Suffolk bank clerk who dined with the PM and got a pension from the Queen
PUBLISHED: 19:02 23 December 2018
Just one of many quirky tales in Robert Simper's new 'history of Woodbridge' book
It was more than 50 years ago that Robert Simper was asked to write a history of Woodbridge. He did, too. But, for one reason or another, it didn’t then see the light of day. The manuscript slumbered in a chest of drawers in his bedroom for four years until someone took the wise decision to publish it. Not surprisingly, it sold well. For years and years. Reprint after reprint.
Now there’s an updated version, with extra material and a brighter look. Woodbridge: A Personal History traces the story of the town (and the neighbouring lands of east Suffolk) from the Anglo-Saxon era to now, and meeting some of the characters who have made it what it is.
Robert, who lives by the River Deben at Ramsholt, has to his name more maritime and local history titles than I can keep track of. After leaving school in 1953 he began work on his family’s farms. Horses then toiled alongside the first tractors. But the sea exerted its pull and he went off to crew on some of the last sail-powered trading barges.
It was 1963 when he had a back injury and began writing… and carried on.
His latest work is packed with rich detail. Here are a few summaries to give a flavour.
The quiet celebrity
The first of a growing band of “cultured” Woodbridge residents in the 19th Century was quiet Quaker Bernard Barton. He was a clerk at Alexanders Bank (now Barclays) and wrote poems in his spare time.
Bernard became famous nationally, and in 1845 even dined with Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. The following year he was granted a special pension by Queen Victoria.
It didn’t turn his head. “Instead of seeking higher fame, Barton remained in Woodbridge, seldom venturing many miles away,” says Robert.
“He described himself as having ‘little more locomotion than a cabbage’. He wore plain clothes and spoke in the modest language befitting a Quaker.
“His habits were so consistent that housewives knew it was time to put the potatoes on to boil when they saw the respected bank clerk going home to lunch in his cottage in Cumberland Street.”
A tough life
Early in the 19th Century, writes Robert, farm horsemen and their families lived on a diet of dumplings, cheese made with skimmed milk and sour, or sharp, beer.
The average horseman would have earned only 16 shillings a week. “Few went hungry, but this amount did not allow for a very extravagant mode of life.
“A typical prize given at the Suffolk Show during this time was awarded to ‘the labourer who, without receiving parish relief, had brought up the most children whom had lived more than one year’.”
Moving in mysterious ways
In 1864, at Melton, a group of primitive Methodists had a yellow-brick chapel built next to White House. The house-owner took legal action, claiming his light was blocked, and won the day.
That wasn’t the end of it. If the chapel could be shifted five yards nearer Woodbridge, it would be far enough away to meet legal requirements.
So a builder from Grundisburgh “strapped iron bars round the building, jacked the base up, and then, with five fir trees as rollers, he moved the chapel the necessary five yards.
“The rolling operation took three hours and was watched by a gathering of men in stovepipe hats and women in long dresses. One man with sublime faith sat in the pulpit while the chapel was moved.”
The boy who went to sea
One of the grand old characters Robert actually got to meet was Arthur Hunt, “the last professional yacht skipper on the Deben”.
He was the son of major landowner Sir Cuthbert Quilter’s head gamekeeper and, as a lad, effectively ran away to sea by signing up to work on a barge that was unloading coal at Ramsholt Dock and then went on to Woodbridge.
“Arthur’s parents walked six miles to plead with him to come home. In the end, after failing to persuade their son with all the arguments over the follies of a sailor’s life, they provided him with sufficient clothing to help him on his way,” explains Robert.
Arthur worked on barges and raced them. During the Great War he was on steam ships, but came back to the Deben after a lung injury.
“In the winter, the yacht Genesta was laid up against the broken-down barge quay. In her cabin, Arthur made nets for Aldeburgh fishermen and weekend trawler men. “I spent many hours, during my school holidays, sitting in the cabin listening to yarns about the ‘old days’.”
Robert says Arthur once gave him a recipe for poisoning rats – written on a very faded piece of paper (dating back to the 1880s) by a Norwich chemist.
