The Ancient House, 30 Buttermarket, Ipswich IP1 1BT

Ipswich's most famous landmark is The Ancient House which stands on the corner of Butter Market (the street, rather than the nearby shopping/leisure centre) and St Stephens Lane. The earliest reference to the Ancient House can be found in the 15th (some say the 14th) century, when it was owned by the knight, Sir Richard of Martlesham. In the 16th century the house was owned by a string of local merchants, including George Copping, a draper and fishmonger, who acquired the property in 1567. It was Copping who commissioned the panelling of the ground floor room at the front of the house. He also built the 'long gallery'. The Sparrowe (spellings vary) family became the owners of the house in 1603 and continued ownership of it for the next 300 years. It became known as 'Sparrow's House'. Robert Sparowe, a grocer, added the elaborate pargeting to the front and side of the house between 1660 and 1670. One legend tells of King Charles II hiding from his enemies in the Attic Room after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 (Charles II's colourful royal arms are part of the pargeting).

The Butter Market thoroughfare name relates to a time when busy markets, in particular produce, spread out from the Cornhill into nearby streets. It was once known as Fish Market around the Ancient House. Such was the mess and smell, the occupants complained bitterly and eventually the fish market was resited to Upper Brook Street. The Ancient House was extended out into its present building line – presumably to prevent the return of the fishmongers – and went on to bear its characteristic pargeting.

The fine oriel windows which front the Buttermarket are most noted for the pargeted reliefs showing figures and objects which relate to the four known continents of the Tudor period (Australasia had yet to be discovered by westerners). The lettering in the upper part of each panel is shown enhanced in each image. The naive depictions are both impressive and amusing to our modern eyes. Impressive not least in that they have survived so long:

'AMERICA'   ...   'AFRICA'   ...   'ASIA'   ...   'EUROPE'

America is represented by an Aztec/Inca-style man with a bow and arrow and a dog at his feet, Africa is represented by a naked man holding a spear and sunshade, Asia by a woman on a horse with a domed mosque-like building, Europe by a woman holding a cornucopia, seated on a horse with a castle in the background. Other panels show the three elements: Earth, Water and Air. Round the corner on the western gable is a nice depiction of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, also St George in the garb of a 17th century gentleman dealing with a recumbent dragon.


Ipswich windows

The term ‘Ipswich Window' is sometimes used to describe an oriel window which projects out from the main wall, at an upper floor of a building, but which does not reach to the ground. Such a window is often supported by corbels or brackets, or is part of the jettied first floor. However, the crucial feature which distinguishes the ‘Ipswich window' is a specific design of glazing bars within the window:

‘They are similar to a Venetian window with an addition across the whole width and two small panes over the semi-circle.' This type first appeared in London about the middle of the 17th century but soon spread to provincial towns. The spectacular examples on Sparrowe's House (The Ancient House in Ipswich) led architectural historians to coin the term ‘Ipswich windows'. The window type was picked up and used extensively by the Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw and others.


20th century restoration

In the late 1970s, the Ancient House was in an extremely poor state of repair and close to collapse. We owe the survival of the Ancient House pargeting and carved oak beams and posts to the fact that the house was in the possession of one family for such a long period and that Ipswich Borough Council purchased it and conducted an extensive renovation. This project was not without its problems: the foundations had sunk, but the heavy fireplaces had sunk at a different rate. Over 260 tonnes of concrete was used in the foundations, and 11 tonnes of steel were used overall. In addition to this, woodworm and dry and wet rot had set in, and the deathwatch beetle was rife. Renovation began in 1984, and no part of the building was untouched. Foundations were underpinned, the rot & infestations were eradicated, floors were strengthened, plasterwork pargeting was restored, windows were releaded and features were exposed. There is a space which has been used as an art gallery in the upper part of the building. Leading off the gallery by a tiny, low ceilinged staircase is a lower room, sometimes called 'The Chapel Room'. This appears to be the roof part of a grand hall, judging by the beams and supports, which has been floored over at a later date.

The other major event to threaten The Ancient House was a disastrous fire in nearby timber-framed buildings in August 1992. Shops were destroyed in the fire, but it did not spread through the former ABC cinema to The Ancient House. Many Ipswich residents will recall the building as the home of Hatchards the booksellers. Indeed they were in occupation when the restoration works were agreed and they moved into temporary premises for many months. 

[Source: The Ancient House by Hilary A. Feldman. Ipswich Borough Council, 1986]

Links: Ipswich Historic Lettering; Historic England Grade I listing.