The Ancient House

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 10
Above: from Ipswich in 1912: King Edward Memorial Sanatorium EADT Souvenir book
Ipswich's most famous landmark is The Ancient House which stands on the corner of Butter Market (the street, rather than the neaby shopping centre) and St Stephens Lane (which leads down to St Stephen Church, now the Tourist Information Centre and gallery). The earliest reference to the Ancient House can be found in the 15th (some say the 14th) century, when it was owned by the knight, Sir Richard of Martlesham. In the 16th century the house was owned by a string of local merchants, including George Copping, a draper and fishmonger, who acquired the property in 1567. It was Copping who commissioned the panelling of the ground floor room at the front of the house. He also built the 'long gallery'. The Sparrowe (spellings vary) family became the owners of the house in 1603 and continued ownership of it for the next 300 years. It became known as 'Sparrow's House'. Robert Sparowe, a grocer, added the elaborate pargeting to the front and side of the house between 1660 and 1670. The association with trade, provisions and markets is due to the fact that for hundreds of years the thriving market(s) on Cornhill spilled out into nearby streets and lanes, including, of course, "the butter market". One legend tells of King Charles II hiding from his enemies in the Attic Room after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 (Charles II's royal arms are part of the pargetting).
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This distinctive Grade 1 listed landmark dominates the Butter Market area.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Butter Market sign 1   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Butter Market sign 22014 images
Above left: the street nameplate opposite The Ancient House (corner of Dial Lane) with the three beehives fire insurance company plate (one of several) above it. Above right: the Butter Market street nameplate in white characters reversed out against brown (there are a number of signs in this livery in the town centre) close to the Giles statue. The name relates to a time when busy markets in particular produce spread out from the Cornhill into nearby streets. It was once known as Fish Market.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Butter Market map 18671867 map
The above detail from White's map of Ipswich 1867 exemplifies the way in which thoroughfare names change over time. Butter Market here is clearly labelled 'St Lawrence St'. The short lane, parallel to Dial Lane  which today carries the nameplate 'St Lawrence Street' simply bears the legend 'Lane'. Note also the naming on the east corner with Tavern Street: 'Suffolk House', which was the store run by Frederick Fish. The 'Ancient Ho.' is also labelled. It is interesting to see the 'Market' in its own square, surrounded by narrow buildings with Market Lane, which existed until the building of the Buttermaket Centre in 1986, running from Falcon Street northwards alongside W.S. Cowell the printers into
St Lawrence St (Butter Market); the northermost part of Market Lane still exists as alleyway which is a fire exit from the Buttermarket Centre. At the top of the map Lloyd's Avenue does not exist and the only access to Tower Ramparts from the Cornhill is the unnamed Mumford's Passage (with the number 43 near its entrance). Note also how very narrow 'Dogs Head Lane' is linking 'Square' (Old Cattle Market) with Upper and Lower Brook Streets.

Butter Market
Muriel Clegg in Streets and street names in Ipswich (see Reading List): "The name Butter Market had in the meantime begun to be associated with the areas which had formerly accomodated the fish market and the cheesemarket. In 1621 the name appeared for the first time when Joan Coppin, widow, was in trouble for allowing the street before her house in the Butter Market to be in decay. In 1635 it was 'the fish market now used as the butter market (forum piscum modo usiat. pro foro butier) and in 1695 'The Cheese and Butter Street'. Possibly 'the street from th Butter Market towards the Cornhil (1628)' is the Thoroughfare, shown but not named by Ogilby and Pennington. For some time the name Butter Market continued to be associated with the market site, which had never extended to Brook Street. Thus throughout the eighteenth century the east end of the street continued to be called 'the street from the Butter Market to Brook Street' (1776). Ironically, it was probably not until a market ceased to be held in the street that the name Old Butter market and eventually Butter market was applied to the entire street."
For a similar commentary on St Lawrence Street see our St Lawrence Church page; on Dial Lane see our Scarborow page.

