Notes on Lavenham

(Notes by Jon, April, 1996) LAVENHAM, Suffolk, is an extremely picturesque small town, in which most of the buildings have survived intact from the town's days of prosperity in the middle ages. Most have been recently restored as Lavenham has gone from extreme neglect and poverty in the early part of the twentieth century to a shining tourist mecca at present. The streets run in several directions down a hill from the central square perched at the top, one side of which is occupied by the old guildhall. The buildings are mostly half-timbered and a mixture of the cream color common throughout England and the various pastels identified with East Anglia. A few have the pargeting (intricate designs molded into the plaster) peculiar to this region.

On an adjoining hill sits the Parish Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, quite a grand structure built in the years around 1500, largely in celebration of Henry VII's victory over Richard III at Bosworth (1485), and the prominent part that local hero John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, played in the battle.

 In a more general way, the church also celebrates the prosperity of Lavenham, which was a hotbed of medieval industry, specifically that of clothmaking from wool. Unlike the image one has of such industry in, say, the nineteenth century, this was entirely domestic; people carried out the process sitting in their own homes. The social result was a tidy little community of rather spacious townhouses, and a highly developed guild organization (four separate "gilds" formed for religious or civic reasons--they were not divided by trade or craft). The production of cloth reached a peak in the 1520's and within a hundred years had utterly collapsed, for complex economic reasons, including capitalist/worker disputes, duties, cheap imports, and declining energy or talent in family-owned businesses as younger generations inherited what they had not worked for. The economy bottomed out in the 1620's, about the time when Isaac Ong's family emigrated, and while it made temporary recoveries with other cottage industries, it was never really prosperous again until quite recently, and was particularly destitute between the World Wars in this century. 

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