A History of Ipswich

By Tim Lambert

Anglo-Saxon Ipswich

Ipswich started as a small trading settlement in the early 7th century. There are 2 theories about how Ipswich got its name. It may have been Gippa’s wic (wic is an old word meaning port). Or it may have been Gip’s wic (gip meant corner, in this case, the corner of the river Orwell).

Whichever is true Ipswich soon became a flourishing town. It was ideally situated to trade with Germany. Whetstones and millstones were imported from Germany into Ipswich. Wool was exported.

In Anglo-Saxon Ipswich, there were many weavers of wool. There were also potters and many other craftsmen. Ipswich also had a mint. However, because of its position in the East of England, Ipswich was vulnerable to attack by the Danes. The Danes occupied Ipswich from 869 until 917 when it was recaptured by the English.

Ipswich in the Middle Ages

By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Ipswich probably had a population of 2,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a medium-sized town. Later in the Middle Ages, the population grew larger and was probably about 3,000 by the 14th century.

In the late 11th or early 12th century, a wooden castle was built in Ipswich. Not much is known about it but it was demolished in 1176.

Then in 1200, Ipswich was given a charter, a document granting the townspeople certain rights. After that Ipswich had its own courts to try cases in the town. All the men in Ipswich elected 2 officials called bailiffs who ran the town day to day.

The main export from Medieval Ipswich was wool. In the town, wool was woven. It was then fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Afterward, men called tenters spread the wool on frames called tenterhooks to dry (hence the saying to be on tenterhooks). When it dried the wool was dyed.

Another important industry in Ipswich was leatherworking. There were skinners and tanners and men who made things from leather such as shoemakers. There were also the same craftsmen you found in any town such as blacksmiths, brewers, butchers, and bakers. Furthermore, by the 13th century, there was a flourishing shipbuilding industry in Ipswich.

As well as weekly markets Ipswich had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over East Anglia to buy and sell at an Ipswich fair.

Early in the 12th century, 2 priories were founded in Ipswich, Holy Trinity Priory and Saints Peter and Paul Priory. In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Ipswich. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 3 orders of friars in Ipswich. There were Franciscans (called grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominicans, or black friars, and Carmelites, or white friars. There were also 2 leper hospitals just outside Ipswich.

Ipswich in the 16th century

A new school, St Marys was founded in 1528. Then in 1538, Henry VIII closed the priories and the friaries in Ipswich. Edmund Withipoll built Christchurch Mansion after 1548 on the site of an Augustinian priory. The house was damaged by fire in the 17th century and partly rebuilt.

Ancient House dates from the 15th century. In 1670 Robert Sparrowe, a grocer altered Ancient House. He added the reliefs, which depict the four continents (only four were known in 1670).

During the 16th century, the wool trade in Ipswich continued to boom but in the 17th century, it declined. In the late 16th century a sail-making industry started in Ipswich. It flourished in the early 17th century but it declined in the later part of the century. However, shipbuilding continued to prosper in Ipswich.

Ipswich in the 17th century

In the 17th century timber and iron were still imported into Ipswich from Scandinavia and hemp for rope-making was imported from Latvia. Grain was exported from Ipswich.

In the 17th century, the coastal trade to and from Ipswich thrived. In those days it was expensive to transport goods by road and whenever possible they were taken by water. Many goods were transported along the coast from one part of Britain to another. Coal from Newcastle was bought to Ipswich and farm produce was taken to London.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Ipswich continued to grow. Ipswich probably had a population of 4,000 in the late 16th century. The population rose to about 7,500 by the late 17th century.

However, Ipswich suffered a severe outbreak of plague in 1665 but the town soon recovered. At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes said Ipswich was very clean and much bigger than Colchester. Their streets were broad and paved with small stones. However Celia Fiennes also commented on the lack of manufacturing industry in Ipswich.

Ipswich in the 18th century

During the 18th century, the population of Ipswich grew more slowly. It reached 11,000 by 1800. By the standards of the time, Ipswich was a fair-sized town and it was quite prosperous. Ipswich gained its first newspaper in 1720 and its first theatre in 1736.

Although the wool trade in Ipswich was now dead other industries flourished such as shipbuilding, leather, malting, and brewing.

In 1797 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Paving Commissioners who were responsible for paving and cleaning the streets of Ipswich.

Ipswich in the 19th century

Ipswich grew rapidly in the 19th century. The population of Ipswich was 11,000 in 1801 but it rose to almost 33,000 in 1851 and reached 66,000 by the end of the century. n In the 19th century Ipswich became a major manufacturing center. In Ipswich, iron foundries made farm machinery and railway parts. Other industries were brewing and malting, brick making and cement making, grain milling, and oil milling (crushing linseeds to produce oil). There was also a printing industry in Ipswich as well as fertilizer making, tobacco, and clothing.

The port boomed. In the early 19th century ships tied up at the side of the river but in 1842 a wet dock was dug. Ipswich had ceased to be an important international port but the coastal trade thrived. Iron and coal were brought from other parts of the country and manufactured iron goods were taken from Ipswich. Shipbuilding continued to flourish in Ipswich.

In 1812 a corn exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold. It was rebuilt in 1881. From 1818 Ipswich had gaslight. The first modern police force in Ipswich was formed in 1836. The first museum in Ipswich opened in 1847. A new town hall was built in 1868.

Life in 19th century Ipswich gradually improved. In the 1880s a network of sewers was dug in Ipswich. In the 19th century, private companies provided the water supply but in 1892 the council took them over. The council obtained Christchurch Mansion and its grounds in 1892. In 1896 the mansion was made into a museum. The grounds were made into a public park. Meanwhile from 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Ipswich.

Ipswich in the 20th century

In the 20th century, Ipswich’s population grew more slowly. From 66,000 in 1901 it rose to 123,000 in 1971.

From 1903 electric trams ran in the streets of Ipswich but the service ended in 1926. Meanwhile, during World War I Ipswich suffered 2 zeppelin raids. The first in 1915 caused no casualties but a second in 1916 killed 1 man.

During the 1920s and 1930s slum clearance began in Ipswich and the first council houses were built. Orwell Bridge was built in 1982.

During the 20th century, the traditional industries in Ipswich such as making farm machinery, shipbuilding, and brewing declined but new service industries replaced them. Among these was tourism. The Transport Museum was founded in 1965.

Today Ipswich is a regional shopping centre. Sailmakers Shopping Centre opened in 1986. The Buttermarket Shopping Centre opened in 1992. Orwell Country Park opened in 1995.

Ipswich in the 21st Century

The University of Suffolk was founded in 2007. In 2023 the population of Ipswich was 139,000.

A view of Ipswich