The town of Saxmundham grew up on the main road from London and Ipswich to the coast at Lowestoft and on a small tributary of the river Alde, the Fromus. The 'ham' of its name suggests that it was a settlement at least by Saxon times; Ekwall, generally regarded as the most reliable source on English place names, suggests that it was once Seismund's-ham or Seismund's town. By the end of the Saxon era and the beginning of the Norman period, the Domesday book of 1086 lists 7 villeins (freemen but with a duty to the manor) and 13 bordars (cottagers owing service to the home farm) for both 1066 and 1086 for the two manors which made up the settlement.
The benefit of being is a favourable geographical location, in a shallow valley on the rivulet and on main road, enabled the town to grow and in July 1272 Henry III awarded a charter to John de Rammseye for Saxmundham to hold a market. This market was regarded as having a detrimental effect on the village of Orford in a record of 1274. There was at this time a pattern of well-located hamlets growing and developing as local trading towns, whilst those which had been set up for rather more artificial reasons after the Norman conquest would often remain as villages.
The church of St John stands on raised ground above the shallow valley in which the village sits. Domesday mentions a church but the current building is primarily from the 14th and 15th centuries, partly disguised - as with many other East Anglian churches - by 19th century restoration. It has many features worthy of exploration.
A picture of the town in 1698 is found in the account kept by Celia Fiennes as she journeyed round East Anglia. "Thence to Saxmunday 8 miles more: this is a pretty bigg market town. The wayes are pretty deep, mostly Lanes very Little Commons. I pass'd by severall Gentlemens seates, one, Mr Dormers wch stands in a fine parke. Ye Entrance from ye Road thro' rows of trees Discover'd the front and building very finely to view, being built wth stone and Brick and many sashes: Lookes like a new house wth ye open jron barr gates between pillars of stone the breadth of ye house."
The main market area of Saxmundham has today been tidied and formalised; perhaps a little too much so when the shops and stalls are not in operation. One must imagine just how busy a place it would have been in the 19th century; with 48% of the local population working within the agricultural sector, goods and animals would be moving in and out of town, particularly on market day - which had been moved from the ancient day of Thursday to a Wednesday, to avoid a clash with the Woodbridge market day. The livestock market at Saxmundham continued until 1977.
The importance of cereals in local trade resulted in the building of the Corn Exchange in 1846; it was given to the town by the Long family. It is now the Market Hall. The Long family came to the town in the 17th century; Samuel Long was involved in the governance of the island of Jamaica and purchased the lordship of the manor and Hurts Hall on his return to England. His family descendants owned the hall until the 1950s.
As railways spread across East Anglia in the 19th century, towns which were on the rail line prospered, those who did not get a station would often suffer. Saxmundham's station was built by the East Suffolk Railway Company and opened in 1859; it was later taken over by the Great Eastern Railway and then in 1923 by the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923. All the regional railway companies provided facilities to meet the needs of both industry and agriculture, and the freight facilities would continue at Saxmundham until 1965. The passenger service on the Lowestoft-Ipswich line continues today.
After centuries of riders, carts, stage coaches and latterly motor vehicles rumbling through the centre of town, traffic now passes by with the A12 now routed to the west. However, the town continues to operate as the service centre for the locality. Independent shops continue to function; a supermarket now operates just off the cross-roads and doubtless some say that it draws people into the town and others will feel it caused the decline of other local facilities. The coast is within easy reach and both road and rail communications to the county town of Ipswich are convenient.
Visitors to the town will find it helpful to ask at local shops or the Museum for a copy of the very helpful town trail, which will enable you to enjoy a two hour walk round the town to view buildings of interest.
The church of St John stands on a small hill up the road from the central crossroads.
The town sign features cows and sheep, the church and the Corn Exchange, later the Market Hall.
The Market Hall.The space in front of the hall is formalised by the single wall on the left and the use of the wall of the Bell Hotel on the right. The building was restored in the 1930s and refurbished in 1992.
The town pump, not in its original position but symbolising the importance of the central market place. A plaque on the pump records that it was given by town benefactor William Long in 1838.
The White Hart was advertising for a new landlord at the time this photograph was taken. Such a hostelry does perhaps see less visitors that when passing trade and market place users would have thronged the High Street.