Semer, a Suffolk Village
by Michael Thorogood - 2013
All Saint's Church
The church dates from the 14th century and is of flint and stone. It was greatly restored in the 19th century and lost many of the original timber features inside the building. The porch and oak chancel screen, date from 1899, (it is possible that the church originally had a crown post roof). The tower has three bells, one is inscribed “John made me, TG 1618”, the second has “Thomas Cheese made me, 1621” and the third “Through the merits of Edmund may we be clean from guilt” believed to be cast by Brasyers of Norwich c1440. The first two bells were cast at Bury St Edmunds.
The Domesday Book records a church here with thirty acres of land and one acre of meadow. Michael Thorogood, using church records, has placed on a database all the Semer people from 1538 to the present. People still arrive from far away to inquire about their ancestors, one in particular being the daughter of the film actor, Boris Karloff. Boris whose real name was William Pratt came to Semer to visit his sister in the early 1930's. Gladys Bendall, then aged ninety-two, remembers being invited to the rectory to have tea with him. In the 16thC Edward Kettle, the parson, was reported to his bishop for working in the fields at harvest time without hat or coat.
The National School was built by the rector and opened in 1871 for fifty children, average attendance was thirty-five, with Miss Gaymer as mistress. In 1897 plans were drawn up for improvements to the buildings. The Rev F Eld was the owner at that time and he agreed to a twenty-one-year lease with the new School Board for the sum of eight pounds annually. After renovation the Board School opened in February 1899 for thirty-six pupils and a year later some children were asked to leave owing to overcrowding. The Cosford Union requested entry for the workhouse children but were refused. Later these children were admitted and Edith Eccles remembers them bringing their “doorstep sandwiches” which the younger ones had difficulty in eating.
The school closed in 1919 and the village children were taken down to Hadleigh, firstly by horse and brake and later a grey bus with “Happy Day” on the rear. A Mr Schlinger and his wife ran a private school called Merelands for a few more years which finally closed in 1928.
In the earlier years of this century there was a preparatory school for boys in the nearby Old Rectory. The headmaster being Mr Clouston.
In the cottage adjoining the school in the year 1900, Jeffery Green and his wife Mary had their three triplets, Hilda, Gordon and Alec. What is even more unusual is that Mary had twins before this event and her sister, not to be outdone, produced another two sets of twins. Queen Victoria sent three pounds in September of that year and greetings from the King were again received on their twenty first birthday.
Jeffery was the village postman and soon moved to Crouch Cottages, it would seem due to a “fall out” between Mary and Miss Allum, the schoolmistress. Miss Allum also complains about the lack of courtesy from the School Board and their action taken over a pupil. The minutes note “no notice be taken”.
The Mission Hall
This small building in School Lane has had a variety of uses. It is likely to have been built at the same time as the school and was intended to be used by the village people. Bread was distributed from here to the poor on the feast day of St John the Evangelist, from John Goodale's annual gift of twenty shillings, raised on land at Raydon. Before the hall was constructed, bread would have been given out from the church porch.
John Goodale states in his will of 1627 that the money should buy “20 dussen bread for the aged and poor people”. Granville Bendall still collects £1 per year from the land at Raydon, now part of the new golf course.
Len Green remembers the local men playing billiards and cards here and others remember it as a reading room. At one time a sign over the door read “Semer Institute”.
Semer was well established before the arrival of the Normans and it would seem that there was only ever one manor. In medieval times the Lord of the Manor of Semer was the Cellarer of Bury St Edmund's Abbey. Owing to a difference of opinion about ownership of land in Semer in 1285, representatives of the opposing parties fought a duel, the Abbot's champion being “worsted”. However, having lost the manor for a while it reverted back to the Abbot until the Reformation when Henry the VIII made the break from Rome. This was an opportunity for him to lay hands on the assets of the monasteries which at that time possessed almost a third of the wealth of the country.
As the new Lord of Semer Manor, Henry held his first court on the 21st October 1540 and three years later he had sold it on to Sir Clement Heigham for £340. After the Heigham family the manor came into the hands of the Brands until 1708 when it came into the ownership of Richard Cooke of Aldham in Essex.
In 1820 the manorial records referred to “the new erected capitol messuage now called Semer Hall”, whereas in 1777 they mention “the site of the Manor of Semer”. During the 1990's the old manor house and an old timber framed barn were completely refurbished by James Buckle. Other outbuildings were converted to stables and a new bridge built over the River Brett.
