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.

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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.”

Insurrection: a Suffolk tradition

Visit Suffolk [ http://www.visitsuffolk.com/ ] is an organisation that has the task of promoting tourism to the county and is one of many bodies marketing Suffolk as a picturesque and bucolic retreat for jaded city-dwellers & holiday home buyers. According to its website Suffolk has “a countryside dotted with quintessential English villages and thriving market towns.” It alludes to the county’s history, too, as a selling point. “Suffolk has its place in history,” it says, “tales of Anglo Saxon kings and Tudor Queens.” 

Cavendish Green in Suffolk

Cavendish Green


All this may well be true, but just as in the 18th century, when Constable and Gainsborough’s paintings portrayed a landscape and society at odds with the sordid reality and enormous social unrest of the time,  Suffolk’s pretty aspect hides real hardship and social division. There are many towns and villages where local people have simply been driven out by the high costs of housing (or even of beach huts). Closures and cuts in local services have resulted in the people of Suffolk taking to the streets in protest. But this is nothing new, the county has a long history of rebellion.  Here is my brief survey of the long tradition of insurrection in Suffolk.

In 1214, the Norman Barons of England met at the abbey in Bury St Edmunds and swore an oath to force King John to accept Magna Carta. The Barons, of course, were merely protecting their own interests. It would be a long time until the lower orders were even regarded as human beings. However, Bury itself would be the scene of many more open acts of revolt. In The History & Antiquities of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Richard Yates (1843, 2nd  ed.) there is a chapter with the odd title of “Contests with Townsmen.” This, in fact, describes the ongoing political unrest in the town for almost the whole of the period of the Abbey’s power. During the mediaeval period, the Abbots had supreme power over the inhabitants of the town. Yates describes many of the conflicts  from 1264 onwards. He clearly feels that the Abbey had the right to hold totalitarian power over the town, and so his history has to be read in that light. In “1292 we find the convent and the townsmen again involved in a dispute, that appears to have been conducted with much asperity and animosity on both sides.” There was more trouble in 1305 when the Alderman and burgesses were brought to court for “withholding fines …  resisting the officers employed in distraining, throwing stones upon, and damaging, the roof of the church; stoning the workmen employed in repairing the same; beating the servants of the Abbey; etc.” In 1327 “a vast force from the neighbouring towns and villages made several attacks upon the monastery and its possessions.”

The events of 1327 in Bury were perhaps the most violent and certainly the most serious. What Yates describes as a “vast force” has been estimated at around 20,000 local people. They attacked the abbey and, over a period of several days, burned down and destroyed buildings in the abbey grounds and satellite  properties in nearby villages like Horningsheath (Horringer) and Fornham St. Martin. The Abbot still clung to power but concessions had to be made. Unrest continued until the Abbey lost its powers during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and gradually fell into disuse.

The Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The image that the mediaeval peasantry were compliant or servile is not borne out by historical documents. The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows, 1351-1399; edited by Ray Lock (Boydell Press, 2002) give hundreds of examples of low-grade acts of rebellion and petty law-breaking amongst the bonded labourers of Suffolk in the fourteenth century. It’s hard to know whether these examples of “contempt of the lord” were political in any sense that we would recognise today but it certainly doesn’t give an impression of docility:

   “Elias Typetot made an assault on the reeve of this manor, threatening him in breach of the peace and in contempt of the lord. Elias being questioned could not deny [the charge] and placed himself on the lord’s mercy…” [Walsham Court, 15 July, 1363] … “John Manser and John Pye each amerced 12d because in the autumn they made an assault on John Baner, the lord’s bailiff, in contempt of the lords.”  [Walsham Court, 16 September, 1376] … “Edmund Patel amerced 3s 4d for contempt of the lord, openly abusing all the jurors in full court.”  [Walsham Court 22 February, 1380] … “William Grocer, the son of William, amerced ½ mark for contempt of the lord, making an assault on the lord’s bailiff and beating him.”  [Walsham Court, 26 September, 1385]