In the late seventies, the Ancient House was in an extremely poor state of repair and close to collapse. At this stage it was purchased and renovated by Ipswich Borough Council and returned to its former glory using modern building techniques and materials. The Ancient House boasts highly detailed exterior plaster work (pargeting) and ornamental wood carvings, and is currently called home by Lakeland Kitchenware with an art gallery in the upper part of the building. Due to weak floors this area cannot be used for retail display, so community groups can display arts and crafts there - as long as they do not exceed the loading limit. Leading off the gallery by a tiny, low ceilinged staircase is a lower room, sometimes called 'The Chapel Room'. This appears to be the upper part of a grand hall, judging by the beams and supports, which has been floored over at a later date. It is quite a mysterious place and a steady stream of visitors come to see the room throughout the year.

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 1 Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 2
The fine oriel windows which front the Buttermarket are most noted for the pargeted reliefs showing figures and objects which relate to the four known continents of the Tudor period (Australasia had yet to be discovered by westerners). The lettering in the upper part of each panel is shown enhanced in each image. The naive depictions are both impressive and amusing to our modern eyes. Impressive not least in that they have survived so long:
'AMERICA'   ...   'AFRICA'   ...   'ASIA'   ...   'EUROPE'
America is represented by an Aztec/Inca-style man with a bow and arrow and a dog at his feet, Africa is represented by a naked man holding a spear and sunshade, Asia by a woman on a horse and a domed mosque-like building, Europe by a woman holding a cornucopia on a horse and castle, and . Other panels show the three elements: Earth, Water and Air. Round the corner on the western gable is a nice depiction of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, also St George in the garb of a 17th century gentleman dealing with a recumbent dragon.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 3a Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 4
We owe the survival of the Ancient House pargeting and carved oak beams and posts to the fact that the house was in the possession of one family for such a long period and that Ipswich Borough Council purchased it and conducted an extensive renovation. This project was not without its problems: the foundations had sunk, but the heavy fireplaces had sunk at a different rate. Over 260 tonnes of concrete was used in the foundations, and 11 tonnes of steel were used overall. In addition to this, woodworm and dry and wet rot had set in, and the deathwatch beetle was rife. Renovation began in 1984, and no part of the building was untouched. Foundations were underpinned, the rot & infestations were eradicated, floors were strengthened, plasterwork pargeting was restored, windows were releaded and features were exposed.

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 1968Photograph courtesy The Ipswich Society Image Archive
Above: the ABC cinema and, beyond, the Ancient House in 1968 (dated by the release of the John Wayne film, The Green Berets). Fire brigade in attendance for some reason.

The other major event to threaten The Ancient House was a disastrous fire in nearby timber-framed buildings in the early 1990s. Booksale (now 'The Works), Jones the Bootmaker and Hughes electrical were all destroyed, but the intense heat did not spread through the former ABC cinema to The Ancient House. Yes, it is hard to believe, but a piece of modernist brutalism adjoined the old building for many years as contemporary photos from the fifties attest. Perhaps the old ABC protected the house from destruction by fire. The Rex Cinema in the 1920s was the Waggon & Horses tavern (see our Ipswich Museum page for the original pub sign); it opened on the 1st January 1937. It was renamed the ABC in 1962. All the above businesses were rebuilt (although Hughes stayed in their new home in Tower Ramparts Shopping Centre) and British Home Stores took over the space which runs right round from Butter Market to the rear of The Ancient House. In September 1993 Ipswich was twinned with Arras, France and the area behind the house is now called Arras Square.