In the past the men of an English village practiced their archery in an area near to the church. Semer's practice ground was somewhere up from the church towards the ancient woodland. In a survey of the village in the 16th year of King Edward III, it stated that in Woodfield, “upon the Radwente with five butts next the oak, six acres and one rood”. (A butt can also mean land in an open arable field and with the field being of an irregular shape it made shorter than usual strips. I have chosen archery in this instance for the site is in the right place for villages at this time)
The year would have been 1343 and Woodfield measured almost 138 acres subdivided into nineteen smaller areas.
Destroyed by fire in 1953 the property then called Semer House had for a long time been the parsonage and later the rectory for the village. In 1550 Peter Barron, the parson, “built the hall and parlour of this parsonage”. Later in 1663 John Brunning added a kitchen. Five generations of the Cooke family, all rectors of Semer, lived here from 1731 to 1892.
The man who made the biggest impact on the house was Rev James Young Cooke. He built many properties during his time in Semer. One of the most ambitious projects being the extension on the front of the older parsonage probably done in the 1840's. At the same time he acquired land at the bottom of Cooke's Hill, almost certainly the site of an earlier blacksmith and even earlier the site of a medieval chapel. Here he built the house which later became the last Semer Post Office, now Chapel Meadow House.
Cooke's account books show considerable sums of money spent on “bills” to a man named Grimsey. It seems that they are invoices for building work and the many red brick Victorian houses which can be seen in Semer today are from the period when James Young Cooke was rector. Look for the cast iron window cills and lintels on some houses in the village they are from the same period as similar Hadleigh properties built in the 1840's.
In 1841, Cooke employed six domestic servants and after his death his “faithful” groom Thomas Tugwood and his wife Scelenda were allowed to live rent free in the Old Cottages up the hill. Although now officially called Watson's Hill, after the farmer who had Hill Farm, the older local people still prefer to call it “Tugwood's Hill”.
The last Rev Cooke died in 1892 and the estate was sold at auction in 1896. It included Semer Manor Farm, Hill Farm at Nedging, the Mere and Church Meadow, all the houses in Church Lane and those up Cooke's Hill as well as the blacksmiths and two cottages in Ash Street.
The Maxwell's purchased the old rectory from the Church Commissioners in 1925 for £2000. Mr Maxwell, a tea planter, died ten years later and Mrs Maxwell, originally from Australia, stayed until 1950. Three years later the house caught fire and became a ruin. It is said that the fire appliances had only just arrived back from pumping out property immersed by the East Coast floods. Though there was a plentiful local water supply their pipes were still partially filled with debris and the firemen were unable to maintain a reasonable water pressure to fight the flames.
Biggs Wall, the civil engineering firm, purchased the site and it was this company that laid on the main water supply to Semer and the surrounding villages during the 1950's. It is rumored that the demolition team found the contents of the wine cellar but forgot to tell anybody.
Although Nedging and Kersey still have their water mills the one in Semer, known as Hocking Mill, went into serious decline in the 1840's and must have been demolished during the 19th century. A watermill in Semer was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, so there had been a mill in the village for at least 800 years. The river has changed its course slightly, the tithe map of 1840 showing it flowing immediately behind Mill House where the mill with the mill race were situated. The present line of the river flows through the old mill pool. Several hundred yards upstream the Brett ran alongside the road for a short way and was likely to have been pushed southwards a little when gravel was extracted in the 1930's and 1940's. Mill House is much altered but inside one can still distinguish the original timber frame and even a mullion window.
It is thought that a windmill once stood at the top of Watson's Hill, George Bendall used to say, “Go to the end of the road where the mill stood”. It is possible that the public road running from Sayers Green did end at The Old Cottages, for in 1840 the track down the hill and the land on each side was subject to tithe and therefore privately occupied. Another track led from the bad corner at Gate Farm to the mere, emerging through the wood at a spot opposite the lane with Happy Cottage on the corner.
Two large pieces of millstone still lay in the verge at the top of Watsons Hill, they indicate that the original stone had a conical shape, about fourteen inches thick in the centre, eight inches thick at the edge and four feet in diameter. It's possible that this stone is too large for the adjacent windmill and needs more research.
Dairy Farm House
Is an old timber framed property built in two parts. The one near the road dates from the 17thC and the rear of the house from the 16thC.
