New Ipswich book is streets ahead

It's all too easy in today's busy world to take things for granted - including where you live. A new book on Suffolk's county town aims to tell the stories behind the streets.

It's all too easy in today's busy world to take things for granted - including where you live. A new book on Suffolk's county town aims to tell the stories behind the streets. Steven Russell discovers how much he's forgotten or simply never knew in the first place

EAST Anglian bragging rights are usually decided by the performance of soccer teams. So what do you do when both Ipswich Town and Norwich City are having - and we're being charitable here - indifferent seasons?

The Canaries look as if they will just shade it, but mid-table mediocrity is not much to crow about. How can Blues fans hit back? Well, they could point out that the origins of Ipswich stretch back further in time than its Norfolk neighbour. Folk have lived in or around Ipswich since before the first century AD, making it one of England's earliest sites of habitation and continuous occupation.

It doesn't always seem like Ipswich is the first-born child. Even the town's greatest supporters will probably concede that Norwich has preserved more of, and makes greater play of, its historic attractions. Norwich also has the confidence of a regional centre - with major employers based there, along with the BBC's East Anglian arm and Anglia TV - although Ipswich's star is on the rise, with the revitalisation of the docks and the momentum brought by the University College Suffolk initiative.

Perhaps it's because maritime enterprise has been the greatest influence in shaping Ipswich rather than intellectual professions - more hard-graft than ivory-tower reflection - that the town doesn't get the prominence it deserves. As Carol Twinch says in her new book, “The great scholars of the day did not make for the hallowed portals of Ipswich, but the merchants, traders and craftsmen did, bringing with them practical applications of trade and commerce.”

In the second half of the 16th Century, Ipswich flourished. Elizabeth I visited at least three times, for goodness sake!

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To be fair, the town has been quite good at hiding its light under a bushel. During the last two centuries, for instance, many ancient streets were swept away as the internal combustion engine increasingly made its presence felt.

“Ipswich is as famous for what it has destroyed over the centuries as for what can still be seen, which illustrates the unsentimental nature of the place,” says Eye-born Carol, the author of a number of books on social history and agriculture.

“If old houses need knocking down to make way for a new road, then down they go. The word demolish and its derivatives feature largely in the history of Ipswich. It is not only antiquities that suffer the chop; a lot of the redevelopment that took place in the 1950s and 1960s was pulled down in the 1980s and 1990s, most famously the concrete Greyfriars complex that became not so much a white elephant as a grey monstrosity and had to be drastically redesigned in the late 1990s.”

Mind you, there could be a good reason for never standing still.

The character of Ipswich, she feels, has been formed from the grit of a commercial town and port. “Ipswich changed because it could afford to. Through its commerce it had the resources to alter its circumstances and did so as proof of its prosperity. Those towns that fell into poverty or lost their earlier status and wealth remained as they were; that Ipswich does not now attract the modern tourist to view its fossilised, 'twee' exterior does not mean it has no history.”

It's that history she aims to showcase in her fascinating new offering - Ipswich: Street by Street.

With much of the physical evidence wiped away, Carol's looked for clues in road names to help tell the story of the town.

There's rarely been a dull moment. Ipswich, or Gipeswic to use its Anglo-Saxon name, was founded in about 600 AD, she explains. It's a name said to have come from the River Gipping and wic or wick - a saltwater creek or bay.

“Evidence for early settlement stretches back to the Stone and Iron Ages, its population surviving the Roman occupation to become one of the earliest known Anglo-Saxon settlements. It was attacked repeatedly and ferociously by the Vikings, and the prime river location that had worked so well for Gipeswic then made it vulnerable to the invaders, who sailed up the Orwell to plunder and colonise the river-side communities.”

Gipeswic survived until the Norman invasion of 1066, becoming very poor and then recovering and consolidating on as a major port and trading centre.

“As the 12th Century drew to a close the town became fully established as an urban entity that played an important role in the life of the nation. It had survived invasion by the Celts, Romans, Saxons and Vikings before adapting to Anglo-Norman rule. However, another influence also had its effect on the town and it is one that has left monuments of the most profound and enduring kind - church buildings and street names.”

Many roads bear witness to the influence of Christianity, which arrived during the 7th Century: such as Christchurch, Holy Wells, and Franciscan Way.

Another key influence on the character of Ipswich is the friars who spent 400 or so years in the town and depended on charity in order to live and do their good works. “There were so many friars here in medieval times that they were a frequent and inescapable sight on the streets and lanes of 'Gipeswic',” says Carol, “as they moved among the townspeople, preaching, teaching and ministering to the sick” - their popularity making the lay clergy jealous.

Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries spelled the end and there are now few signs of their presence. “Only a few stones of the Greyfriars complex survive and nothing is left of the medieval Chapel of Our Lady, which brought certain kudos to the town until the 16th century.”

(blob) Ipswich Street by Street is published by Breedon Books at £14.99. ISBN 1 85983 501 5

CAROL Twinch's book covers dozens of Ipswich roads - there are long and intriguing sections on the Cornhill and Buttermarket, for instance. Here's what she says about four of them.