“It had been treasured by the Hunt family until there were no longer any gamekeepers and it was passed on to me. I was very flattered but never dared put Hunt’s poison into action.
“It started off harmlessly with ‘one peck of fine barley meal, sifted’, but the real knockout ingredient, arsenic, is capable of killing every living creature for miles around.”
A bridge too far
“The first thing people usually ask about Woodbridge is ‘where is the wooden bridge?’ When they discover there is no bridge, the next question is ‘where was the bridge?’” writes Robert.
It was a question he tried to answer back in 1964. Former Woodbridge School master Vincent Redstone had traced the name to Udebryge in 1086 and Wodebregge in 1256, but, really, absolute truth and the details were lost in the mists of time.
“More recent attempts to pinpoint the name’s origin have included the highly imaginative explanation that it comes from ‘Woden’s Burgh’. This is because of the pagan burial site up on the other side of the river,” writes Robert.
“However, the Sutton Hoo ship burial is about four hundred years before the Wodebregge of 1256 and the medieval church would have stamped out any reference to the old Anglo-Saxon gods long before that.”
He suggests that “the name might have come from a wooden unloading jetty”.
The young pretender
“Everyone thinks that Woodbridge was the original port in this area but, in the medieval period, Gosford was the main port on the Deben, and a leading port on the East Coast.
“Gosford was not a place, but the collective name for the ships operating from both banks at the entrance of the river, at the lower end of the Deben, from King’s Fleet on the Felixstowe side and Bawdsey Fleet on the eastern shore.
“The king gathered ships in the King’s Fleet in times of war and the merchants of Bawdsey prospered in the wine trade from Gascony, and supplying Calais with beer and food.
“Just about all traces of Gosford’s shipping activities seem to have vanished. The merchants of Bawdsey and their ships were going to European ports in the 1400s and early 1500s, but trade was moving to Woodbridge.”
Defending our lands
Robert tells us a military garrison was established at Woodbridge in 1750, but in 1803 – because of fears Napoleon would invade – barracks covering 56 acres went up near Drybridge Hill. Some rural roads were straightened, too, so troops could march rapidly.
The barracks could house 700 cavalrymen and 4,000 infantrymen. A small theatre was built to entertain the troops.
Robert says many locals “loathed the task of housing the red coats. The chief amusement of these healthy young men was getting drunk and having a good scrap, habits that must have placed a severe strain on the tempers of regular church and chapel-goers.
“The defeat of Napoleon was greeted with enthusiasm, not because it meant the end of a tyrant, but because soldiers were no longer needed in Suffolk.” The barracks were pulled down in 1815.
Land of plenty
The first irrigation systems appeared in East Suffolk in 1953, when farmers James Mann and Norman Simper bought field sprinklers to wash salt water out of the land after the East Coast flood. They found irrigation boosted crops, too.
“East Suffolk has its own unique maritime climate caused by the tidal estuaries. This salty atmosphere reduces the impact of winter frosts. In the Sandlings (the light lands of coastal east Suffolk) the growing season starts, in spite of the cold winds, two weeks earlier than in the rest of East Anglia and lasts about a week longer in the autumn.
“Irrigation, coupled with the knowledge of the local climate, kicked off a complete change in farming methods, and vegetables, grown for the supermarkets, became the important crops.”
Ebb and flow
Woodbridge shipwrights enjoyed some boom times – and hard moments.
“From 1630 to the end of the century, fifteen men-of-war were launched here, and repair work was also done,” reports Robert.
“While Centurion was being repaired in 1658, her bowsprit broke and six men were drowned. In 1666, when the plague swept through the town, killing over 300 people, the frigate Albermarle was launched. It must have been a difficult time to complete a wooden ship.
“The labour requirements were enormous; every piece of wood had to be sawn by hand. One man stood on top of the sawpit and another below and both worked the saw up and down – hard, thirsty work.”
Woodbridge: A Personal History is published by Three Crowns, a new imprint of locally-based Boydell & Brewer. It costs £12.99 and can be bought from Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge