“Hadleigh is one of the most perfect Small Towns in England, with trees, old red brick, flint and plaster and that unassuming beauty of East Anglia which changes to glory in sunlight.” Sir John Betjeman
Hadleigh is an ancient market town, full of character and history, set in the lush and fertile valley of the River Brett. West of the town the land rises sharply to arable fields and copses filled with pheasants and partridges. To the east, the slope is shallower, and it is here that most of the town’s housing has been built.
Settlement began in the Stone Age, developed in the Bronze Age, and produced wooden buildings by the Iron Age (about 1000BCE). The fact that the first capital of the Roman province of Britannia was at Colchester, only some 15 miles away, has produced plenty of evidence of a Roman presence in Hadleigh – for example, remains of a villa at Town House Farm, as well as numerous artefacts found throughout the area. The quite geometric layout of the old part of Hadleigh may also reflect the influence of Roman principles of town planning.
Viking ship from The Anglo Saxon Chronicle
When the legions left, and after an interval of Anglo-Saxon rule, the area became part of the Danelaw, ruled by Vikings who had settled here after centuries of raiding. In 870, Guthrum had overcome King Edmund and caused his martyrdom, but a subsequent war with Alfred the Great of Wessex, in which he was defeated, meant that thereafter he held the area as a subordinate of Wessex, and only on condition of his conversion to Christianity. When Guthrum died, he is reported to have been buried here, in a wooden church he had built, but there is no surviving evidence of this. Guthrum’s settlement with Alfred had, however, not put a stop to further Scandinavian raids, and it was after one of these that Hadleigh acquired its very special relationship with the Church of Canterbury: the town had been part of the domain of the senior Saxon general Byrthnoth who was killed in 991 at the Battle of Maldon (celebrated in one of the finest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems), and in his will he left the manor of Hadleigh to the Priory Church of Canterbury – later to become the seat of the Archdiocese of Canterbury and hence the property of the Archbishop
The Town Sign on the Market Square
It was the connection with Canterbury that preserved Hadleigh from the upheaval that followed the Norman Conquest, as the property of the Church was not confiscated and reallocated as were the estates of Anglo-Saxon noblemen. The town soon began to prosper in the wool trade – more in the finishing of the material than in its actual production – and the town’s coat of arms reflect this. The coat of arms was granted, however, only in 1618, when the town received its charter as a borough from James I.
Like all the wool towns, Hadleigh expressed its importance in its church, the tower dating from the 13th century, the body of the church from about 1450. Standing beside the church are two other buildings of great importance – the Deanery tower built in the late 15th century by Archdeacon Pykenham, and the earlier Guildhall, originally built as a market house and wool hall.
These three buildings are all listed Grade 1, and form the heart of a town that contains an exceptional number of listed buildings. The preservation of so many mediaeval and Tudor buildings is due to the poverty that struck the town after the collapse of the wool trade in the 16th century: the inhabitants could not afford to knock down or renovate in accordance with the fashions of the time.
As other industries began to develop – to be seen still in the many now converted maltings – as well as the silk trade, Hadleigh began to recovery its prosperity, and was sufficiently important for the railway to arrive in the town in 1847. Hadleigh can also claim a significant role in the start of one of the most influential movements in the intellectual life of this country, as the Deanery Tower was the scene of the first meeting of the Anglican clerics who went on the found the Oxford Movement, which transformed the Church of England in the mid 19th century.
Another significant figure of the 19th century born in Hadleigh was the sculptor Thomas Woolner, the only sculptor to be part of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose most prominent work is the colossal statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney.
Thomas Woolner by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Like the rest of Suffolk, Hadleigh underwent more change in the 20th century than perhaps in all its previous history, driven above all by the two World Wars and technological change in agriculture. The population fluctuated sharply, settling finally at its present size of about 9000, while many men from the town fought and died in Europe and Asia.
Farming with machinery Sandbags outside Church St Post office in WW2
The demands of wartime production produced a huge rise in farming productivity, as new techniques were introduced, in part to offset the loss of so much male labour to the forces. The Hadleigh that emerged from war was much changed – the old industries had largely gone and working the land required many fewer hands.
The types of employment in the town diversified greatly as a result, and manufacturing, based in industrial estates around the edge of the town, has become an important source of employment.
Sir Cedric Morris at Benton End
An important development in Hadleigh was the arrival of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End in 1939, the brainchild of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines. They were both themselves distinguished painters, but their school produced some remarkable offspring, most notably Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling.
Hadleigh is in the fortunate position of being a town that has preserved its past in its buildings and in its character, while being a successful part of the modern economy. All parts of the town, the ancient centre with its busy High Street, the large areas of newer housing, the industrial estates – all contribute to the making of a confident and thriving community.
The Hadleigh Town Council Archive holds a large collection of documents relating to the history of our ancient town.
Here’s a PDF document explaining more about this, with details of how to access this valuable resource.