Halesworth sits astride the river Blyth as it cuts a shallow valley back into the boulder clay plateau which stretches through east Norfolk, east Suffolk and into Essex. The peat and alluvium around the river, combined with the river itself for transport, would have made it an attractive place for settlement from earliest times and we can imagine Mesolithic communities in the area, iron age farmers and then Roman settlements. However, we move to Saxon times to find the beginnings of the settlement we know today and as is often the case, it is the Domesday book of 1086 that begins to unlock some detail. Shortly after the Norman conquest we find the Argentein (with many variations on the spelling) family as lords of the manor of Halesworth. It seems likely that David de Argentein came from France with William the Conqueror and his descendants went on to own a number of manors across the eastern counties.
The Saxon settlement would have had its own church; the current St Mary's grew gradually over the 14th and 15th centuries, sponsored by the Argentein family. The town took a step forward in 1222 when Richard de Argentein (or more probably his agent, as Richard may well have been away on the Crusades in that year) obtained a licence for a weekly market and an annual fair in October. The granting of such a licence was always an important step forward, and Halesworth was now 'formalised' as the town at which all the surrounding parishes within a days walk and return would look to engage in trade. It is only within the last century that many of our East Anglian market towns have lost the sight of livestock being walked to market in the town centre once a week.
The local history of Halesworth picks out the 16th century as of particular interest, with the town being particularly well-known for its apothecaries, a mixture of our modern GP and chemist. Less favourably remembered is the visit of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled 'Witchfinder General', who terrorised the east counties by accusing many perhaps less-able folk of witchcraft; four from Halesworth were hanged,
The richness of the surrounding land for the growing of grain and in particularly barley for malting made the town an important centre for malting and brewing. Little glimpses emerge of buildings and the economy of the town through advertisements for premises and business. In 1829 The Brewery Malthouse was up for sale. The granaries and malt-houses are described as commodious; above one of the malt-houses was a granary which could hold 1,500 quarters (1 quarter = 8 bushels, or approx 282 litres) of grain. Other local stores could hold 4,000 or 5,000 quarters of grain. One of the lead lined steeps for the malting could hold 90 quarters a time. The accompanying dwelling house was brick built with two parlours on the ground floor, a drawing room and three bedrooms on the second floor and four bedrooms on the third floor. There was plenty of 'fine spring water' for the malting. A prosperous dwelling for a prosperous business; local records indicate that at one point there were nine maltings in total in the town.
The purchaser of such a business could expect the convenience of road transport to Beccles on the turnpike road - these were a distinct improvement on earlier road systems. Perhaps more importantly, wherries operates on the Halesworth canal. The information on the Malthouse Brewery quoted above also says that there is opportunity to develop a business in the coal trade, with storage available for 600 to 700 chaldrons (1 chaldron = 4 quarters) of coal. The proximity and accessibility by water transport of the port of Southwold is very much seen as an asset. We need to recall just how important water travel was for moving bulk goods such as grain goods before the coming of the railways.
Not all was at peace in the agricultural community during the nineteenth century. Whilst locally the Earl of Stradbroke was held up as providing improved cottages for his workers, Halesworth suffered its share of 'Swing' incidents. In January 1834 for instance the stack-yard of Mr Taylor at Spexhall was set on fire; Mr Johnson of Halesworth and Mr Prime at Holton were also victims of incendiary attacks.
Returning to railways, travel by train was not always risk free. In August 1877, there was a narrow escape for some when the 5 o'clock train from Yarmouth collided with some trucks being shunted at Halesworth. The driver and fireman of the express jumped from their cab, seeing a collision was inevitable and fortunately for the passengers, the train did not leave the track in the process of demolishing a number of trucks.
There was particular local interest in the development of the Mid Suffolk Light Railway, initially to run between Halesworth and Haughley. Work started in May 1902, but by 1910 it still only ran to Laxfield and efforts were continuing to raise capital locally to get it as far as Halesworth. The proposers were however making the point that they had a regular gauge project, unlike the narrow gauge line opened to Southwold in 1879.However, even this line didn't survive long into the 20th century. In 1929, the Southwold Railway Company had to give notice to its employees that it was closing the line - competition from the developing motor-omnibus trade was given as the cause. The situation was not helped by the fact that the light railway was legally restricted to a speed of 16 miles an hour, whilst the buses now travelled at 20 mph! The line closed on 11th April 1929. Of more lasting importance has been the main line railway station, opened for both passengers and freight in 1854 by the Halesworth, Beccles and Haddiscoe railway company; whilst the freight facilities closed in 1965, passengers continue to benefit from the use of the Beccles to Ipswich line.
In April 1915 it was perhaps more with curiosity than fear that some townsfolk watched, shortly after midnight, a Zeppelin wandering overhead. Some bombs were thrown in the area around Henham Hall and damage done at Lowestoft, but the general interpretation of its meandering around north Suffolk was that it didn't quite know where it was. Later in the first World War a Zeppelin was brought down near Halesworth. There was some damage from bombing locally in the Second World War, but perhaps the biggest impact on the town came from the establishment of the local airfield and the 'invasion' by the USAAF!
The visitor to Halesworth today with an interest in local history will find that a walk round the town trail, with the aid of a leaflet, will unlock much more of the town's history than we have had space for here. Whilst Halesworth shares many of the common features of all the market towns of the region, it also has its own special features and people to remember and explain.
Gothic House and Dairy Farm, in the town centre, were built as two houses in the 15th century, joined into one when the home of the Bedingfield family, and today have become two houses again. The fascinating porch on the left of the building is dated to about 1640.
Many of of regional towns have surviving almshouses, indicating how well such buildings were generally constructed. They were generally provided by individual beneficence, in the age before the parish took on responsibility for the poor. William Cary provided for these in Halesworth in 1686.
A carving above an archway, part of Mansion House, in the town centre. The small shield is interpreted as a masonic symbol.
The tower of the church of St Mary's.
Why include a picture of a relatively uninspiring bank building? Because it's another reminder that most of our East Anglian towns have confident and permanent-looking bank buildings from the 19th and early 20th century, symbolising the developing economy of the communities.