In about 1651 it was said that King Charles II had hidden in what is now the Ancient House (this story could apply to many buildings in England) but a 'secret room' created by the building of a 16th century plastered ceiling just below the hammerbeams of the roof of the original lofty 15th century hall, that had been sealed off for over 150 years was only found in 1801. Post-Restoration of the Monarchy (some time after 1660) the front of the building had the coat of arms of King Charles II set into the plaster.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 5
In the centre of the frontage between the two pairs of oriel windows is the wonderfully restored crest with mottos. It bears the Royal Arms of King Charles II, and the words:
'HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE'
This is old French for "shame upon him who thinks evil of it", and is also the motto of the Order of the Garter. Below on a blue panel is:
'DIEU ET MON DROIT'
("God and my right"). At the very top, picked out in gold are the characters:
'C   II   R'
which stand for "Charles [the second] Rex".
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 7 Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 8
The poster above was produced for London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to Ipswich in Suffolk. The poster shows an interior view of the Ancient House with Restoration figures in full costume. The painting was by Fred Taylor (1875-1963), who was commisioned in 1930 to design four ceiling paintings for the Underwriting Room at Lloyd's and murals for Reed's Lacquer Room. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and other London galleries and worked for LNER, London Transport and several shipping companies.
The house has been a draw for photographers and artists for centuries; the engraving above dates from 1881.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House 1934

Many Ipswich residents will recall the building as the home of Hatchards the bookshop. Indeed they were in occupation when the restoration works were agreed and they moved into temporary premises in Upper Brook Street (opposite the mouth of Buttermarket) for many months. The building ceased to be a private residence in the nineteenth century. The association with books goes back a long way, The Ancient House once housed the famous 16th century Town Library (partly based upon a bequest of books by Portman, William Smart), which is currently held by The Ipswich School. The Ancient House Press was established in 1845 as a book-selling and printing business in this historic building. After a period of time the book-selling and printing businesses were separated and the latter moved to larger premises in the town and became the root of the existing company today. It remained there until 1985 when, due to expansion, the company moved to its existing site on the Hadleigh Road Industrial Estate. The Company was started by Mr. Frederick Pawsey, a well-known local figure in printing circles. He sold the business in 1897 to the Harrison family, who retained ownership until 1971 when the present owners took over.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House Clarke
Engraving of the Ancient House with ground floor arched windows and double door entrance to the left (since reshaped) from G.R. Clarke's  history of Ipswich,
1830 (see Reading list).

[UPDATE 8.5.2012: "From The Ipswich Journal, Saturday, November 3, 1866; Issue 6653.
'THE ANCIENT HOUSE IN THE BUTTER MARKET.
This fine old relic of former times is now being repainted, and an improvement is made by painting the wood-work corner and other timber so as to resemble oak.  Hitherto the whole front has been painted drab, and the picking out of these timbers is not only a relief to the monotony of a drab surface, but it also gives the building more the appearance of a timbered house.
... we Googled & found your interesting site & lovely pictures of the place. '
Hope this article is of interest. Kind Regards, Mick & Norma Coomber, Buckinghamshire."
Just goes to show the vicissitudes which have beset the Ancient House over the centuries. Thanks to Mick & Norma.]
For a view of The Ancient House from St Stephens Lane c. 1911, when it was home to printer and bookseller W.E. Harrison, see our Scarborow page.

More about the pargetting

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ancient House book cover
This extract from the excellent 1986 Ipswich Borough Council booklet The Ancient House by Hilary A. Feldman (which someone really ought to update and republish given the dearth of available material about this famous building) tells us more about the ornamental pargetting.

“The deserved reputation of the Ancient House rests largely upon the elaborate pargetting which decorates that part of the house fronting Butter Market. What often goes unrecognised is that this is actually the latest addition to the building (apart from very modern extensions) and behind it lies a series of equally interesting earlier timber-framed structures. Indeed the historic part of the Ancient House evolved over almost three centuries and so many have the changes been that it is difficult to envisage the house as it was lived in at any given time, although it is possible to make reasonable guesses from clues that have been left. The house is exceptional in providing an almost unparalleled record of the building techniques and various decorative styles in vogue over a three hundred year period as successive owners demolished, rebuilt and made improvements to suit the age in which they lived…

The pargetting is almost certainly contemporary with the construction of [the Butter Market facade] and cannot date to before the restoration of Charles II, as only after 1660 could the arms of this monarch have been safely mounted in such a prominent position. It is without doubt to Robert Sparrowe (d. 1698), the great-grandson of the first Sparrowe owner of the Ancient House, that we owe the famous pargetting  which makes the Ancient House unique and so distinctive. Without such a focus of interest there is every reason to suppose that this outstanding building would have suffered the fate of so many others of the same date in Ipswich.