Cox Lane: Nowadays it's little more than the entrance to the car park behind the Co-op and Woolworth's, but Carol points out it is probably one of the town's oldest routes, with nothing to mark the 400-year-plus pottery-making era that once saw nearby roads named Pottery Street and Potter Street. “Excavations in 1958 led to the discovery of the now famous 'Ipswich ware' and evidence that in the Middle-Saxon age, from around 700 AD to 850 AD, pottery was the major industry of the town.”

It had numerous names over the centuries: Balmannys Lane in 1480, Baldman's Lane in the middle of the 16th Century, Baleman's Lane not long after, Ballman's Lane and, by early in the 17th Century, Cocke's Lane. It was also known as Warrockeslane in the 1500s.

In the early 19th century Cox Lane was heavily populated, and in 1874 there were plans to build more cottages. “Hunt's Guide described it as 'an old fashioned avenue leading to Carr Street, containing many varieties of dwelling house and small shops, but not a good one.'”

Coytes Gardens, near the black-glass Willis insurance-broking building: The gardens, once the pride and joy of physician and botanist Dr William Beeston, are long gone, although there is still part of the old road service of small paving setts and central guttering.

“All that remains is a small byway linking Princes Street and Friars Street that once ran through Dr Beeston's garden.” Many such gardens were dotted around Ipswich in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

When he died, the land went to his nephew, Dr William Beeston Coyte, and then to Dr Coyte's daughter. She sold the land for development in 1824 and by 1837 there were 28 houses there - later cut to 20 when Princes Street cut through.

It's a shame Dr Beeston was not commemorated when the byway was named in 1878. He had been a champion of inoculation and sometimes found himself criticised. Carol says: “When, in 1724, he inoculated three people, he was subjected to vociferous protest from those who believed that far from preventing the onset of disease (especially the dreaded plague) it actually caused it. In response, Dr Beeston suggested that his accusers, whom he called the 'bigotted high Churchmen' and 'Dissenters' who had stirred up the trouble, to use reason on the subject. The accusers sentenced to 'damnation' all those who were concerned in the 'heathenish' practice of inoculation.”

Crown Street: Nowadays one thinks of the green buses that stop and start there, of the Crown Pools, and of the Cricketers Hotel that was built to emulate the style of the Tollemache brewing family's seat at Helmingham Hall.

“It was once home to numerous stables servicing the many inns on Tavern Street,” says Carol. “Here the horses were harnessed and prepared for a quick changeover on arrival of the mail coaches. There seems to be no definitive reason for its name, other than it literally 'crowns' the old town, making a small arc above the northern ramparts, or it took its name from a lost Crown inn.”

A wall at the back of Yates's wine lodge still bears an old, large, painted sign for nearby Egertons - a familiar name in the automotive trade.

Young engineer William Botwood had moved to Ipswich in the 1860s, working for Henry Bennett's coach-building business off Fore Street. By 1868 the firm had become Bennett & Botwood; when it was later dissolved, Botwood set up business close to his home in Woodbridge Road, says Carol.

His sons took over the reins and the enterprise made 75 different types of carriage, gigs, broughams, shooting wagons and rickshaws - exporting not just to Europe but also to Japan and the United States.

“The Botwood brothers astutely picked up on the new motor vehicle potential and by the turn of the century were manufacturing car bodies as efficiently and profitably as they had carriages.

“Keen to keep ahead of the game, Samuel Botwood went to Paris to negotiate with the De Dion Bouton Company over taking on an agency for their cars. He was successful, and in 1902 was joined by Justin Reginald Egerton (always called Reggie) in founding a new company, Botwood & Egerton.”

Reggie and brother Hubert were from Norfolk, where their father was rector. Hubert had gone into partnership with Gerard Mann to create the business Mann Egerton.

Carol continues: “Inevitably, perhaps, the partnership between Reggie and the Botwoods foundered, and in 1910 the directors of Egerton & Botwood went their separate ways. When Samuel Botwood died at the early age of 44, Botwoods was taken over by Mann Egerton (though the name was retained), which gave both Egerton brothers business interests in Ipswich.”

The Crown Street premises were built in 1928 and Reggie increased the number of car agencies. “In the 1950s Egertons were the only firm to employ a night watchman, who used to make an hourly call to Ipswich police station saying 'Humber reporting.' Humber cars were one of the main makes of car sold by Egertons and used as a codeword.

“After a series of takeovers and amalgamations, the Crown Street site became redundant and in the early 1960s was sold for a new town swimming and leisure facility” - Crown Pools, which opened nearly 22 years ago.

Rapier Street: “This tiny street is a miniscule reminder of the huge industrial legacy of Richard Rapier who, in 1862, became manager of Ransomes railway department. In 1869 Richard Rapier and Robert James Ransome formed a new company - Ransomes & Rapier - that played a leading role in providing equipment for the Welsh narrow-gauge slate railways, built railways on sugar plantations in far flung parts of the Empire, and negotiated a pioneering contract to help build the Shanghai and Woosung Railway in China. Some years later they were supplying railway equipment for lines in India and began manufacturing sluices for the Aswan Dam.”

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