The Village History
From the Mesolithic Stone Age to the present day, Long Melford has a fascinating history to discover...
As long ago as 8,300BC people were living in what is now Long Melford. By 100 BC an Iron Age tribe, the Belgae, well known later to Julius Caesar as his toughest opponents in North West Europe were settled here. They settled on both sides of what is now Liston Lane, on the river side of our modern village. They seem to have been the first weavers in the district, as well as farming cattle and fishing in the river.
The Romans came afterwards, under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. They had a fairly tough time in East Anglia, particularly with the Iceni, a warlike tribe led by their famous queen Boudica (or Boadicea) who did their best to throw the Romans back into the sea. As the dust settled, the Romans immediately set about building roads to link their new British colony together. Two Roman roads ran right through the village, and a third went through Bridge Street, a mile to the North. The main line of the village, including the ford at the top of Hall Street dates from that period, where a road from what is now Chelmsford (in the South) went on towards what is now Pakenham to the North. The Romans left quite a number of dwellings, mainly on the East, or river side of Hall Street, and in 1996 a Roman cemetery was found to the West.
There were many Anglo-Saxon settlements in this part of England, and Long Melford would have been included in the Kingdom of East Anglia. Unfortunately, though, we have no information relating to the village at that period. The Saxons did not, by and large, write things down, and any remains of Saxon settlement were presumably buried under the foundations of the present village. However in 2013 and 2014, Dr Carenza Lewis, her team of Cambridge University Archaeologists, and local volunteer diggers, discovered by chance, Anglo Saxon pottery, and ancient building post holes under the top village green close to Church Walk.
Further digging and research may soon uncover and confirm, the location of the "Lost" Anglo Saxon village.
The gap in our history runs until the Domesday Book, just after the Norman Conquest of 1066. At that time the "manor" (which included the village) was an estate of nearly 1500 acres (600 ha), belonging to the Abbey of St.Edmundsbury (at Bury St Edmunds). The place was pretty prosperous, even then, with two watermills, 40 farm horses, 30 plough oxen, 300 sheep, 140 pigs, and 12 hives of bees! This manor was the beginning of what is now Melford Hall, one of the two great houses in the village. The other one, the manor we know as Kentwell is also mentioned in the Domesday Book. It did not belong to the the Abbey though, which was just as well a few hundred years later on. We might not have got our church if it had!
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages the village continued to prosper, and gained a weekly market and an annual fair in 1235. As the market was held nearly a mile south of the Green, we can see that the village must already have spread to something like its present length. The population may have been around 600 people.
Long Melford survived the Black Death in 1348-9, and was in the thick of the peasants' revolt in 1381. The leadership came from John Wrawe and Geoffrey Parfrey of Sudbury (three miles to the South), who took a mob through the villages of Liston and Cavendish close by, sacking the home of a notorious moneylender, and "liberating" the treasure of a hated judge. They then went to Long Melford, where like many others before and since, they enjoyed the hospitality of an Inn on the green. Refreshed, they did no damage there, but marched off to Bury St Edmunds and Lakenheath, for revenge on their oppressors. They caught them, too, and it ended with severed heads displayed on spikes; not nice!
By the early 1400s the manor of Kentwell belonged to the Clopton family, who distinguished themselves both in war and in politics. (War was hard to avoid, and politics was difficult. It was the time of the Wars of the Roses.) John Clopton was arrested in 1461and charged with treason. Some of his close friends were executed, but he was released and returned to Kentwell. There he organised and largely helped to pay for the great rebuilding of the parish church which gave us most of the majestic structure we see today. Surprisingly, there is no trace of any contribution to that building from the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, although the Abbott was Lord of the Manor of Melford.
During that same century (1400-1500) Melford was becoming rich. After the Peasants' Revolt most of the inhabitants were free men, renting their homes and lands, guilds were founded, and weaving cloth was as important as farming in building the village's wealth. In the official inspector's returns for the year 1446, there were as many as 30 named weavers in Long Melford, who between them produced 264 finished "cloths". (Each cloth was over 26 metres long and 1.6 metres wide.)