“By far the most immediate attraction of the Ancient House is the very ornate plasterwork or pargetting which covers the upper part of the facade. It has been described by Pevsner in his Buildings of England series as ‘more ornate and gayer than any other house of its date in England’.

Pargetting is a term which is generally understood to apply to decorative plaster in the form of ornamental ribs, flirtations, cartouches or patterns sunk into the surface, although in early documents it could simply mean the finishing coat of plain plasterwork.

The plastering of walls was at first done out of necessity. In timber-framed buildings the gap between infill panels and timbers was ever a draughty problem. Attempts were made to solve it by panelling and hanging tapestries on the inside and finally by plastering on the outside. Further necessity for plastering was created in the later Elizabethan and Jacobean periods by a lower standard of timber framing caused by a decline in workmanship and a shortage of good timber. It was therefore more aesthetic to hide the structure of the building. As with many buildings of this period the front section of the Ancient House was designed with the intention of plastering. We can tell this from the relatively poor standard of finish beneath the plaster.  Many other older buildings in the town were also given facelifts in this way, giving them the appearance of 17th century buildings when they are in fact earlier. Several examples of this happening can be seen in Fore Street houses, although the pargetting is generally much plainer than on the Ancient House. ‘The Neptune’ bears the date 1639 which is the date for the pargetting. The original building is itself much older but the pargetting disguises its fine timber framing.

There are several methods of pargetting. One of the plainer methods is simply to mould rectangular and square panels in relief, as in No. 24/26 Fore Street (once ‘The Wheatsheaf’), or by rough casting around templates. More imaginative effects could be achieved by the use of applied cast ornaments, as on the old ‘Sun Inn’ (St Stephens Lane), but the height of achievement of the plasterer’s art was modelling in high relief with wet plaster, Building up the decoration with layer upon layer. This is the method that was used in the Ancient House.

The coat of arms of Charles II in the middle of the first floor facade provides us with a date for the pargetting. An integral part of the design, it has been done by the same hand as the figure work. The pargetting must therefore date to after King Charles’ accession in 1660. Possibly it was done to coincide with his visit to Ipswich in 1668.
The rest of the space is covered with an abundance of decoration but although a number of themes are presented the whole is well balanced and cohesive and presents a design which is both pleasing and full of vitality.

The panels between the windows are framed on either side by pilasters with festoons draped between them at the top. The panels along the front of the facade represent three of the elements of the world, Earth, Water and Air. Each element is characterised by different attributes. Thus on the east end the festoon is made up of flowers including a large sunflower and lily trumpets  and below is a double-handled vase of daisies, roses and tulips, representing the earth’s bounty. Next comes Water with a festoon of swans and birds of prey above a representation of a pelican (although the feet are more like those of a bird of prey) feeding her young by drawing blood from her breast.

In the panel in the centre of the whole facade, in contrast with the rest of the pargetting which is stark white, the arms of Charles II, painted in red, blue and gold leaf, add a dramatic touch of colour.

Keeping to the front of the building, under each of the windows one of the four continents is depicted (Australia is missing, not having been discovered at the time), each one suitably labelled. From east to west we have Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

Europe is a crowned female figure wearing a dress with a wide lace collar and a necklace of pearls. She sits with an open book, holding a sceptre and a cornucopia. By her side is an animal head, perhaps a sheep or a horse, and and in the background is a church with a pointed spire.

Asia is again represented by a female figure but this time sitting under a palm tree. She holds what looks like a storm lamp and a staff. At her feet is a horse’s head with a bird perched on top and at her shoulder a lion’s head. A mosque replaces the church in the background.