The Daking family had the farm from the 1700's to 1844 followed by Henry Sallows for five years. The rent in this period was £300 per year. The next occupier was William Mills Coe, his family stayed to 1899 when William Samuel Coe was given notice to quit by Alice, the widow of Rev Charles Cooke. “Dick” Thurman farmed here in the early 20thC.
Percy Waller purchased the house and land in 1920 and it remained with his family until 1972 when Brian and Gill Buckle took the farm. The Buckles moved into the farmhouse in 1976 and continued to live here till 1988 when they moved to Nedging Hall. The 16thC barn beside the house was first converted by Buckle Farms for use as offices in 1980 and completed in 1993.
Percy Waller had dug gravel on land by the river and it was here beside Mill House that a Bronze Age vase was found in 1939. A few days after the vase was handed into the Ipswich Museum, his men discovered two more pots. Percy, by this time, frustrated at the delay to his digging schedule, kept the pots and used them as ashtrays.
In 1999 I took these two finds to the Bury Archeology Unit where they aroused some curiosity. A young lady finally declared that they were tin glazed ointment jars from the late 18thC and that it was not possible for them to have been found at the same level as the cremation vase. It seems that Percy's men had “introduced” two new finds and sixty years later the professionals at Bury laughed too and called it “a good one”.
At the start of the 20th C in a cottage opposite Dairy Farm, a young woman named Emma Martin started her life. Born in Semer Workhouse in 1892, unwanted by her new step father and sent into service at the age of thirteen, she tried describing to Michael the difficulties of being illegitimate in those times. She mentioned the arranged marriage, having returned alone and unannounced from London where “difficulties” had occurred with her employer and the need to make a shirt for her new husband before they could be wed.
She described the hard life of being an agricultural labourer and how she always, as a matter of pride, kept up with the men whilst working in the fields. She didn't enjoy stone picking and even less the rate of a penny a bushel. Emma was a delightful and very independent lady, she described Michael to another of her visitors as “one of her gentlemen”.
Emma was still baking bread for her neighbours and at 102 years of age could still make a sumptuous steak and kidney pie.
The Village Sports Ground
Brian Wadley's garden was once the late medieval sports field called Camping Close, two and a half acres of which lay in Semer with one and three quarters lying in Whatfield. In most villages the site would be near to the church or guildhall but this one lay at the extreme edge of each village, being shared by both. This would be an area where the villagers would meet and play camp ball or early football. There were not too many rules or even a set number of people in a team but a game that became a good chance “to sort them others out”, perhaps the river across the middle added an extra challenge.
In 1822, Edward Moor described a pitch as being between 150 to 200 yards long, the goals at each end being made by the competitors thrown off clothes, the grass always short and slippery. The game could take as long as two or three hours, the score recorded in “snotches”. Each team faced their own goal and passing something resembling a cricket ball between each other, the players would convey the ball to their own goal. If the men played with a football the game was called “kicking camp” and if the teams wore shoes they would be playing “savage camp”. It is told that in one game between Suffolk and Norfolk lasting over ten hours and with around three hundred men taking part. There where ten deaths and many were injured. There are many versions of camp ball and how it was played but one thing is certain, it was opposed by the church and would have aroused the passions of modern football today.
On a map of 1783, surveyed by Joseph Hodskinson, some buildings appear to have stood on Camping Close, opposite to Bridge Farm. Perhaps there was a guildhall here after all.
The last Lord of the Manor
Johann David Josef Franz Anton Schobloch known to his old friends as Tonsch, born of Czechoslovakian nationality in 1887 and who purchased Semer Manor in 1913. He disappeared during the first world war and returned to the village in 1921. The Home Office at one stage refused him British nationality because “of his recent military service against this country”, certainly during the hostilities of this period he was somewhere in mainland Europe. He married Gabriella, the daughter of Baron Leonhardi, in 1918. She had studied at the Dresden School of Music where Anton's father lived.
Schobloch senior, who seems to have financed the purchase of the manor, ran into money difficulties and the drain on the Semer Hall Estate led to the sale of Semer Manor and part of the land to Mr Turner in 1923. Charles Elford who had managed the estate during the war period leased Sayers Farm in that same year and Anton moved into the gamekeeper's cottage in Semer Wood. During the 1930's their solicitor writes to them suggesting that “as their living is very precarious” they should take up the offer to live with Gabriella's brother in Czechoslovakia, instead they took up residence in the left hand side of Old Cottages on Watsons Hill where Anton died in 1959.
