- The Rectory
- Hadleigh Road
- IP7 5LH
The history of the village of Stratford St Mary is fascinating. I have to thank a former Rector, John H.H. Griffin and his account of what he knew in 1964, for much of what follows.
The village BCE
A stone mace head of about 4000 BCE was turned up in the churchyard when a grave was being dug in the 20th century. The weapon is now in the Ipswich Museum.
It is probable that the Beaker Folk, sun worshipppers who invaded Britain in successive waves around 2000 BCE, built a 'henge' in the fields to the west of the A12 at the highest point in the village. A henge is a circular sanctuary, in Stratford's case a circular ditch, within which would have been placed a circle or horseshoe of oak posts. What makes the Stratford henge unique is that there is a cruciform ditch with arms of equal length occupying the central level area in the middle of the surrounding uprights. Its purpose is not at present known. The upright posts may have been up to 20 feet in height, being markers in an astronomical calendar in which the sun and certain of the major stars were used to determine the seasons for festivals and the gestation periods for domestic livestock.
In Roman times there was a fortified post on Gun Hill on the Essex side of the ford, and the discovery of an amphora in a field called 'Webb's Walls' suggests a Roman villa. About 1870 a small cremation urn was found in a garden near the Black Horse, which reminded some people at the time of an earlier find of coins in the same area.
The Domesday survey of 1086 lists a population of 30 tenants and one serf, and this is the first mention of the village in written records. The tiny Saxon settlement had been originally no more than a clearing in a jungle of thorn, bramble and oak forest, gradually cleared for fields by a very slow-growing population who felled trees, with the Lord of the manor's consent, to construct their homes, and who cleared and drained the swampy valley bottom.
14th & 15th Centuries AD
The next we hear of the village and its people is from the Court Rolls of the year 1318 - Monday June 25th to be precise - when we read that Michael Sebricht was suing James le Buk for trespass and John Stront for debt. In turn, John Stront was suing Michael Sebricht for trespass.
Michael Sebricht accuses James le Buk 'that the dog of the same James killed two sheep of the said Michael, he himself being aware of the said trespass, to the damage of the said Michael'. The Court held that the dog of the same James did not kill those sheep, wherefore Michael is 'in mercy' and the said James is innocent. Michael also lost his case for a debt of 4d against John Stront, but was convicted of trespassing in Stront's alder grove and cutting thorns to the value of 1d, for which he has to pay damages and is fined 6d.
Houses still stand on some of the sites of the houses built by people who lived in Stratford all those centuries ago. The fields that they cleared and drained of water and still cultivated and grazed; indeed some of the fields are still called by the names they gave them.
To the north-east of the church a small community of about 11 houses grew up near what was a mill house and pond, of which 'Ravenys' - the subject of a picture by John Constable entitled 'A house in Water Lane' - was one. The Lord of the Manor granted the land on which it stands to William Smyth and William Wade in 1442 on condition that they rebuilt the house.
After the Norman settlement a second manor was carved out of the river meadows between the present Post Office and the county border at the bridge at Gun Hill. The finest of its houses still stands on the western boundary of the parish and dates from about 1480, but as it is called Lowe Hill House in the house-by-house survey of the manor that was made in 1619, it cannot itself have been the manor house.
The manor of Stratford Hall included the fine group of timber houses by the Post Office. It is known that the one furthest from the church, on the south side of the road, was the home of Ralph Gateman, a weaver, in 1334, making it the oldest surviving house in the village. The front portion of the one behind it was known as Thornes. It is only recently that the most imposing member of the group of houses has been named 'The Priest's House', though there are no known ecclesiastical connections. However, the construction, which is nearly one third solid oak 4-5 inches thick, shows what a wealth of timber must once have grown in the neighbourhood.
