was called Charles. Yes, that’s right - Charles Chaplin. He, in turn, was the father of Charles Spencer Chaplin, later known throughout the world as Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film icons.
So, Charlie Chaplin was the grandson of an Ipswich butcher. By the time young Charlie came along the family had moved to London. But what a claim to fame for Ipswich. The famous Charlie was even given his Ipswich grandfather’s name, Spencer.
But where is the signage to celebrate this in Carr Street? Absolutely nowhere. Surely if we made more of it, the town might be able to attract visits from Charlie Chaplin appreciation societies? There must be hundreds. They would stay in the town…and spend money.
It seems extraordinary to me that these historical gems have been all but forgotten.
Let’s finish with Charles Dickens, one of the greatest of all English novelists, whose work is still widely read and loved today, almost 150 years after his death. Yes, Ipswich also has strong links with Dickens. He visited the town on a number of occasions, and a famous scene from Pickwick Papers is set in the Great White Horse.
Again, there is a plaque, a nice blue one, courtesy of the Ipswich Society, placed discreetly on the building. But - and I’m sorry to repeat myself - the vast majority of people will miss it. I only spotted it because I was looking for it!
As I said, these are huge missed opportunities. If residents, shoppers and visitors to our town centre bumped into prominent, but tasteful, signs which told them of links to Chaucer, Chaplin and Dickens, and directed them to the places of interest, it would add enormously to their experience.
It would also help to create a more positive feeling about Ipswich. After all, we are talking about the oldest English town - although that’s not celebrated anywhere either.
Sometimes I think I’ve dreamed all this up. Surely I’m not the only one who thinks we’re missing a trick here? History and heritage can be big business, as other towns and cities have shown.
It’s time our lords and masters in Ipswich woke up to this golden opportunity. Imagine the welcome signs...“Ipswich - oldest English town. Home to the families of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charlie Chaplin.” Pretty compelling,