The estate, which had been purchased for £20 per acre in 1913 halved in value within twenty years. When Anton once counted his 705 chickens, he did not forget to include the one in the kennel and one sitting in the wood shed. He tried writing short stories and his wife attempted cookery lessons but these and other ventures failed and by 1940 Gabriella was teaching and Anton became an assistant cowman in Ipswich. One letter he wrote to an old friend says that without the support of the village people around him life would have been a lot harder.
One man known as Uncle Highty who lived at Sayers Green was described as a character who drank, smoked, swore, lay in ditches and lived to a ripe old age.
The Fox family from Semer Wood Cottage lived in style and had many friends who would visit from London. They had a pet rabbit called Harvey, he also enjoyed a good party. One evening when he was poorly they called upon Paul Ryde, the veterinary, from Kersey for assistance. Harvey was in the living room and at first Paul thought the rabbit had died but had another thought, he said “madam your rabbit is drunk”, Harvey like Uncle Highty lived to a ripe old age.”
No documents have yet been found to show how, why or when Cauton Common was enclosed. Though in the Rev Cooke's account book there are references to the purchase of a large quantity of quicks. Quickthorn was the most commonly used hedge when enclosing land and the rectangular fields with one species of hedge look very different from those of past centuries with mixed species and sinuous shapes. The crossroads by Common Farm would be roughly at the centre of Cauton Common, the northern boundary being the footpath running from Gate Farm to the Old Post Office, then down the main road towards the old workhouse site. The southern boundary was the Shoulder of Mutton Lane going westwards to Drakestone Green then returning to Gate Farm. It is possible to work out the position of the common by looking at the old fields on the village tithe map of 1839. Opposite Shoulder of Mutton Lane where it exits onto the road to Kersey stood Clap Gate with a farmstead on the other side of the road.
In January 1760, Pocklington wrote to Rev Thomas Cooke, complaining bitterly about two gates erected on the Bildeston to Hadleigh road. He “neither liked the facts of the case nor the law of the answer” and was of the opinion that they were nuisances and injurious to the public. He also writes that he will take them down on Monday as a private inhabitant and not as a magistrate, in a public manner, so that action could be bought against him. He also takes exception to the fact that the Parson writes in the third person, as though unconcerned in the question, whereas he is really the principal. All late land enclosures required an Act of Parliament. It may be that Semer did it quietly but not easily when Pocklington was around. It is generally accepted that most of Suffolk land enclosures took place at a far earlier time, I would like to know how our common came into private ownership at such a late date.
Roads and Water Supply
In 1864 documents fully detailed all the roads in Semer. They measured 6 miles 6 furlongs 8 chains and 7 links. The surveyor's reports of 1842 show that road men received between one shilling and one shilling and sixpence each day working up to six days a week.
The parish paid eight pence per load for stone. There were 278 loads in 1843, 150 loads in 1844 and 202 loads in 1845. Of these 150 loads were pit stone, the rest were all hand picked from the fields. In 1844 four shillings and eight pence was received for pounding cattle.
When a water source dried up people resorted to all sorts of ways to obtain another supply. A bucket in each hand was the tried and tested way or one could make a yoke from hazel to ease the load. Arrangements would be made with a farm where there was a spring or well. A village pump stood opposite the mere for which the parish paid one shilling a year.
Granville Bendall tells of collecting water for Sayers Farm from the spring at Ravens Hall and of the huge wastage on the return journey. Charles Poulding, wounded in the legs at Passchendale, had to carry his water each day from the mere up the hill to the Old cottages on Watsons Hill and if Mr Schobloch had a tenant next door he would carry it for them as well.
A later water supply in Semer is the bore drilled in 1992 by Anglian Water. The submersible pump at 120 metres deep supplements the two existing boreholes at the Semer Water Treatment Works and can produce 60 litres per second. The water is for general supply and is routed through Nedging reservoir and water tower.
If about 3000 years ago you had gone into Dairy Farm Lane from the Bildeston Road and looked left to a field now called Golder you would have found some earlier Semer residents. It would not have been their permanent home but with the benefit of a south facing slope and water from the nearby Brett it could be considered a prime site.
In 1938, just near to Mill House, a clay pot was discovered and handed into Ipswich museum by Percy Waller. It was found inverted over the bones of a cremated female thought to be in her middle twenties who had lived around 1000 BC. In 1889 a lead core-box for making socketed bronze axes was found on Semer Common.
