John Speed's map of Ipswich, 1610, is the earliest known plan of the town with any degree of accuracy. It shows, to the north-west of the geographical town centre, an open rectangular area with the thoroughfare we know today as Westgate and Tavern Streets. This east-west highway is known to be of Roman origin. The rectangular area features the Market Cross (originally probably a preaching cross) which was paid for by Wolsey's uncle, Edmund Daundy (1468-1515). The Cross was a feature of the Cornhill for 300 years. Also depicted: a building where today's ‘Post Office' stands which must be the original Shambles, and finally a church - presumably St Mildred - which is thought to have existed in Anglo-Saxon times. The map's key labels this number 8: ‘Corne hill'.
At the time of the map's publication Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, had been dead for seven years and James I (of England), the first of the Stuarts, was on the throne.
This area is much older than the map, of course. This is the place where corn brought in from the countryside was laid out for sale; thus the Cornhill is intrinsically tied to a market in Ipswich. Markets (as well as fairs) were historically of great cultural, legal and economic significance throughout the land. To some extent, they continue to be so. Medieval towns often grew up around crossroads and river crossings - particularly if a church was nearby - where people brought their wares to sell on a specific day of the week. Taverns, craft workshops and eventually housing were often found at or near the same spot.
Bob Malster tells us: ‘It is possible that in the early Anglo-Saxon times the Wuffinga kings of East Anglia had a royal residence on the Cornhill alongside St Mildred's Church, which later became the town hall.' After centuries of corn trading on the hill a Corn Exchange was built, initially in 1812 on the site of today's ‘Post Office' and replaced in 1882 by the building we know today, for decades a busy place of trade. Over time it has become an entertainment centre: the Grand Hall, cinemas, bar and - until recently - art gallery which sits south of our Town Hall, fronting King Street.
The long-standing, timber-built Shambles once stood on the south-east corner of the Cornhill. Arched and open to the air at street level, it was home to the butchers' market. The area in front of the Shambles (around the location of the two trees which grow in front of the ‘Post Office' today) was the focus of two activities: bull-baiting and martyr-burning. The former was based on the belief that terrorising cattle with dogs prior to slaughter tenderised the resultant meat. The latter occurred around 1515-1558 during a period of religious and political tumult when London vied with Rome in the publication of new heresies, crimes which could be punishable by burning at the stake.
Two thousand or more people were recorded as attending these grisly executions. They usually occurred from 7 to 10 o'clock in the morning with the heretic tied to a sixpenny stake surrounded by brushwood and faggots. Officials sat in the gallery of the Shambles and a clergyman would deliver an appropriate sermon. The condemned man or woman would then have the chance to speak, sometimes at length enough to annoy the gentlemen onlookers. Sir Robert Curson, occupant of Curson House in St Peters Street, was once so overwrought by a burning that he came down from the gallery, cut a branch with his sword from a nearby tree and added it to the flames.
The Cornhill of 1800 must at times have been impossibly congested. Corn trading still took place around the Market Cross, as well as all sorts of livestock (horses, cattle, pigs and sheep) being bought and sold, not to mention local traffic and the hourly stage coach. The timber-framed Shambles of yore had been replaced by the short-lived, odiferous Rotunda, but this and the Market Cross (repaired and changed over time), were swept away in 1812 to be replaced by a Regency Corn Exchange. By about 1880 this in turn gave way to the grand Post Office building. The sculpted figure of Justice from the top of the Market Cross, exchanged her sword and scales for a sickle and sheaf of wheat/horn of plenty to sit atop the interim Corn Exchange. She currently lives, a little weather-beaten, at the foot of the main staircase in the Town Hall.
When major alterations to the Cornhill were discussed in October 2013, the late Dr John Blatchly was a strong advocate for retaining the gentle slope and reinstating the Market Cross. Its removal in 1812 seems to have been unpopular and the noted historian G.R. Clarke (1830) tells us that it was only pulled down ‘with considerable difficulty, as the timber, and every part of it, were in excellent preservation… As a relic of antiquity, we cannot but regret its loss.' The town lost the focal point of the space, octangonal in plan with an area suitable for seating covered by an attractive ogee-shaped, lead-covered roof, topped by the aforementioned figure of Justice. It was 27 feet in diameter and about fifty feet from the ground to the top of the figure. Apparently parts of the Market Cross are stored at the Ipswich Museum.
The grand Venetian-style Town Hall we see today arrived in 1868; it was designed by Lincoln architect Pearson Bellamy, replacing a Palladian Town Hall which was built on the site of the Church of St Mildred around 1812. This saw the final removal of any remnants of the church which had stood on the Cornhill for a thousand years. Meanwhile, for a hundred years the new Town Hall was the seat of local government in the town, until the Borough moved its offices to the Civic Centre in the 1960s. Sitting on a raised platform and accessed by impressive stone steps (as does the ‘Post Office' building), in 2016 the Town Hall is crying out for a new role in our town. Having apparently wandered away from the original idea of a fine suite of galleries for exhibitions and workshops, the ‘Town Galleries' seem now to be mainly a café and gift shop. Only the Suffolk Craft Society room maintains the original intention, it seems. The large Council Chamber room upstairs still provides a good venue for music, poetry and other events.
The Cornhill before 1790 showing the Shambles building to the right centre and Tavern Street at the left. The prominent Market Cross is topped by ‘Justice'. The building on the extreme right is the Three Tuns Inn which later became the Corn Exchange Tavern. The tower of St Lawrence Church is in the background.