Ipswich's most famous landmark is The Ancient House
which stands on the corner of Butter Market (the street, rather than
neaby shopping centre) and St Stephens Lane (which leads down to St
Stephen Church, now the Tourist Information Centre and gallery).
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
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).
This distinctive Grade 1 listed landmark dominates the
Butter Market area.
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
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.
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.
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:
'AFRICA' ... 'ASIA' ...
America is represented
by an Aztec/Inca-style
man with a bow and arrow and a dog at his feet, Africa is
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
Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, also St George in the garb
of a 17th century gentleman dealing with a recumbent dragon.
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
windows were releaded and features were exposed.
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
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
'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
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
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
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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
Just goes to show the vicissitudes
which have beset the Ancient House over the centuries. Thanks to Mick
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
[§ “… 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
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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