A BRIEF HISTORY OF WHATFIELD
Whatfield, like so many other rural villages in East Anglia, has a history which is both ancient and largely hidden to modern eyes. It lies in a region which is blessed with fertile soil, and many settlers in past times have fought one another to control this land, leaving only echoes of their struggles with each other, and with nature. Most of the clues lie beneath our feet, and in the places where previous generations have left their mark on the land both cultivated and built upon. We have hardly begun to discover the secret history of this beautiful part of Suffolk!
It is very likely that Iron Age settlers were farming here generations before the Romans arrived in 43AD. Local people lived within the tribal lands of the Trinovantes, with the Iceni tribe to the north. Strong iron ploughs were needed to cultivate the heavy clay soil. Much of this area would have remained as woodland. The Romans developed a network of important roads across this area, which were heavily involved in trade with the towns which grew such as at Long Melford, Coddenham, and especially, Colchester, the Roman capital in Britain. Roman soldiers were retired to become farmers in this area, and there is evidence of Roman settlement in Whatfield, which could have been a farm or a small villa. When Roman legions finally left Britain in the early 5th Century, Anglian, Saxon and Frisian settlers began to arrive from the region of northern Europe now associated with Germany, and eventually the small settlement here became part of the rich and powerful Kingdom of East Anglia. Ipswich became an important port, helping to bring further prosperity to the area.
The Danes began to arrive across East Anglia, at first to plunder, and later to settle, from 865AD. When King Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington, many led by the Danish King Guthrum settled in this area, and his remains may have been buried in Hadleigh. The settlement we know as Whatfield was now part of the ‘Eastern Danelaw', and agriculture probably expanded here with more trees cleared to enable crops to be grown. Christianity flourished across the region, and churches were constructed in many local villages.
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD, the Normans took control of England, and the Domesday Book of 1086 records the name of the village as ‘Watefelda', which translates as ‘where wheat is grown'. There was a church (almost certainly made of wood), a mill, and about 10 estates which were mostly small farms. The two largest farms were managed for the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds. A ‘population' of 35 (probably about 150 if we assume this refers mainly to heads of household) was recorded, of which many were classed as ‘freemen', who rented the land they farmed and were not subject to some of the feudal responsibilities inflicted upon many of the population by the Norman King William and his descendants. The wealth from the cloth trade which benefitted so many villages and towns across East Anglia in the middle ages seems to have largely by-passed Whatfield, which remained a small farming community.
Much of the history of Whatfield remains unclear in the middle ages, and records tend to focus on particular estates or ‘manors', such as Barrard's Hall, Whatfield Hall, Peyton's Hall and Furneaux Manor (now Farm) . The people who ran these estates had considerable influence, at different times, on the village community, often employing many people on the land and in service. This tradition continued into the 20th century.
The church was partly re-built, in stone, in the 14th century, and this remains at the heart of the present church we know as St Margaret of Antioch, which was extensively repaired and improved in the 16th century. The ‘Black Death' would have swept through the area in 1348-9, but there are no known records to show what impact it may have had on the village. In 1381, during the Peasants Revolt, it is possible that Barrards Hall was attacked by a local mob led by local man Adam Rogges, probably in an attempt to destroy all records of feudal responsibilities forced on some the farming population of the area.
In 1603 the population was recorded as 80, and in 1674 there were about 50 dwellings in the village. During the 1770s the Chapel was constructed behind what is now known as ‘Chapel Cottage'.
The population was recorded in 1800 at 235, and the parish covered 1570 acres. In 1803, £140 was recorded as being spent to relieve poverty here, but by 1832 over one thousand pounds was spend on poor relief in the parish. Two years later the government changed the way in which the poor were supported, and local people suffering extreme hardship would soon be compelled to go to the workhouse at Semer, where conditions were likely to have been severe. This would remain as the main method of supporting the poorest of this area until the 20th century.
In 1838, new and detailed maps showing ownership of properties in Whatfield were created due to the Tithe Commutation Act. In 1851, there were 381 people recorded as living here, with over 100 directly employed in agriculture. In 1881, there were 78 families recorded, occupying 74 dwellings. In 1886 the Salvation Army came to Whatfield, and held meetings in a cottage near to Church Lane. The village school was built in 1859 as a National Voluntary School, where local children originally attended until the age of 13-14. In 1892, Whatfield received it's first post collection box, set into the garden wall of Chapel Cottage, and in 1894 the first village Parish Council was created.
The 20th century saw huge changes to what was a largely self contained rural community with a variety of different trades, but with most people continuing to work in agriculture. There were no sewers, running water, telephones, electricity or gas supplies at the start of the century. The village consisted mainly of a single street with a mixture of cottages and farms alongside it or close by. In 1910 Whatfield established it's own Post Office, where ‘Crummles' is today, near to Naughton Road. World War One witnessed several young men of the village go to war, and a plaque in St Margaret's Church displays their names, and shows those who never returned from the conflict.
In the 1930s there were 2 garages, 3 shops selling groceries and other daily essentials, a pub (‘The Four Horseshoes'), and even a fish and chip shop. A public phone box arrived in 1933. Several farms dominated the agriculture of the area; Barrards Hall, Church Farm, Furneaux Farm, Hill Farm, Whitehouse Farm and Street Farm. Many village families continued to work for local farmers, and many also worked their own allotments (and gardens) to provide fresh food for their families. Christianity, via the Anglican St Margaret's Church, The Chapel, and the Salvation Army, played an important role in both the spiritual and social life of the village.
World War 2 (1939-45) would accelerate change in Whatfield as in other parts of Britain. Many young men and women worked elsewhere in war production or served in the Forces. Evacuees from Bethnal Green in London stayed with village families, and the Americans arrived in force at Wattisham Airfield. New Council houses were constructed along Naughton Road, and old cottages were cleared away in different places along The Street to make way for new housing. Sewers, water, electricity and telephones were all brought to the village, (some services even before 1939) and several old farms began to break up in the latter part of the century, with the farmhouses often becoming private dwellings and their land sold as larger scale farming has taken over across the region. The final decades of the 20th century witnessed the demise of the shops, garages, pub, and Post Office as local people ventured further afield to shop - the growth of car ownership has played a significant role in reducing rural isolation, but also in reducing the proud traditions of local self sufficiency as well. This did not stop the village from building a Village Hall in the 1970s, and it has acquired land for villagers to enjoy which are now called Hunty's Vale and Buckle's Meadow. The building of Wheatfields as a new housing development in the 1970s brought many new families to the village.
At the start of the 21st century there were 134 households and a population of 310 recorded for Whatfield. New homes, under the Affordable Housing Scheme, have been completed near to the school, with more due to be constructed opposite Church Farm in the near future. Whatfield has continued to possess a powerful sense of community action, and in 2014 won the title of ‘Suffolk Village of the Year'. It remains, like other rural villages, in transition, moving from its long history of close involvement with the land to become an attractive location for those born and bred here and also for people who wish to avoid urban life, and who, increasingly, work elsewhere but share a love of the beauty and deep sense of the past which a village like Whatfield retains.
The teachers and pupils of Whatfield School, late 19th century
The village in 1964
Flea Row, The Street, early 20th century