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Monday, 6 October 2014

The Ancient House, Ipswich

'There is, about the Ancient House in the Buttermarket, an atmosphere of incredible romance. Proud and serene it stands, not as an ageworn and pathetic relic of a bygone era, but as a jewel of antiquity in a baser setting of unbecoming modernity' 
wrote Philip Orwell in 1946. This applies as much today as it did then.

Postcard of the Ancient House in the Buttermarket c. 1920

The Ancient House in The Buttermarket also known as Sparrowe's House is perhaps the most famous building in Ipswich. You will frequently see it being photographed by tourists and locals alike. It is particularly remarkable because of its unique pargetting (decorative plaster work) especially below the four front oriel windows depicting four continents: Europe with a Gothic church, Asia with a mosque, Africa on a crocodile under a sunshade and America with a tobacco pipe.

I have always understood that there are only four continents depicted because Australasia and Antarctica hadn't been discovered at the time the pargetting was carried out (1660-1670). However, this is not the case. Australasia was discovered by Europeans in 1606 and the first English sighting was in 1622. The four continents were merely an interpretation of the world at that time; Australasia was taken as part of Asia until the late 18th century. So, don't let the guides tell you otherwise!

The Library
Sparrowe's House, as it is also known, is a 15th century grade I listed merchants house. Although the earliest reference of a building on the site dates back to the 14th century, the earliest surviving section was built by Sir Thomas Fastolf as his home some time before 1483 and it continued to be used as a dwelling up until the middle of the 19th century. As well as a family home, it has been occupied as a printers works, a subscription library (see postcard) and parts of it were leased out to an architect and a property developer. The building was used as an advertisement for Ipswich and was photographed frequently inside and out throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries for picture postcards when it was tenanted as a bookshop. In the early 19th century, it housed Madame Tussaud's travelling exhibition.

Stories of Ghosts, Tunnels and Kings

Being such an old building, it has witnessed quite a bit of history. The area of Ipswich in which it sits has seen much change in the years it has stood there. Before 1600 the area was a fish market which would have been extremely busy and very smelly and the first recorded resident on that site, George Copping,  rented the land for his fish stalls and later, then a successful merchant, placed the first house there. In 1601 the first of the Sparrowe family, William Sparrowe, took ownership of the property and by 1635 the fish market was removed in favour of butter, a much more pleasant smelling trade than fish. The Sparrowe family continued to enlarge and enhanced the building to what we see today. The street, however, wasn't named the Buttermarket until the mid 19th century, long after butter had actually been sold there. 

The building being so old has quite a magical feel to it and there have been numerous accounts of ghostly presences and sightings. Staff who worked at the bookshop in the middle of the last century refused to enter the attic after dark. Some of the staff of Lakeland Ltd who currently rent the property, talk of items being moved in the night and also of strange happenings and presences.

The Sparrowe family were Royalists, the beautiful gold pargetting depicting the Royal Coat of Arms for King Charles II in pride of place at the front and middle of the building reflects this. The family were also known to have owned a miniature of Mrs Jane Lane. I have a 1950's guide to Ipswich, which tells of the 'secret room', rediscovered in 1801. The story is that Mrs Jane Lane helped King Charles to escape from Boscobel House after the Battle of Worcester and that he supposedly hid in this chapel or 'priest hole' at some time during his journey from Worcester to Brighton. The likelihood that this actually happened has now been disproven and the Coat of Arms is likely a commemoration of the Kings visit to Ipswich in 1668.

The 'Secret Room', otherwise known as the Chapel or Priest Hole
So, for the tunnels. There were allegedly very deep and very haunted tunnels underneath the heart of Ipswich. This network of tunnels links the Ancient House to Fore Street, Christchurch Mansion and the Old Custom House. Part of the tunnels are reputed to have led to Alnesbourne Priory, three miles away, and this is the tunnel which King Charles supposedly took to flee undetected from the Ancient House. There were definitely tunnels and cellars under the Ancient House as in World War II the cellars were used as air raid shelters and were equipped with chemical toilets and a dartboard! However, evidence of all this was probably lost during renovations in 1984 to stop the building collapsing, over 260 tonnes of concrete were used to fill in the foundations.

The Ancient House was bought by Ipswich Borough Council in 1979 when it was near to collapsing. They restored it to its former glory and promised that Ipswich's most famous building would always be used for commercial purposes and therefore accessible to the public. It is currently occupied by Lakeland Limited, kitchen cookware suppliers.

'The Ancient House Ipswich', East Anglian Magazine, November 1946, Philip Orwell
The Buildings of England - Suffolk, Nicholas Pevsner
Ipswich, Ward Lock
Ipswich Street by Street, Carol Twinch


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