What’s Good about Sudbury

Reporter: Heather Coltman

Our President, Lord Andrew Phillips, took this statement as a starting point for his short gallop through the history of our town. His remarks on Friday 28thMarch were addressed  to a large audience who had braved more of the season’s soggy weather to hear him.

He began by saying that he had no plot line for the talk so started with his own birth  which might have occurred in Sudbury Town, Middlesex if his father hadn’t mixed up the Sudburys when going for a job interview. Having arrived in Suffolk he decided to stay.

We were then given some interesting facts about the foundation of the town on the banks of the Stour. It was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; St. Gregory’s was a minster in the 8th Century; Royal coinage was minted in the town as early as A.D.790; there were only 25 mints in the country and Sudbury had one of them, possibly on the site of Borehamgate.  The 14th Century Dominican Priory lasted until the early 18th Century when most of it was pulled down although the gatehouse remains in Friars Street. When Queen Mary Tudor came to the throne she tried to take the country back to Rome and to that end ordered the burning of any caught ‘dissenting’ from this view. Many of them were from East Anglia and their trials are recorded in Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ – which was a ‘best seller’ up until the 17th Century!

Sudbury was a mercantile town with a varied industrial landscape. It has the oldest continuous silk weaving industry in the country many of the companies originally set up by immigrants, originally in London but later in East Anglia. Religious persecution had brought many to this country but then Charles I alienated many local people with his High Church policies and they left Britain for America. The largest number of settlers in the New World came from this area – they took the names of their towns with them to the New England states; there are still many political, religious and cultural  similarities.

There is yet another uniqueness of Sudbury; the fact that it was the birthplace of one of Britain’s greatest portrait and landscape artists; namely Thomas Gainsborough. He was one of several from the area who painted the wide skies, undulating hills, rivers and ponds. He wrote on various occasions of his boredom with ‘face painting’ and much preferred his ‘landskips’. Talk of rivers brought us to the River Stour.

In 1704-5 the Stour Navigation Act was passed which gave the right to build locks and towpaths between Sudbury and Manningtree. Interestingly, Gainsborough’s uncle and Constable’s father were on the Navigation Board, one in the cloth trade and the other a miller. Because some landowners would not allow towpaths on their land it meant there was no continuity to the path and towing horses had to jump on and off the barges they were pulling to get from one side of the river to the other – there were 33 changes between the town and the estuary. However, the Navigation was very successful and only came to an end when the railways extended to the area.

Other aspects of the town were touched on including the Victorian Walnuttree Workhouse. There had been an even earlier workhouse on the same site built to deal with the problem of the poor. Walnuttree provided accommodation for people within a 10 mile radius.

To finish we were told the story of William Kemp who, for a wager, Morris-danced his way from London to Norwich. Coming through Sudbury on his way to Bury St. Edmunds, he was joined by an enthusiastic follower, a young country girl with ‘hips well larded’ who accompanied Kemp as far as Bury. Kemp called it ‘his nine days wonder’. Since it is 100 miles from London to Norwich it is an astonishing feat.

With such a rich history to draw on Lord Phillips urged his audience to research for themselves the many and varied aspects of ‘what‘s good about Sudbury’.