Michael and Jill first surveyed First Golder and then field walked the lower half in 1996 and found worked flint flakes, evidence of these early people making their stone tools. The small areas where the flint was found overlaid exactly the crop marks photographed by Cambridge University some years before. The arrowheads and stone axes would have been lost when hunting but the debris produced when making these items would lay as they fell in their back yard. As the new technologies arrived, firstly bronze then iron, skill in knapping flint declined but the tools they made were as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. Field walking needs to be carried out after harrowing when the finds come to the surface. It seemed most of Semer came by and wanted to know what we were doing and why our Labrador followed us for a while only to sit down and wait whilst that section was completed. Finally James mentioned that the pheasants were about to hatch and it was time to go, all in all we had a great time.
People, on visiting Semer, often ask, “Where is the centre of the village”? There isn't one, at least not in the sense of nearby Kersey or Bildeston. The site of the village sign is as good as any, with manor, church, rectory site and river crossing all nearby. There is no record of a pub in the village, although only up to a few years ago families were brewing their own beer, usually sharing the facilities and equipment. Semer today follows much the same pattern as those of 800AD, others became nucleated whereas ours didn't.
In 1385 eleven men in Semer were found to be selling beer in illegal measures and cups. They were amerced (fined) 3d each in the manorial court.
Rhubarb and Roses
On twenty-six acres of land between Ash Street Bridge and the Overgang a Mr Emeny and Chris Martin grew rhubarb. They had contracts for delivery as far as London, the Midlands and Cecil Gynn even remembers taking consignments to Glasgow.
Mr Emeny had the contract to take away the night soil from houses in Hadleigh and it was this fertilizer he used to bring on a good early spring crop.
The Letts family on land up the hill from the Overgang grew a far more fragrant crop. In 1903, George Letts, known as “Fred” founded his horticultural firm in Hadleigh and was a pioneer in dispatching seeds and bulbs by mail order. In their Jubilee year the operation moved to the farm at Semer Lodge where the Letts lived. The seed and bulb trade diminished and the family concentrated on growing roses. There were twenty acres of rose fields around the village hall containing annually about two hundred thousand plants, which were delivered far and wide, the family business closed in 1985.
The Village Hall
Given to the village by old “Fred” Letts in 1923, the opening concert and whist drive held in the hall that November raised £33.3.0d. Dances were held on Wednesdays with outsiders being charged a shilling and only admitted if a committee member introduced them, whilst residents of the village needed only to pay sixpence. Cyril Green, a carpenter, was paid four pounds from the “Semer men's chest”. I am not too sure if this was a payment or a “thank you”.
The caretakers lived free of charge in the cottage next door, the two buildings being joined by a passageway. The cost of repairing the cottage became too great and by 1973 the Semer residents decided it was time to sell this property and employ a non-resident caretaker. Money was somehow found to keep the village hall in good order, raised usually by whist drives in years gone by and more recently by the occasional lunch when parishioners gather for a few hours.
Has undergone a full restoration the original features have been carefully replaced. Part of the house dates back to at least the 15th century, slightly earlier than Foxgloves just across the road.
In 1918, when the Wadley family took over the farm, the estimated crop was 20.5 acres of wheat, 18 acres of barley, 27 acres of oats, 17 acres of hay, 7 acres of clover seed, 10 acres of turnips and swede and 7 acres of potatoes. There were 4 working horses on the farm and the busy milk round included deliveries to the workhouse.
In November of that year the sum of £3.16.10d was paid out “to German labour”. Edith Eccles (Walter Martin's eldest daughter) remembers one of the Germans working at the blacksmiths making iron hoops with long handles for the children. These toys were called “stodders” and had not been seen in Semer before.
C1480 likely built by a medieval speculator for a copy hold tenant is a transitional late open hall without the usual crown post in the roof. The smoke blackening on the rear roof timbers indicate that an external timber chimney was originally included at the rear of the property. In the roof space one can see that the later inserted red brick chimney has been painted with reddel (red ochre) on which new white mortar joints have been painted to show a more favourable sized brick. It is quite rare to find this feature especially of this quality. Showing your neighbour that you are ahead in the race for fashion is not confined to the present day.
Adjacent to the cottage is the Old Nonconformist Mission Hall, built in 1856 by John Ansell of Hadleigh. In 1949 Edgar Manning, a local builder, purchased the hall to use as his workshop. The Congregational Body of Dissenters of Hadleigh had built the chapel in Ash Street for Semer and adjoining parishes.