There is an extensive account of the poll tax rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt which took place across the whole of England in 1381, in Edgar Powell’s The Rising in East Angliain 1381 (Cambridge University Press, 1896). The principal leader of the rebels in East Anglia was John Wrawe of Sudbury, described in contemporary documents as a chaplain.  In June 1381, he led an attack at the manor of Overhall in Essex, near Long Melford, directed against the lord of the manor Richard Lyons, who was notoriously corrupt. The rebels proceeded to Cavendish and attacked the parish church where they took the goods of John de Cavendish which had been hidden in the church tower. They then visited various towns and villages in the area, such as Lavenham, Sudbury and  Bury,  their attacks being directed upon the property of the lords of the manor. Although condemning the violence in his account of the peasants’ revolt in East Anglia, Powell admits that “we cannot…  withhold a large measure of sympathy both for the ideas which prompted, and for the results which followed the action.” The rebellion was crushed and the ringleaders were punished severely. In Cavendish, the village sign still celebrates those events.

The village sign at Cavendish in Suffolk depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.

The village sign at Cavendish depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.


Although Suffolk was relatively quiet during the Tudor period, some Suffolk people joined up with the Norfolk-based Kett’s rebellion in 1549, in what became known as the “year of the many-headed monsters.” The rebellion was caused by increasing enclosure of common land by the wealthy. Although historians generally regard enclosure as a progressive move which eventually led to the agricultural revolution, the issue of enclosure was a matter of life and death for peasants who had traditionally survived by grazing livestock on common land. A contemporary account of Kett’s rebellion, Stow’s Summarie (1565), the earliest account, played down the fact that there were similar rebellions at the same time in Devonshire, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire and the contribution “made by the commoners of Suffolk to the commotion time.” But the work did admit that those who had ‘encamped them selves’ on Mousehold Heath (near Norwich) had come from both ‘Norffolke and Suffolke’ and gave as much attention to the execution on 5 February 1550 of Robert Bell of Gazeley, the leader of the Suffolk insurrection, as it spent upon the execution of William and Robert Kett.


From The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England by Andy Wood (Cambridge University Press, 2007): “The most powerful surviving plebeian memory…  comes, appropriately enough, from the town of Lavenham. Early Tudor Lavenham provides a strong example of continuity in local traditions of popular protest. In 1525, and again in 1549, the weavers and farmers of the Lavenham area rose in armed rebellion. In the spring of 1525, thousands of local people had gathered in the town in order to demonstrate against Cardinal Wolsey’s Amicable Grant. … Twenty years later, a Lavenham man named James Fuller admitted to plotting the new rising with John Porter. The target of the insurrection was to be the ‘rich churles’ and ‘heardemen’ of the locality, whom they intended to kill. They had had enough and in defending themselves, alluded to being let down over promises made  to the poor after the Kett rebellion: ‘we wyll not be deceived as we were at the last rysinge, for then we were promised ynough and more than ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.’ ”

The Captain Swing period and the “bread or blood” riots, the rick-burning, machine-breaking and attacks on the clergy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have also been well-documented. In fact the labourers and farmers in Suffolk were accused of collusion, as  both were hostile to the parsons who insisted on taking a tithe of the farmer’s income. The Ipswich Journal repeatedly reported on court cases resulting from allegations that labourers had sent threatening letters to their “betters.” These are just two cases that were brought to court:

In By a Flash & a Scare, John Archer quotes from examples of such letters. One, from someone called Grimwade of Polstead begins: “Sir, This is to inform you that unless your tenant, Mr. Brown of Polstead, pays his men an advance of wages… he will be visited with a blaze…” In 1844, the subject of “incendiarism” in Suffolk was debated in Parliament http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1844/jul/19/incendiarism-in-suffolk

At Rushmere Heath, near Ipswich, villagers from miles around attended meetings to discuss labourers wages in 1830.  This was amid a huge amount of unrest in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex about wages, agricultural changes such as the introduction of threshing machines which meant that labourers were thrown out of work, and the tithe system which entitled clergymen to a substantial percentage of farmers’ incomes.  The meeting at Rushmere was banned, troops were called in and three Ipswich craftsmen were prosecuted for inciting labourers to engage in “illegal assemblies.”  Around the same time, “ in Ipswich the magistrates dispersed a ‘Disputing Club’ in an ale-house consisting of ‘very Inferior people’ ” [EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 125]

The violence of the labourers against their masters seems extraordinary today, but this was the age of the Houses of Industry, the Poor Law (which meant that if you were poor you could be forced to return to the parish of your birth), transportation to the colonies for petty crimes like poaching. There were no trade unions and no franchise for the labouring classes, in a county notorious for its rotten boroughs and corrupt politicians. Behind the images of the haywain and Flatford Mill, lay poverty and hardship, cruelty and murder. Luckily, the people of Suffolk would never put up with it.








Capel Lofft: a Suffolk humanitarian

I have to admit that the subject I’m writing about today is a hero of mine. I have a print of a portrait of Capel Lofft (1751-1824) looking over me as I write. It is a portrait of a young man dressed in barrister’s robes and he looks what I imagine he was: kind, intelligent and idealistic. Lofft was from a wealthy Suffolk family and, at one time, was the owner of both Stanton Hall and Troston Hall. Unlike many East Anglian landowning families, however, there was also a strong intellectual background. His uncle, Edward Capell, is credited as being the scholar who discovered one of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ plays, Edward III.

Capel Lofft could have spent his life as a privileged dilettante. He was educated at Eton & Cambridge and mixed with an artistic and literary crowd. He certainly wrote a great deal of fairly bad poetry – something which won him the lifelong emnity of Charles Lamb, who was miffed because Lofft published his dodgy odes under the soubriquet “C.L.”

But Capel Lofft was a man with ideals and a conscience. The causes he chose to take up are relevant today: slavery, hunting, the death penalty and the restriction of civil liberties. He was closely involved, as a young barrister with “Somersett’s Case,” in 1772, which ended in a legal ruling that was the beginning of the end of slavery in England with Lord Mansfield’s ruling that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political…. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it…”

In middle age, Lofft became a magistrate in Suffolk. Years later, John Glyde wrote in The Suffolk Garland (1866): “As a Magistrate, the well-known Mr. Capel Lofft was indefatigable in the performance of his duties,” but somehow he became involved in a case which led to his dismissal from the Suffolk bench. In October 1799, a 22-year-old serving woman, Sarah Lloyd from Hadleigh, let her boyfriend, Joseph Clark, into the house of her employer. Property was stolen and a fire was started, although no serious damage was done. Lloyd and Clark were arrested and charged. Sarah Lloyd was found guilty of stealing goods to the value of forty pounds and sentenced to death. Clark was acquitted. Sarah Lloyd may not have been of average intelligence. She is described in contemporary reports as “deluded” or simple and child-like. Horrified at the death sentence, Lofft took up her case. He managed to persuade William Pearson, the Sheriff of Ipswich, to grant a stay of execution and appealed to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, for a reprieve. The Times declared that Lloyd’s crime was of “unequalled… atrociousness” and the Duke of Portland refused the petition. Lofft accompanied Sarah Lloyd to the scaffold in Bury St. Edmunds. It was raining and he gave her an umbrella and helped her to hold it over her head. Lofft was distraught after the execution had taken place, apparently making frantic attempts to revive her. Sir Nash Grose, the judge in her original trial was furious, describing Lofft’s conduct as “improper interference.” This, along with the fact that he had made a speech that explicitly attacked the Tory government, led to his being struck off the magistrate’s list.

Capel Lofft’s life didn’t end very happily. He was mocked and derided for many of his views, which would be regarded as quite reasonable today. He ended his life in self-imposed exile in Italy. He died at Montcalieri, near Turin, in 1824 and was buried in the Protestant church of St. Germain, in Piedmont. Sarah Lloyd’s memorial is closer to home and can be seen in the old churchyard in Bury.