A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.

image

One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.

Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.

Kneller

“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

One hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking…

Hearing that a small group of far-right racists are planning a march in Ipswich this weekend, I thought I’d remind myself of Suffolk’s history of incoming migrants. We exported a lot of people over the years too, of course, via convict ships, voluntary emigration and the “overpaid, oversexed and over here” USAAF who were stationed all over the county during the Second World War and took a lot of Suffolk women back to the United States as “GI Brides.”

Ipswich has had a thriving port since medieval times and as a consequence has always been a place of entry and settlement for migrants. It was known as a welcoming place for incomers, many of whom settled in the town. As an example, from a brief look through the records of the 1901 census of Ipswich, there were more than 20 Italians, 13 people described as French subjects, 64 people who had been born in Ireland and one Russian. Many people in Ipswich will be descendants of these and other immigrants. Since then, there have been significant arrivals of people from the West Indies, the Indian sub-continent and most recently from Eastern Europe, all adding to the vibrant and cosmopolitan nature of the town and enhancing its culture.

Without immigration, there would have been no Jason Dozzell or Keiron Dyer playing for Ipswich Town Football Club, no Emeric Pressburger (who is buried at Saxtead near Woodbridge), the Hungarian refugee who, with Michael Powell, made brilliant films such as A Matter of Life and Death, One of our Aircraft is Missing and The Red Shoes, no Aspall cider (the Chevallier family were originally from the Channel Islands), no Ickworth House (designed by Italian architect, Mario Asprucci, and two Italian craftsmen, Casimiro & Donato Carabelli, were brought over to live in Little Saxham and create the frieze that runs around the dome, no Peter’s ice cream (produced by Ipswich’s Zagni family). Perhaps the Aldeburgh Festival would not have survived as its success was very much the result of the work of its artistic director from 1956 to 1977, Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav Holst and of Swedish, Latvian and German descent. There are, of course, countless other examples. I have chosen just three more, all eminent people whose families came here from other countries and either settled in Suffolk or lived there for for some time.

Edward Ardizzone, the artist, was born in French Indo-China in 1900, and was the son of Auguste Ardizzone, an Algerian-born, naturalized Frenchman of Italian origin, and his wife, Margaret. Ardizzone spent his childhood in East Anglia, including an idyllic period at his grandmother’s house in East Bergholt from 1905, which he described in his autobiography. Unfortunately he was sent to be educated at Ipswich School where he was bullied so badly that his memories of the town were tainted for the rest of his life. He’s best remembered for his illustrations in children’s books, including The Otterbury Incident and Stig of the Dump, but he also drew a great deal that was inspired by his boyhood memories of the rougher part of Ipswich, including a famous sketch of two women fighting one another outside an Ipswich pub in about 1912.

Ardizzone

Cor Visser    The Ipswich Society placed a blue plaque on the front of 44 Fore Street, Ipswich in memory of Cor Visser, a Dutch artist who spent much of his life living in Suffolk. Attracted by his love for sailing and, presumably – like many painters who settle in East Anglia – because of the landscape and the light, he arrived in 1937. Many of his watercolours are of the River Orwell. He was the official war artist to the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War and his works are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as well as in various British galleries, including in Ipswich. He died in 1982.

Sophia Duleep Singh (full name: Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh) was born at Elveden Hall in 1876, the daughter of a Maharaja and his first wife Bamba Müller, who was of German and Ethiopian descent. Sophia and her sister Catherine were suffragettes and she was a member of the Pankhurst’s militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union. She spent most of her life fighting for minority rights, including as a leading member of the Women’s Tax Resistance Campaign which argued that women should withhold paying taxes until they were given the vote. You can find more information about her by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website (and most public libraries will offer you free access).

Sophia Duleep-Singh

The whole agricultural economy of East Anglia has been based on using the toil of travelling people (many of whom would have had Romani or Irish ancestors) and migrant labourers such as the Eastern Europeans who are still working on the land to this day.  It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that none of us are – to use the gloriously funny words that Galton and Simpson put into Tony Hancock’s mouth in The Blood Donor, in which he indignantly answers June Whitfield’s question about his British nationality with the assertion that he’s “one hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking… .”

I doubt that it’s possible to find someone in East Anglia who has a family tree that is exclusively made up of indigenous Britons and many of us, thankfully, have people in our family from all over of the world. It’s good for our health both in terms of genetics and in the huge number of migrants who have come here, temporarily or permanently to work in the NHS, for example – and as the OECD  [links to the Daily Telegraph] has reported recently it’s good for our economy too.

How to sell your wife

Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.

It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.

In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common.  Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!

The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”

In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”

I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.

Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:

Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered his wife in exchange for an ox provided he would let him choose one out of his drove, the grazier accepted the proposal and the wife readily agreed, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”

Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”

Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbour for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”

Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story:  “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).

A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.

Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802),  Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.

An “incident” at the Kesgrave Bell

As anyone familiar with the iconoclasm of William Dowsing knows, Suffolk suffered greatly from Puritanism in the 17th century. This manifested itself in Ipswich in the form of Samuel Warde, Town Preacher from 1605 to 1634, a post for which he received £100 p.a. He had to preach in St. Mary-le-Tower three times a week and his sermons, apparently, often lasted two hours. He was eventually imprisoned for offending the Church of England clergy by calling them “devills in surplices, anti-Christian mushrooms.”

One of his edifying sermons was called Woe to Drunkards, which was published in 1627. He called for the closure of all ale-houses. One example he gave was of an “incident” at the Bell Inn in Kesgrave, Suffolk:

“An Ale-wife in Kesgrave neere to Ipswich, who needs force three Servingmen (that had been drinking in her house, and were taking their leaves) to stay and drink the three Outs first (that is, Wit out of their head, Money out of their purse, Ale out of the pot) as she was comming towards them with the pot in her hand, was suddenly taken speechlesse and sicke, her tongue swolne in her mouth, never recovered speech, the third day after dyed. ”

This, according to Warde, was “a noted and remarkable example of God’s Justice.” So be warned.

The Widow’s Coffee House, Bury St. Edmunds

 On 14th January 1890, the Bury & Norwich Post published the following letter:

MRS. ROOKES OF BURY

A correspondent writes:- “I have long been seeking a clue to the personality of Mrs. Letitia Rookes, of Bury St. Edmunds, a portrait of whom by Bunbury, if I remember aright, is preserved in the admirable collection of engravings in the Archaeological library in the Bury Athenaeum. I had already discovered that the memorial tablet affixed to the wall outside St. James’s Church, near the Norman Tower, is to her memory, but the note in the ‘Jottings from old newspapers,’ in your interesting ‘Memorials of the Past’ has afforded me considerable enlightenment as to who and what this woman was, for there is no doubt that she was the occupier or proprietress of the coffee house which stood under the shadow of the Norman Tower, and between it and St. James’s Church, and that she was probably the proprietress of the ‘Sirop de Capillaire,’ which may have been a medicine in which considerable faith was placed at the time. I may point out that the day of her death was 23rd September, 1782.”

The writer was referring to a snippet of information that had been re-published in the newspaper on 7th January 1890:

“Bury St. Edmunds, 1st of October, 1776. Mrs. Rookes begs leave to return her grateful Acknowledgements to her Friends, for their Favours received during the Time she has kept the Coffee-House; She is very sorry it is not in her power to continue it any longer, but her bad State of Health makes it requisite for her, after this Week, to retire from Business. The true genuine Sirop de Capillaire, so much esteem’d may be had of P. Deck at Post-Office, Bury.”

Sirop de Capillaire was a French liqueur made from the maidenhair fern which was supposed to have medicinal properties. Of course, Mrs. Rookes may well have had the monopoly on sales of the stuff at her coffee house, but other references to her in the Bury Post and elsewhere suggest that she provided the citizens, and particularly the clergy, of Bury St. Edmunds with other things altogether.

Bury & Norwich Post, 24th March, 1887: “There was also a coffee-house called the ‘Widow’s coffee-house’ – in what sense I cannot say… kept by one Laetitia Rookes. .. Laetitia succeeded Felicia, of the same name, and was a well-known character in St. Edmundsbury.”

And, as late as March 1951, the following item appeared in an article about the Suffolk artist, Henry Bunbury, in the East Anglian Magazine: [The Widow’s Coffee House] “was kept by the notorious Mrs. Laetitia Rookes, … who was assisted by her two daughters. It was an establishment never referred to in polite or mixed society. Warren, in his map of Bury had an engraving of this building showing Mrs. Rookes’ two beautiful but frail daughters ogling the passers-by from the upstairs window. The widow remained in business until 1776 when she retired to live in another part of the town for the remaining sixteen years of her life. The caricature is absolutely devoid of offence but the curves of the mouth and face are so cleverly drawn that anybody looking at it cannot be in dount for one moment of the old lady’s true vocation in life.”

Laetitia Rookes was supposedly also buried within the precincts of the church, so grateful were the local clergy for the services that she and her daughters had provided to them. Or at least, half of her was buried within the consecrated ground. According to this story – which may be apocryphal – the other half was buried outside the precincts of St. James’s. I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which half that was.