A lot of that wealth was put on show by building big houses down both sides of the main street (Hall Street). These houses had massive oak timbers in the frame, and almost all of them were built on the same general plan, known today as a Hall House.
The shape of a Hall House is a rectangle, divided into three. The middle part is the hall, with a ridged roof, originally only one storey high. This was where the household ate together, and where most of the servants would sleep. The cross passage ran through the house from the front door to the back, and was usually separated from the hall only by a screen up to two metres high.
At each end were "cross wings". The one next to the cross passage is known as the "Service" wing, usually with two rooms on the ground floor for the storage and preparation of food. The other cross wing, at the "high" end of the house was the "parlour" used by the master of the house and his family. They would sleep on the ground floor (often the whole family in the same room). Both cross wings normally had upstairs chambers too, but they were used more for storage than for sleeping.
The layout of these hall houses stays the same to an astonishing degree. Some were much larger than others, and the best ones were decorated with fancy woodwork and plastering. Towards the end of the Elizabethan period (around 1600) it became fashionable to have a first floor put in right across the hall. This quite often meant that the roof of the hall had to be raised, and new windows put in to light the new upstairs room. Many of the houses in Hall Street, Long Melford, show traces of this development, including "Brook House" opposite the Bull and just south of the mill and the ford.
There are at least twelve such hall houses in the centre of Long Melford, though many of them are now disguised by later brick frontages. They show more clearly than anything else how at the end of the Middle Ages Long Melford was already an industrial and commercial village, rather than just an agricultural one.
The Reformation and After
When King Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from the Pope in Rome (1534), there was an opportunity for committed protestants to change the direction and style of worship and (as they saw it) to purify the church buildings. At the time, the Church organisation was extremely wealthy, owning enormous amounts of land, and accumulated gifts from generations of devout believers. Unfortunately, this increasing wealth had not gone hand-in-hand with increasing holiness. The abbots and bishops were quite often exceedingly unpopular with the common people, who envied their wealth and despised their worldliness.
Under Henry VIII the monasteries were suppressed, and their assets confiscated by the King. Often the buildings survived (as at Norwich, for example) but the abbey at Bury St Edmunds was largely demolished for building stone, and there is almost nothing left of it today. Melford Hall had been a country house owned by the Abbott of Bury, so at the dissolution (around 1539) it became Crown property, and was rented out and later sold to Sir William Cordell, a lawyer who held many important official positions under Henry VIII and each of his children in turn (Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I). He built the "Trinity Hospital" (Tudor equivalent of an old folks' home) at the top of the green, in front of the church. It's a fine building, but it does spoil the view!
In the late 1530s the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII brought about major changes throughout the country. The manor of Melford had been held by the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and at the time of the Dissolution the abbot was John Reve (also known as John Melford) who had been born and brought up in Melford and whose mother had owned a tavern in Hall Street.
The Reformation brought about changes in every parish church but the most devastating changes occurred when Henry VIII died and his son Edward VI, a staunch Protestant, came to the throne. At Melford the churchwarden’s accounts reveal that sweeping changes were made to the fabric and furnishings of the church as stone altars and rood lofts were taken down, wall paintings covered in whitewash and stained glass images of saints were smashed. A few years later when the Catholic Mary Tudor became Queen there was a reversal in policy - the altars and images of the saints and many traditional Catholic practices were brought back only to be finally removed when Elizabeth I came to the throne.
In 1578 Queen Elizabeth visited Melford and stayed at Melford Hall as the guest of Sir William Cordell who had been granted the Manor of Melford following the closure of Bury Abbey. With her she brought a retinue of around 2000 retainers who all had to be fed and housed in the village. Apparently Sir William entertained her with such magnificence that other noblemen in the county found it hard to compete!
17th and 18th CENTURIES
In 1604 an epidemic of the Plague arrived in Melford and a chilling entry in the parish register announced ‘May: The Plauge begann’ followed by the names of 119 men, women and children buried between the months of May and September. Thomas Cooper buried on the 10th May was the first to die of the plague – we shall never know if he brought the disease into Melford or whether it had been introduced by a passing traveller and we can only guess at the fear that must have been present in every household.
During the turbulent years of the Civil War Melford was affected. In August 1642 a puritan mob of over one thousand arrived in Melford pursuing the Countess Rivers, a staunch Catholic and Royalist, from her property in St Osyth, Essex to her Suffolk estate at Melford Hall. The hall was sacked and plundered and the Countess fled to Bury St Edmunds, then onto London where eventually she was imprisoned for debt and died a pauper.
By the end of the 17th century cloth production had once again become important in the area as many new entrepreneurs started to produce a range of materials known as the ‘Bays and Says’. These were lighter, cheaper types of cloth than the traditional woollen broadcloths that had been made in the 15th and 16th centuries but once again many of the cloth merchants became extremely wealthy and for some years prosperity returned to Melford.
Soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century a range of new industries such as horsehair weaving, an iron foundry, a flax works and cocoanut matting started in Melford.
Horsehair weaving was introduced in the 1830s by John Churchyard and this initially concentrated on the production of crinolines for ladies skirts and horsehair cloth for seating in railway carriages. By 1851 there were three horsehair manufacturers in Melford employing over 200 men women and children – men were mainly employed as foremen and for maintaining the looms but the majority of workers were women and children. According to the 1851 census the youngest child employed as a ‘horsehair server’ was Henry Bullock who was only four years old and whose job would have been to keep the weaver (probably his mother) supplied with the lengths of horsehair.
Melford had an Iron Foundry, started by David Ward and his brother in law John Silver in 1843, which provided employment for many local men. By 1876 the firm was recorded in White’s Trade Directory as ‘agricultural engineers, iron founders, ironmongers, iron coal and coke merchants, gas works proprietors and farmers’. Examples of their work such as the boot scrapers on the houses in Chestnut Terrace, iron fenders on the corners of Liston Lane and Cock and Bell Lane and an unusual collection of cast iron crosses in the churchyard can still be seen in Melford and other examples may be found much further afield.
The Flax works was started in the 1870s in an old watermill on the River Stour which for centuries had been used as a corn mill and by the 18th century as a paper mill. The raw flax was treated by soaking and then beating the straw (known as scutching) to release the flax fibres which were then sent to Belfast to produce the famous Irish linen. It was due to this local industry that the Stag beerhouse in Westgate Street was renamed the Scutchers Arms and the unique Inn sign now hangs in the Old School Community Centre.
The coconut matting industry first appears in Melford around 1851 and by the 1880s a large factory was built by George Whittle behind Cocoanut House in Hall Street. The coconuts were brought by rail to Melford, unloaded and then transported by horse and cart to the factory where the fibres were woven into lengths of matting. The finished mats were then sent back to London to be sold. During the 1880s a series of wage cuts in the industry caused widespread anger and eventually resulted in strike action. Feelings ran high culminating on Polling Day in December 1885 when a riot broke out and considerable damage was caused throughout the village. The troops were summoned from Bury St Edmunds to restore order; they arrived by train and marched from Melford station to read the Riot Act from the steps of the Police Station. The riot was quelled but the damage took longer to repair and there were some heavy insurance settlements!
The 1914 -1918 war had a great impact on village life as many young men were called up to fight. The war memorial records the names of 96 men and one woman who lost their lives in service but many others returned home bearing the scars of the conflict. Despite the agricultural depression employment was still available in Melford as the horsehair and cocoanut matting industries and the iron foundry continued to trade with List’s Hair factory working up until the 1960s. Stafford Allen’s mill opened on the site of the Flax works in 1899 distilling herbs and oils, eventually becoming Bush Boake Allen and employing many local people until it closed a few years ago.
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