Is a fine timber framed house standing at the very end of the village. There is an original plaster ceiling with rosettes and fleur-de-lys. During the last restoration it was found that the first floor had been used for storing farm produce as chaff and seed were discovered under the floorboards. When thrown out into the field the seed produced a fine crop of stover (clover for horse feed).
Was built by Mr Letts in 1932 and extended by Richard Keens in 1995 The stables were converted into a cottage in1984. Squadron Leader Sabine who rented the house during the war was stationed at Wattisham from 1939. Flying Blenheims from the grass airstrip he took part in the first bombing raids over Germany. Sadly he was killed in a plane crash in 1943 when coming home from Egypt. Mrs. Sabine remembers the evacuees that were billeted with her and the mothers coming to collect them, walking all the way from Hadleigh in their high-heeled shoes. She also recalls the home guard post near to the top of Cookes Hill. The early bombs landing on the Donkey (the pub in Stone Street) and of Bob Hope and Judy Garland entertaining at Wattisham when the Americans arrived in 1942.
Was one of the last farms in the area to use working horses. The three Ranson brothers had the farm from 1946, although they had worked on the land here long before. They were born down the road at Woodlands beside Ropers Green Farm. The brothers were well liked by the community as were the Malyon family who farmed at Drakestone between the two world wars.
Drake is not a common place name in Suffolk and it is possible there is a link with this word to the many newts by the ponds that existed in this area. The word derives from dracca (Old English) meaning dragon, the old folk in this area always called the newts “little dragons”, the ston or ton means homestead.
The Old Cottages
Now Tudor Cottage, were in a dilapidated state and in 1969, the property was very nearly demolished but eventually saved on architectural merit and has since been carefully restored. A brick skin covers the timber frame of a two bay open hall house. Built c1450 some of the timbers are elm. In restoration the builders laid a new softwood roof over the old one in which the simple crown post still survives as do the smoke blackened rafters and sooted split oak laths which supported the thatch.
The timber-framed building just across the road was not so lucky it was demolished in 1969.
In 1992 the Misses Edith and Frances Vale purchased the meadow to the south of the church, “to be made freely available for the residents of Semer”. In a survey c1343 the field measured 4 acres 2 roods 5 perches but by 1842 it had lost 2 perches and by 1992 it measured 4.59 acres.
This has been the home of the Archer, Grimwade, Letts and Styles and de Groot families. At the time of writing it is undergoing renovation and awaits its new owners. In 1913 Fred Letts purchased the Semer Lodge Estate from the Archer family. This included Kersey Farm, Bridge Farm, Semer Lodge and Home Farm, amounting to 339 acres.
The village would be walked periodically, sometimes called “walking the bounds”. In May when the crops were first planted, led by the parson and principle inhabitants of the village, the parishioners walked anti clockwise around Semer. The parson always wrote up the detail of the walk and the people needed to record in their own minds the boundary of their village. The children were even “whacked” when they stopped so they may recall special features. More importantly for the parson he had an interest in the crops and the tithe payment due to him later in the year.
On a walk in 1744, starting at the ashen tree by Nedging Hall gate, they marked known trees, mention being made of a hard beech tree (hornbeam). They were careful enough to measure a piece “50 paces long & 17 wide near ye pond and on ye further side another piece 23 paces wide at ye upper end & 101 at ye lower”. Terms such as baulk and ridge were used, words deriving from the old open field systems in use before early field enclosures.
Go south from Nedging, pass around Semer Wood and roughly head towards Sayers Green. Pass by Ravens Hall to Ropers Green and on to Drakestone Green, then down to the road leading from Cauton Common to Kersey. Turn right and walk to Shoulder of Mutton Lane, here in 1734 was a clap gate beside a farm. Go left down the lane towards Hadleigh Road and the workhouse site.
In 1744 the people turned left up the hill and past the present Semer Lodge to the Bildeston Road and the Old Post Office. They cut across the fields to the water mill (the hilly land on the right then belonged to Whatfield). Then to Camping Close, now Brian Wadley's garden and then around Bridge Farm, not forgetting to run a pole through the gutter of the kiln, to show that the boundary passed through at this point, then take in about three roods of Dovehouse Close. Go up Ash Street, to Cundy's, (possibly Crouch Farm) where the pole was run through the parlour and on to Whatfield Hall pound.
Widow Grimwade's was next taken in at Elmsett but as the name of the field is always left blank and as they must have been in need of refreshment it is very unlikely they ever went there. All the Dairy Farm lands and Semer Hall lands were then taken in thus finishing up at the Ashen tree where it began.
