A Brief History of Southwold
Southwold is a small market town situated on the extreme east coast of England, 30 miles north east of Ipswich and approximately 120 miles from central London. According to the Domesday Book, Southwold was let to the abbey at Bury St Edmunds and at that time it was subservient to the village of Reydon. Southwold is almost an island and for many years the bridge across Buss Creek has been the only way in and out of the town.
In 1489 King Henry VII granted Southwold a charter, releasing it from many legal obligations to the Crown. The twice weekly market dates from this grant and continues to this day. In the second half of the 15th century rich boat-owners, fishermen and merchants paid to build St Edmund’s Church, a vast edifice built all in one go and now widely regarded as one of the finest late medieval churches in the country.
During the 1600s the fishing industry was still buoyant, with a fleet of fifty boats sailing from Southwold for herring, cod and sprats. Soon afterwards, however, the harbour mouth silted up, putting the industry into decline. The early 1900s industry revival was halted by two World Wars and fishing prosperity of Southwold has never returned. Currently the North harbour wall is being reconstructed with better facilities for the remaining fishermen, which may in some small way lead to better times. In any event, Southwold harbour remains a magical place for visitors and users alike.
The early town was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1659, to the extent that a national appeal was mounted for its residents. A legacy of the fire was the creation of wide open spaces, now famously known as Southwold’s greens, of which one called Gun Hill overlooks the sea. It was from such a vantage point that the concerned populace scanned the horizon for signs of the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672. Although the lens of history views the navel battle between the British and the Dutch as inconclusive, thousands perished on both sides, undoubtedly Southwold and the local area will have shouldered some of this burden.
The RNLI would initially have taken its recruits from the Beach Companies, but now its crew members come from all walks of life. One of Southwold’s earlier lifeboats the “Alfred Corry” now lives within sight of its current successor in the old Cromer lifeboat shed at the harbour and is well worth a visit. Also offering aid to local seafarers, the current lighthouse in Southwold has been shining since 1888. This can be ascended at various times of the year, which is advertised on its entry gate.
The old railway from Southwold ran to Halesworth from 1879 to 1929. Although much of the line is no longer evident, the walk from the bottom of Station Road, along side the golf course, to Walberswick follows the old track line.
In 1898 the sale of the Town Farm Estate to the East Coast Development Company led to the construction of Southwold Pier. Belle steamers from London brought visitors to the towns many hotels and boarding houses along its sea front. But bye the 1970’s the pier had dwindled to only 60 feet in length, following various storms and war damage. In recent times it has been restored to 623 feet and for the town a multi-award winning attraction.
Although Southwold’s high street has changed significantly over the last few years, it retains much of its charm and offers a blend of national brands and local businesses. For a history of the High Street and its businesses see:
One of the principal jewels in Southwold’s crown is the Common which was bequeathed to the town and its inhabitants in 1509 by William Godell. Recently the Godell sports pavilion has been erected to recognise this great gift to the town .