For Africa a naked man is sitting on a tree stump under a parasol. in one hand he holds an arrow and around his feet two serpent-like creatures writhe, one with teeth and the other with a tongue in the form of an arrow. In the background four small figures and a rooster on a block complete the whole.

America, on the western end, is represented by a man in a loin cloth and wearing a feather headdress. In one hand he holds some arrows and in the other a pipe. A beast with small curved horns rests at his feet.

As well as these main themes many lesser ones occur , and figurative work intermingles easily with stylised decoration. The side panels of the windows are decorated with foliage and garlands in figures of ‘8’ and ’S’ designs, and spirals inhabited with figures and animal heads. Each panel is individual and differs in treatment from others. Even the mullions on the windows are decorated with a series of bells and bunches of fruit. An heraldic lion presides over the top of each arched light. Further garlands of foliage and fruit hang beneath the soffit of the first floor linking the supporting posts on the ground floor.

Lifting one’s eyes somewhat higher one sees yet more decoration on the second floor. Mythological figures parade across the pediments of the dormer windows. Who these figures are is not at all easy to determine. The easternmost window shows a central figure with a tumbling figure on either side and it looks as though he has pulled the rug from under them. Above the next window to the left is a rather enigmatic, semi-naked figure trailing a torch. In the third pediment a chubby figure drags a cornucopia of fruits on his shoulder, similar to the fruits which occur elsewhere on the frontage and on the ceiling of the first floor room. The westernmost pediment portrays a cherub-type shooting a bow and arrow. This may be Cupid.

Down St Stephens Lane, the themes of pargetting are quite different from those on the front of the building. At first floor level the northern panel shows a rural scene with shepherds. A shepherdess sits under a tree holding some fruit in her apron and caressing a lamb. Her crook lies beside her. She is approached by a shepherd with a crook and a feathers hat in his hand. The whole scene may have had its inspiration in Classical bucolic poetry, but it is interesting to note that the figures are dressed in 17th century costume. Above the scene, between the two pilasters, is a garland made up of agricultural implements and domestic utensils. Amongst the items a milk churn, and anvil, pots, sieves  and sidles can be picked out.

Under the oriel window Atlas, with a long beard and wearing a loin cloth, takes the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Just to the right of this is a very fine circular leaded window framed  by four angels. Above it, twoc herbs hold adjoining cornucopias, and below it is a finely modelled scallop shell.

At the second floor level on the western gable there is a curious figure of St George killing the dragon. Below this 17th century-gentleman image of St George there is a very strange false window which seems to be a part of the original design. Why a real window was not put in will remain a mystery. There is no evidence to suggest there was ever a window here which has been blocked up.”
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[ “… On the west end of the house, facing St. Stephen’s Lane, is represented an uncouth figure of Atlas with a long beard, kneeling on one knee, and supporting the globe on his shoulders. At the corner, a little below this, is a pastoral scene; consisting of a figure under a tree, surrounded by sheep: another figure, a shepherd, is approaching him, with his hat in one hand, and a crook, which projects from the wall, in the other: he is leading a flock of sheep; and is in the attitude addressing the person who is seated beneath the wide-spreading beech. It is not, however, easy to determine, from the foliage, whether the tree is meant for beech, an oak, or an elm: but there is little doubt but that artist, being seized with a fit of classical enthusiasm, intended this effort as an illustration of the discourse between Tityrus and Meliboeus, in the first eclogue of Virgil.
We are induced to believe that the ornaments on this building are emblematical: and we may infer, from this last composition, that the wool trade then flourished in Ipswich, and was of great importance; and the other decorations in front, are intended to imply that it was carried on with all quarters of the globe.” from
The History & Description of the Town and Borough of Ipswich including the Villages and Country Seats in its Vicinity more particularly those situated on the Banks of the Orwell by G.R. Clarke, 1830 (see Reading List for an online version)]

The Ancient House is a few yards from the Art Nouveau shop 'Scarborow' and St Lawrence Church, both in Dial Lane.



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