Boundary changes have taken place since 1744, the route is not so contorted, and fields that used to be in Whatfield and Kersey have been added to Semer. It was not uncommon for fields in the middle of one parish to be owned by other adjacent villages.
Documents show that a medieval free chapel once occupied the area at the corner of Cookes Hill with Church Lane, the land belonging to Nedging. The reasons for this are not clear and most likely go back before Norman times at a period when parishes were being defined.
From 1780 to 1923 when the workhouse was closed, many men, women and children passed through “The Union” as it was also known. Although documents in Suffolk Record Office relating to this institution tell more about administration and regulations than the inmates themselves.
In 1779 the Board of Guardians purchased fourteen acres for a workhouse site from Rev Thomas Cooke for £408. The building contract valued at £2751 was awarded to Issac Strutt a carpenter from Boxford. A clause in the contract gives an idea of the local uncertainty concerning the concentration of so many destitute people in one place. It stated “if any hurt or damage shall be occasioned by the Superior force of any Mob or number of people, loss and damage will be bourne by the Directors and Guardians”.
The building originally opened for seventeen parishes of Cosford Hundred (Hadleigh initially opted out) but later more parishes from Babergh Hundred with Hadleigh were added. Thus the workhouse on Union Hill served a population of some eighteen thousand people. The paupers were employed in spinning wool which they had already washed and combed. The yarn was sold in Norwich and the money raised was used to pay off the original building debt within ten years.
In 1806 Bishop Henry of Norwich consecrated the first of two burial grounds. A letter sent to the bishop had stated that “the burials from the House of Industry are very many and there is not sufficient room in the churchyard belonging to Semer”. I calculated that the annual burials for inmates had been around twenty-six. The records do not show where around 700 people were buried between 1780 and 1806, it is possible that some were interred in the one acre plot opposite the village sign where bones have been found in recent years. Many other paupers would have been taken back to their own villages and the workhouse records state that the Guardians would not help with any costs and that the deceased families would easily be able to use a tumbril to take the body away.
Small pox vaccinations were successfully introduced and Semer House was free from epidemics which prevailed elsewhere. Before a new hospital was built in 1869 all infectious patients were placed in the pest house and usually nursed by local women.
To meet the regulations of the New Poor Law of 1834, the house was improved and accommodation provided for five hundred people, although this figure was never attained. Out of 2231 people who received orders for admission the following year only 394 accepted. The Rev Calvert of Whatfield stated that “the labourers themselves do not like the regularity of life required in domestic servants”, in other words, they were unaccustomed to the discipline and resented their loss of freedom.
As the regime became harsher, one name for the workhouse was “the spike”, the paupers rioted and caused much damage to the building. Police were boarded within the workhouse for a time and many inmates were later committed to Bury Gaol, five broad swords were supplied at the cost of fifteen shillings. It is not known whether cavalry were also billeted here but stables for forty horses were erected and the lower field became known as Cavalry Meadow. Although the old treadmill was offered for sale, advertisements failed to find a buyer, so eventually it was broken up and sold off at auction (do not forget that this place was also a house of correction). In July 1841 a new rule ensured that prostitutes of depraved habits would be kept separate from other inmates during their stay.
Whatever the regime inside the house, poor people in surrounding villages must have been grateful for the out-relief and tons of flour which was delivered weekly to those in genuine need. The Poor Law Commissioners even introduced a medical club for the working labourers.
As time passed, with life improving for the local people, the new hospital cared for those with infectious diseases. Vagrants increasingly stayed over night and worked for their keep, either picking oakum or breaking stone. Older people from Semer tell of the tramps that left money or valuables in hedgerows around the Union before going in for the night and that some lies about to this day. German prisoners of war, housed in the Union during the First World War, were taken out each day on a flat-bed wagon, “with their legs hanging over the side” and dropped off at various farms to do a days work. The blacksmith in Ash Street was usually allocated a tradesman to help in the forge.
In 1921 adverts to dispose of the union were placed in the press but without result, as the areas chosen by the Guardians were Liverpool, Newcastle and Yorkshire it was not surprising. For better or worse the old workhouse was sold in 1923 and demolished in 1926. The burial grounds were retained and all that now remains are the stables and the laundry which are now part of Hill House. The old hospital is now a private house.
Not the one in your pocket but the brick built structure sited on the corner of Sayers Green, now Malcolm Self's garden. Here straying cattle would be collected by the roadman and impounded, only to be released on the payment of a fine. Is it possible that the pound was sited here because of the proximity to the common where centuries ago those people with common rights would have grazed their cattle.
