Museum on the move

Creating a heritage hub

Woodbridge Museum is working with the WRT to create a heritage hub, uniting the Longshed, the Tide Mill, the public space and waterfront, with the Heritage Building, the new home of the Museum.

In keeping with its new location, the museum intends to create a new series of displays, describing the town’s Anglo-Saxon origins and its growth as a market, port and shipbuilding centre. Visitors will be able to get more information about the town and artifacts in the museum through computer terminals linked to a virtual museum. A simplified version of the virtual museum will also be available, via a WiFi network. Displays and exhibitions on the mezzanine floor will link to activities in the shed and potentially, to heritage boats moored on the waterfront, bringing to life the town’s maritime heritage and its importance to the people living and working here over the centuries.

New layout

The ground floor of the museum will house the reception and displays. The upper floor will house a flexible activities area which will be used to explore various aspects of the history of Woodbridge in different ways, providing activities for children, demonstrations, films, lessons, talks and so on. It will also be used, by prior arrangement, to allow access to items not on display and stored in a secure area.

From the upper floor there will be an entry on to a mezzanine floor in the Longshed, with views over the activities below. Projects in the shed will focus on construction and restoration of maritime craft used by people who lived, worked and traded in East Suffolk from Roman times to the last century – ranging from small boats used by river pilots in the 1800s to the full-scale replica of the Anglo-Saxon royal burial ship at Sutton Hoo.   Each of the projects will be led by professionals and/or expert volunteers. Some reconstruction projects will involve experimental research using contemporary techniques and materials; all will provide opportunities for people to learn and participate under expert supervision.


Interactive display

A changing programme of information and activities on the mezzanine floor will link to the current activities in the shed and to heritage boats moored on the waterfront. They will include interactive displays relating to how and why maritime craft evolved and how maritime activities impacted on the lives of local people.

Such displays could, for example, cover:-

  • Why boats are the shape they are and why it is better to carry a large cargo on a big boat rather than on many smaller ones?
  • The difference between clinker and carvel construction and the relative advantages of each.
  • How trees used to make large boats are selected and where they came from
  • The impact of wind and tide on how boats sail.
  • How pulleys (block and tackle) can be made to lift heavy weights.
  • How to make sail and rope from hemp and flax. (a local industry)
  • Navigation methods

The museum would be keen to appoint a member to be part of the team planning these displays. The manufacture of displays could involve local model makers and schools and could well be one of the early activities in the boat shed.

Any one interested in joining in the museum’s work is invited to contact museum director:

Contact: Bob Merrett, Woodbridge Museum Trust

The Woodbridge story

Bob Merrett tells the story of Woodbridge from its Anglo-Saxon roots to its growth into a market town.

This is the story of a market town and port, which prospered because the Deben estuary provided easy access into a diverse agricultural area – the clay lands of high Suffolk and the lighter soils of the coastal strip. When the Romans were in Suffolk there were just two farms in what is now the area of Woodbridge.

A map of Saxon settlements

It was not until the Anglo-Saxons arrived that Woodbridge was born. South east Suffolk became the royal heartland of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia. Across the river from the ship burials at Sutton Hoo was the Royal Manor of Kingston, the promontory which is now called Kyson Point. At a time when much of the Deben estuary was lined by extensive marshes, the beach on the Woodbridge side of the promontory provided the ideal landing place for the longboats of those paying their taxes. It may also have been used as a beach market, a place where people brought additional food and goods to exchange with others. Ipswich was the main commercial area and it dominated the external maritime trade of the kingdom.

Clues from the Domesday book

Kingston continued to be used as a quay well into the 19th century but the narrow promontory was not large enough for a sizable settlement, so Woodbridge developed one kilometer up river. By the time the Domesday Book was compiled, the Anglo-Saxons had built churches around the upper part of the Deben estuary. Within short distances of many of these churches, traces have been found of earlier Anglo-Saxon settlements. Some of these settlements are as early as the 5th to 6th century.



