Written by Kate Cole © Kate Cole/Essex Voices Past 2015.
Much is known about its medieval past; that it was once the fourteenth wealthiest town in England; that the wool trade brought great wealth to the area; that one of its inhabitants, Thomas Spring III (1456-1523), was the richest man in England (apart from the king and nobility). However, it is little known that by the start of the twentieth century, Lavenham was in serious decline.
The wool trade, and its associated wealth, had long vanished from the village; although new industry had sprung up in its wake. Thomas Turner (1784-1864), the master woolstapler, established a highly successful business, and built rows of Georgian and Victorian cottages in the High Street to house his workers. William Whittingham Roper (1820-1890) and his sons, the horsehair factory-owners, subsequently occupied many of Turner’s properties, and also built more workers’ cottages and factories.
But even this new breed of Victorian industrialists and their businesses could not stop the decline in Lavenham’s fortunes; particularly its medieval heritage. Many of Lavenham’s medieval buildings had fallen into ruin; or worse still, had been destroyed. The manorial barn, which had given Barn Street its name, was demolished in the 1860s. The Guildhall of Holy Trinity in Prentice Street, one of the village’s four medieval/Tudor guildhalls, was demolished in 1879; today in its place is a car park. The Guildhall of St Peter’s located on the High Street, demolished at some unknown date. The village’s two remaining guildhalls had not been demolished, but were in serious state of disrepair; their medieval heritage ignored.
The Guildhall of Our Lady (also known as the Wool Hall and today part of The Swan) had been divided into three houses and a baker’s shop, and was in a dilapidated condition. The Guildhall of Corpus Christi, today the glistening jewel in Lavenham’s glittering crown, had in turn become a prison, a workhouse, an almshouse and a wool-store. It was near-derelict by the start of the twentieth century. Other medieval buildings throughout the village had been entombed in red-brick or plaster; a Georgian and Victorian habit for their wealthy owners, with the intention to “improve” houses and hide their supposedly “primitive” medieval architecture.
Moreover, by the first quarter of the twentieth century other buildings in the village were being taken down timber-by-timber to be moved elsewhere. Weavers House in Lady Street had been demolished and re-erected in Walberswick. The Guildhall of Our Lady, De Vere House, and Schilling Grange were in the process of being either totally demolished or taken down piece-by-piece to be sold elsewhere (possibly America). It was only the outcry by local people, societies and prominent people, which stopped this destruction. This outcry, along with the money and influence of people such as Queen Victoria’s daughter, the Duchess of Argyll, stopped Lavenham’s demise. It was through these peoples’ influence, not to mention their own personal wealth, that Lavenham was saved, and individual medieval buildings restored to their former glory (at great financial cost).
The saving and restoration of Lavenham’s medieval buildings continued throughout the twentieth century. Whilst Lavenham can no longer claim to be the fourteenth wealthiest town in England; it can assert itself as an outstanding tourist base for those seeking England’s medieval heritage. What’s more, the discerning visitor can stay in any number of the village’s restored medieval houses, or alternatively rest the night in one of the pretty Georgian and Victorian workers’ cottages built by Thomas Turner, William Roper and Thomas Baker.
When I was photographing Lavenham for my book, a local man stopped me, and after we had chatted awhile, he said: “You don’t know what’s holding what up. Are the brick cottages and factories holding up the medieval houses, or are the medieval houses holding up the cottages? Remove one and they’ll all fall down.” He was quite right. Every single building in Lavenham is important to the cohesion and heritage of this jewel in Suffolk’s crown.
You can read more about Lavenham and its journey through time Kate’s book ‘Sudbury, Long Melford and Lavenham Through Time’, published by Amberley Publishing. You can also read more on East Anglian local history on her blog, www.essexvoicespast.com.