Suffolk Summer

            When John Tate Appleby from Arkansas stumbled from a train on to the dark and rainy platform at Cockfield railway station in Suffolk one evening in March 1945, the war in Europe was all but over. During the Second World War, many Americans like him had arrived in East Anglia to serve their country. From November 1942, the US Eighth Air Force had flown 493 operational missions from East Anglia, comprising a total of 94,948 sorties and dropping 199,833 tons of bombs. Nearly seven thousand young Americans serving with the 2nd Air Division lost their lives.

             The last mission of the Eighth Air Force flew in April 1945, however, just after John Appleby’s arrival. During the seven months that he spent in Suffolk, he appears to have had plenty of spare time which he spent travelling around East Anglia, mainly by bicycle. Although he admired Cambridge, Ely and Norwich, John Appleby fell in love with Suffolk and the result was a book, Suffolk Summer, which has charmed its readers ever since. An early paperback edition of Suffolk Summer

            Born on 10th  June, 1907 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, John Tate Appleby came from a rural area himself. His family were Arkansas farmers who owned apple orchards and canning factories. By the time Appleby arrived in Suffolk, however, he had already seen a great deal of Europe. After graduating from Harvard in 1928, he had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then had travelled around Europe working as a reporter for the Washington Post. When America joined the Allies in the war against Germany, he enlisted in the Eighth Air Force as a trainer in celestial navigation. It was this work that eventually brought him to Suffolk. He seems to have become enamoured with the county from his very first morning. “The American eye,” he wrote, “is struck first of all by the dazzling greenness of the fields and by the beauty of the hedgerows.”

            The reader of Suffolk Summer can be forgiven for wondering whether John Appleby had very much celestial navigation training to do. He seems to have spent a great deal of time cycling around the countryside, visiting churches, or socialising at the servicemen’s canteen which was run by the Salvation Army at the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds. 

The Athenaeum, Bury St. Edmunds

The Athenaeum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

However, in Suffolk Summer, he states quite clearly that he did not want to write a book about the war. He wanted to write a book about Suffolk. In addition to this, even as late as 1948 when his book was first published, he would not have felt able to write about the military aspects of his time in England. We can guess the location of the airfield where he was based, eight miles south of Bury, but he never reveals its precise location. Wherever it was exactly, it seems to have been the perfect place for John Appleby the medieval historian, set in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, close to Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham and Long Melford, places that were – and still are – steeped in medieval history. One colleague who had worked with him at the American Historical Review after the war, told his obituarist that “he steadfastly maintained that his world ended in 1215” and he found much to fascinate him in Suffolk, including – at Bury Abbey – the place where the barons met in 1214 to swear to force King John to grant them the rights that were eventually written down as the Magna Carta. In Suffolk Summer, he wrote that Bury’s Norman tower was “the most beautiful and satisfying piece of architecture in East Anglia.”

Norman Tower, Bury St. Edmunds

 Appleby took up the hobby of brass rubbing with enthusiasm and cycled around Suffolk pursuing it, but his book is as much about the Suffolk countryside and the people he met as it is about history. He tells us about a sailor who cycled alongside him for a while on his way to visit the parents of a friend killed in action in the Pacific, a “grand tripe dinner” cooked by Mrs. Jarman of Bury, and his good friends, Bernard Cox and Arnold Ellis, also serving their country and idealistic about the future, when the war would finally be over, and the promised welfare state would come to be.

            In October 1945, Appleby was transferred to East Wretham in Norfolk in preparation for his return to the United States. His final departure was postponed so many times and he said goodbye to his friends so often that he began to find it embarrassing. After one such postponement, “in sheer desperation, I sat down under a hedgerow and began this account of my stay in England, and the writing of it, together with long walks in the neighbourhood, filled my days very comfortably.”

            Appleby returned to the United States on the Queen Mary in early November, where he spent some years running one of the family’s apple orchards. It was during this time that he completed Suffolk Summer and when it was published by the East Anglian Magazine in 1948, its profits went to the Appleby Rose Garden in the grounds of the Abbey in his beloved Bury St. Edmunds.

The John Appleby Rose Garden in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The John Appleby Rose Garden

During the 1950s, John Appleby returned to live and work in Washington where he wrote several other books, academic works on the English kings, John, Stephen, Henry II and Richard I. He was also, for many years, an associate editor of the American Historical Review. A private man, who was a devout Catholic and loved music, he never married and, after he died of leukaemia in Washington in 1974, he was buried alongside his parents in Fayetteville. Although he is remembered in academic circles in the United States, he is perhaps held in highest regard in the county of which he wrote:

            “The English landscape at its subtlest and loveliest is to be seen in the County of Suffolk. I can say this with dogmatic certainty because it is the only county in England that I can pretend to know. Furthermore, the people of Suffolk themselves tell me this, and I know it must be so.”