The next old house as one goes down Upper Street towards the river is the red brick Old Cage House, on the site of a house that had previously been named Fyshers. The Old Cage House refers to a timber pound for stray cattle and horses which once occupied part of the site of what is now the Parish Room. The house is the sole survivor in the village of the cottage holdings on which most of the inhabitants of rural England lived until they were absorbed into the properties of the Lord of the Manor and his tenant farmers.
In medieval times Stratford had a vigorous Guild of St John the Baptist for the relief of the poor.
We hear of a market day being granted in 1384.
Somewhere in the middle section of the main road through the village was a shop managed by one John Havens. We know nothing about his shop; all we do know is that he was hanged for an unknown felony in about 1618 in the field to the east side of the Dedham road close to 'The Gables' and the church. The field was still known as Gallows Field 200 years later.
The land on which the Gables stands was granted to John and Matilda Clerk in 1458, and John Buk the younger and John Smyth came to live in the double tenement next door. Both these properties became church charities in 1552 and the latter remained part of the endowment until 1939.
18th and 19th Centuries
It was the growth of the London traffic that brought prosperity to Stratford in the last part of the 18th and first part of the 19th centuries. Passengers, meat and goods of many kinds were conveyed by horse-drawn vehicles, which changed their horses at the inns. The Swan in particular was possessed of extensive stabling right up to the 1930s. When one of its lofts was then opened, it was found to contain a pile of straw palliases for the benefit of humble travellers and the casual labourers who followed the progress of the harvest as it moved from south to north through East Anglia.
In coaching days the Anchor was the Swan's only competitor - the Black Horse did not come on the scene till later; in 1619 it was still a private house.
Le Talbooth, now officially in Essex, was originally a pair of cottages with their own quay and lime kiln. The toll bridge beside it was tall and narrow and often the cause of the village being flooded.
Riversdale, the modern house next to 'Fords' on Lower Street, stands on the site of 'Skalders', for more than 200 years the home of the Mors family. Thomas, the first of them to appear in the records, was a wealthy clothier (one of 3 in the village) and a generous benefactor of the church. Margaret, his wife, was a Miss Webb of Dedham, and her parents played a large part in the building of Dedham church. The last of the Morses, Azal, sold most of the family property in 1615 and left the village, leaving his mother in the family home to live on the rents of 2 or 3 cottages and her half share in the new water mill, which dates from about 1600.
The Stower (sic) Navigation Company was formed in 1708 chiefly to enable coal to be brought up river and corn, straw and hay to be carried downstream to be shipped to London. The river quickly became a busy and prosperous waterway until the railways took its trade.
In about 1850 the mill was demolished and a vast brick structure of 5 floors took its place, milling flour for macaroni. Houses on the east side of Lower Street were demolished to make way for a row of white brick cottages, and Valley House was built for the owner, but the business was not successful and had to close in 1889. The mill remained derelict until it was pulled down in 1947.
William White's County Directory of 1855 records a village whose prosperity from agriculture was at its peak, before competition from the Stour Navigation Company bankrupt the hostelries and put its ostlers, pot boys and other employees out of work.
In this year the population had reached 673, and the hordes of children from both Stratford and Higham were taught by one Schoolmaster and 2 Schoolmistresses in the newly-built National School on the edge of the wood on Stratford Hill.
There were no state benefits in those days, so the poor of the village were reliant on the Stratford branch of the 'Oddfellows', among the first in the Eastern counties. The provision of allotment gardens in a portion of the Rector's glebe was among the first in the whole of England. The membership of the Oddfellows in 1855 was 100 - nearly the whole male population of the village - and had its headquarters at the Swan.
A one-day summer fair of pedlars' stalls and showman's booths was held on 22 June, a last survivor of the original 3-day market granted in 1384.
The village was full of small workshops including 2 bakers, a butcher, a firm of iron and brass founders, a smith, wheelwright and carpenter, bricklayers, painters and glaziers, 2 plumbers, 4 shoemakers, 2 tailors and a glover. One of the shops had a reputation that placed it on a par with the drapers of Ipswich and Colchester, and the village was evidently a thriving and almost self-contained community.