A photograph of Albert Ranson shows him standing beside the pudding stone at Drakestone Green. Pudding stones are glacial erratics often used in the 17th C as way markers. This stone was likely used to mark the route, across the fields, from Drakestone Lane to Kersey Priory. Some folk prefer that they mark Ley Lines but I would suggest they serve a more practical purpose.
In Ash Street the village blacksmith worked at his forge from at least the early 1800's. His premises by the roadside, the wheel ring by the back door of the house, and the wheelwright's sawpit and sheds to the rear of the property. The last blacksmith was Walter Martin, a craftsman who specialised in manufacturing and repairing harrows and it is here that Benjamin Green made carriages in 1839. The other recorded sawpits in the village were in the area near to James Buckle's new bridge and at Home Farm by Semer Lodge.
The cast plate now fitted to the wall of the house was originally on the wall of the blacksmith's workshop. JRM Fitch was the owner of the Lawford Iron Works at Manningtree, the business founded by O Bendall around 1830. The firm made Bendall ploughs, water carts, land rollers and hoop hoes. Walter was most likely one of their agents.
The first Semer Post Office
Now appropriately called The Old Post Office, is situated at the top of Cooke's Hill, probably opened in the mid 19th century and continued to the late 19th century when it was relocated down the hill to the present Hill House. Jeffery Green was a postman here in 1891. His brother Cyril with wife Adelaide took over the business in 1909. On Cyril's death in 1930, Adelaide carried on as postmistress but moved the post office to the next house down the hill known in recent years as Three Firs. Her daughter Joan eventually took over and kept the business open until 1983 when the doors closed for the last time.
For fifty-three years the third post office was also a shop selling sweets, groceries and paraffin. The Green family had been involved in serving the village in the post office and delivering mail for almost a hundred years. The name Green threads through the parish history for many centuries and this branch has a direct lineage going back at least 250 years.
The local WI was formed in 1921, the formation meeting taking place in the old institute in Church Lane, within three months they achieved fifty nine members and set the annual subscription at two shillings. The intention in the formative years was to educate young mothers in health and hygiene and to bring down infant mortality.
From 1923 the ladies organised their first egg collection for the Ipswich Hospital and by 1927 needed to put a limit of one hundred on the membership. The national resolution for that year was that there should be a public telephone in every village. A considerable amount of garden produce was grown in the village for the hospital, prizes being awarded for the biggest crop from a set amount of seed and by 1932 the ladies of Semer had supplied over 10,000 eggs to the same cause.
Census in 1891
There were 189 people living in Semer in 1891, 94 males and 95 females. 105 were born in the village and only 4 people were born outside the county of Suffolk. Of the children, fifty were recorded as scholars, with 22 infants under school age. (38% of the village population were children).
Job descriptions as follows:
1 postmaster and 1 postmistress
One lady of 72 years was charged to the parish and one lady received relief from the parish.
2 ladies are “living on their own means”.
The rest of the people are agricultural workers and their wives, all working in or around Semer.
40 houses were occupied whilst another 5 were uninhabited. Of the inhabited ones, 4 dwellings had 2 rooms, 11 had 3 rooms and another 11 had 4 rooms.
The staff and inmates of the Cosford Union are not included.
Census in 1999
As the photographs for the Semer book were taken, in the pouring rain, families gave simple details to make our own census for 1999.
In 1999 there is a total population of 152 of which 84 are male and 68 female. Included in this number are 10 infants, 22 children attending school and a further 7 young people in higher education. Only 25 people now work in the village and 20 inhabitants have retired, (their previous occupations are included in the job descriptions).
There are 57 houses in the village and only 2 are unoccupied. Semer did not have mains water until the 1950's and even today there is no mains gas supply or public sewerage system in the village. At least three properties are without mains water and take from a private bore.
Job descriptions as follows:
6 in the building trade
3 working with computers
6 clerical workers
5 company directors
1 bank manager
1 land agent
3 working in agriculture
4 teachers and 1 head teacher
3 lorry drivers
1 shop worker
2 farm retailers
1 pest control manager
1 house husband
1 public health researcher
1 timber merchant
1 insurance analyst
1 shipping logistics
1 haulage contractor
The remainder will be housewives and children.
A few copies of a book on Semer history written at the millennium are still available. They are priced at £7.50 and all proceeds go towards the church funds.