by John | Feb 16, 2015 |

Woodbridge - According to Arthur Mee


As part of his The King’s England series, Arthur Mee published a book in 1941 about our wonderful county of Suffolk, ‘a guide to everything that makes the county famous, town by town, village by village’.

Here is a particularly interesting excerpt about his encounters with Woodbridge; a snapshot of the town in its former state.

"It is one of the most delightful small towns of this enchanting countryside, though as crowded with houses as it's past is crowded with memories; its long street has hardly an inch to spare. The river bed has silted up since Woodbridge built ships for the Navy, but still the barges carry coal up the River Deben, and still there is much yachting here, and flourishing industries that have to do with ships.

It is one of the towns in which it is pleasant to walk about for the sake of old buildings, old inns, and old houses, and as we walk there come continually to mind the names of famous men who have walked there.

...It is good to find that the Post Office has admirably done its duty to a fine town by joining hands with the Suffolk Preservation Society in preserving an ancient house. On the site of this 16th century house, the new post office has been set up in such a way as to preserve the fine architectural features, the plaster ceilings in the rooms, and a Jacobean fireplace. It is an example the Post Office might well adopt in all our ancient towns.

In the same way there has been preserved through all its reconstructions since the 16th century the beauty of the Shire Hall, built on Markt Hill by the benefactor of Woodbridge, Thomas Seckford. He was the great Elizabethan of this little town and will not be forgotten. His town hall is Flemish in design, and he set under it the old Corn Exchange, originally open so that carts could be driven through, but now bricked in. His almhouses have been rebuilt, but they are one of the noble spectacles of the town, a delightful long row set on a hill, the home of 30 poor men who wear Thomas Seckford silver badges, a few married couples, and a few women living in a separate house to nurse them when they are ill.

...The Friends Meeting House...built (in 1678)... has a simple graveyard in which we find among flowers and treets, a poet’s grave. It is in a lane down which the feet of a host of men have walked to pay tribute to Bernard Barton... Barton lived on as a bank clerk after his wife’s death, and his poetry was the chief interest of his life... When he was 36 he had so many admirers of his poems that they presented him with £1200, and a few years before he died Sir Robert Peel invited him to dine, and got for him a Civil List pension.  

...we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed... Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.

The old Ship Inn near the quay has been turned into cottages, but the Bell and the Crown both remain. The Bell Inn, with its overhanging timbers, has kept from generation to generation what is the only things of its kind in Suffolk, and one of very few left in England, the old steelyard for weighting hay, wool and hides.

The Crown Inn has memories of the days when Woodbridge was busy building ships for the Navy, and even of the days before that, for from it there went out into the world an English seaman of the days of Francis Drake, the little known John Fox, who set free a number of Christian captives at Alexandria. His father owned The Crown. In later days, the inn was owned by Peter Pett, the man of whom we read much in Pepys, who succeeded him at the Admiralty. He was Commissioner of the Navy in the bad old days, and it is said to have been his habit to pack the well-paid offices with his relations. Pepys called him a knave who deserved to be hanged for his neglect...

The fine Woodbridge School has outgrown its old buildings and was rehoused last century with laboratories, workshops, swimming baths, and boarding houses. The 17th century buildings are now used as a free library under the trusteeship of the Seckford Governors, and there has been discovered in one of the library windows in our own time a pane of glass of much historic interest. Mr V. B. Redstone, the librarian, discovered that certain old scratches on the pane were actually names upside down, and he found the names to be those of Francis Light and his schoolfriend James Lynn, who became a surgeon. The names were scratched on the pane about 1747, and in view of its curious interest the glass has now been taken out and preserved as a witness that here lived a Woodbridge schoolboy all to little know to fame. Francis a striking figure in the annals of the British Empire, for he founded the city of Penang and was the father of the founder of the city of Adelaide. Penang has his statue and Adelaide has his son’s.

...Australia has another town founded by a Woodbridge schoolboy, for George Miles, emigrating from here about the middle of last century, founded a settlement and named it after his town. There should also be remembered in a description of Woodbridge the well-known Suffolk artist Thomas Churchyard, a solicitor by profession but a painter of much skill.

Though Edward Fitzgerald himself is perhaps the most famous man who has been familiar in these streets, he has no memorial except his initials on the house where he lived on Market Hill, and the house called Little Grange, in which he lived after that; we come upon him at Boulge where he lies.

We talked in a shop at Woodbridge to two ladies whose grandmother has been housekeeper to FitzGerald, and had often told them of the strange figure walking about with a wide hat and a flowing cloak. It was while he was living on Market Hill that Tennyson came to see him.

....We have yet to come to the finest building in Woodbridge, which is, of course,the 15th century church of St Mary, set on a hill and built of black flints, with a tower 108 feet high.

The walls of the tower are neatly built, the flints forming designs, the corners crowned with filials and weathercocks. Over the porch are set in niches three figures of the Madonna, St Anne, and St Cecilia, all with crosses, and in the spandrels of the doorway is St Michael with the dragon."

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