There are no traces of such a settlement in Woodbridge, presumably because they have been obliterated by extensive development since the medieval period, but there is likely to have been a defended early Anglo-Saxon settlement centered on what is now Market Hill and St Mary’s Church. When the Danes ravaged East Anglia they destroyed the great body of East Anglian charters and deeds. So the earliest records of any of these settlements are from the mid-10th century. Woodbridge is first mentioned in a document dated 959.

In the Domesday Book the town was spelt in various ways but the likely name was Wudebryge. This is Old Norse for wooden jetty or wooden bridge. The name Wooden Jetty would convey useful knowledge to people sailing up an estuary lined by extensive marshes, whereas any bridge would have been over one of the brooks that ran either side of the ridge on which the church stands, rather than across the much wider Deben estuary, and it is unlikely that such a bridge would be important enough to be conveyed in the name of the settlement. So ‘wooden jetty’ is the most likely origin of the name of the town.

In 1193 the Bigod family founded an Augustinian Priory in the town and 34 years later the priory acquired the right to hold a weekly market. Produce from the surrounding countryside began to be shipped to the towns around the Thames estuary. By the 16th century there are records of oaks from the adjacent claylands being sent to the naval dockyards and, during the 17th century, fourth rate men-of-war were being built at Woodbridge. Thereafter the town was building a steady stream of commercial vessels for the coastal trade. There is no documentary evidence of early shipbuilding at Woodbridge but it would seem likely this was happening at a much earlier time.

Black Death takes its toll

The waves of Black Death that swept through Suffolk during the mid-14th century killed between a third and half the population, which then remained almost constant for the next two centuries. The initial impact was devastating but the fall in population resulted in peasants having more land. Consequently, their living standards eventually improved and they required better quality food, beer, clothing and footwear. This resulted in an increase in the production of meat, cheese, butter, barley, wool and leather. The central and eastern areas of Suffolk became nationally renowned for stock-fattening in general, and dairying in particular.

The area was also an important region for leather production and Woodbridge was one of six towns where tanning and leather working was concentrated by the early 16th century. The Sandlings produced fine malting barley and were also home to large flocks of sheep. Twill weavers were busy in the town, which also developed a reputation for salt-making, processing hemp and producing rope.

By 1524 Woodbridge had become the tenth wealthiest town in Suffolk. It was one of England’s top 100 towns and had around a thousand residents and after Ipswich it was Suffolk’s second largest port. By the late 17th century the tide had turned, the importance of Suffolk to the economy of the country was declining and the maritime trade of Suffolk was decreasing. This decline was a result of the growth of the Atlantic trade with America and the West Indies and the onset of the industrial revolution in the north and west.

Napoleonic barracks

The prosperity of Woodbridge was boosted from 1780 to 1814 by the presence of a large Napoleonic barracks on the outskirts of the town but after this closed, the town became increasingly dependent upon the corn trade. During the decade 1851-61 the population of Woodbridge dropped from its peak of 5,162 to 4,513 and remained around this figure for 70 years. This rapid decline was due to a combination of several events, the main ones being the detrimental impact upon maritime trade of the railway that opened in 1859 and by the rising imports of cheap foreign corn following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. A series of poor harvests in the 1870s was the start of what became known as ‘great agricultural depression’, which lasted into the 20th century and hit corn-producing areas like Suffolk particularly badly.

The prosperity of Woodbridge had always been linked to that of the surrounding agricultural area but in the past it had also been boosted by other industries mentioned above. By 1850s these industries had disappeared or were fading away. From 1861 the population of Woodbridge remained almost static for nearly 70 years. It eventually started to rise because of increased employment opportunities either in, or close to the town.

By the 1960s the number of jobs in Woodbridge had declined but by then many people possessed cars and were thus able to travel some distance to work. During the 1970s East Suffolk was accommodating the first wave of people who worked for companies relocating from London to the Ipswich area. Woodbridge became the perfect home for people with jobs in these companies and consequently the population started to rise rapidly. Thankfully, the building of the new houses required was guided by a plan that preserved the medieval heart of the town.

All in context

By telling the above story, the new museum will enable visitors to put both the construction of the replica of the burial ship and the riverside into their historic context. It will also inspire visitors to explore the medieval core of the town and will provide leaflets to guide them.

Bob Merrett, director


For further information, contact: