How images can depict small town activities

There has already been lively debate over the extent to which English towns witnessed an 'urban renaissance' as suggested by Borsay (Social History, 1976). He recognised a number of areas of improvement: for example, in architecture there was a shift in style towards a broad classicism, a trend towards using more permanent building materials, and the evolution of the concept of constructing in units rather than single buildings; and he also argued that there was more investment in public amenities such as assemblies and town halls.

bookmaker_tn.jpgThomas Rowlandson's (1756-1827) cartoon 'Bookmaker & Client Outside the Ram Inn, Newmarket'. Pen and ink with watercolour wash, 240 by 190mm. It is a cynical look at the world of gambling, as although both men seem pleased with their exchange, ultimately only one will profit.

McInnes (in Past and Present, No 120, 1988, p74) believes that the change partly resulted from a shift in attitude from one influenced by a Puritan regime to a culture of pleasure seeking, and also a commercial revolution which allowed the influx of luxuries such as tea, coffee, and tobacco. R. Morris, in 1990, defined the period 1780- 1850 as one which witnessed an increase in the number of voluntary societies, leisure organisations, and a new enthusiasm for learning. These activities filtered down to small towns as we can see from the range of images for Suffolk and Norfolk.


Architecture in Small Towns

woodhall_tn.gifWood Hall, Sudbury
This was the first house to be constructed entirely of brick within the borough Boundary. It was built in 1710, and is an early example of the Palladian style. Palladian architecture is characterised by rational design principles, producing serious and noble buildings. It was destroyed by fire in the 1940s.

Even small towns reflected national trends in architectural style from 1700 and 1850, it is just that provincial conservatism tended to mean that there was a time lag between the height of London fashions and their adoption further afield. One reason for this was that until the establishment of an effective canal system in the 1770s, few local buildings could be constructed with non- local materials. However, with the combination of better transport facilities, and, by 1750, the widespread use of architectural pattern books, the new styles were adopted more rapidly.

However, because of their lower economic standing, developments in small town architecture were generally more modest than those of the regional capitals, either taking the form of improvements to private buildings (see Gainsborough's House, over); or projects to enhance the standing of the town within the region, such as building high profile buildings like town halls and assembly rooms.

sudbury4_tn.gifGainsborough's house, Sepulchre Street, Sudbury.

The house came into the possession of John Gainsborough (father of artist Thomas Gainsborough) in 1722. Structural evidence suggests that it was a late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, timber-framed construction (see Suffolk Houses, by E Sandon, 1977) and may have looked like these houses from the north side of the street in a drawing by Geoffrey Finden (late eighteenth century).
sudbury5_tn.gif In 1723 John Gainsborough began to modify his house by adding a brick skin to the front, with a white door case and doric pilasters, and an entablature. The result was a very fashionable and sophisticated townhouse, befitting one of Sudbury's wealthier residents.

You may wish to look at our collection of Classical Architecture in Norfolk Small Towns.


Bathing in Small Towns

Visiting spas and leisure resorts became a popular pursuit for the upper classes in the eighteenth century. They also had a moral excuse for this activity as taking the waters was supposed to offer health benefits.

bungay_tn.gifBungay spa. John King, a local apothecary, constructed a bath house on a spring at his land at Earsham, near Bungay, raising the necessary funds by subscription. This is a drawing from J King's "Essay on Cold Bathing", of 1737. dr_accum_tn.gif Title-page of Dr Accum's "Guide to the Mineral Spring of Thetford" of 1819

It was also considered that drinking special spring waters could have curative properties. In the Eighteenth century it was common knowledge amongst the residents of the small town of Thetford, in Norfolk, that there was a spring of iron-bearing waters situated in the meadows between the two rivers, and in the 1740s Matthew Manning published a treatise on the virtues of this water. Then, in 1818 a pump was built over the spring, and a gravelled promenade leading to it was created. The spring was successful at first due to publicity, such as this advertisement, but the waters failed to provide any medicinal benefits, and so the venture eventually closed in 1838. (see A History of Thetford, A Crosby,1986).


Races in Small Towns

Racing developed as an industry in the 18th century as a result of gentry and upper middle class involvement. The official racing calendar was established in 1727 and this not only helped to regulate meetings, but also led to an increase in the numbers of competitors and audiences.

newmarketrace_tn.gifRacing at Newmarket, c1740. Attributed to James Ross. Oil on canvas. 635mm by 915mm. Private collection.


Theatres in Small Towns

After 1689 theatres became more common, while older ones were rebuilt or improved. As elsewhere in the 18th century, circuiting players would tour with their acts, and in East Anglia the biggest group were the Norwich Comedians, who continued until 1844. After 1786 though, these players ceased touring the smaller towns and concentrated upon Norwich, Kings Lynn and Yarmouth. It was left to the Scraggs and Fischer touring company to visit the smaller towns of the region to give regular performances.

playbill_tn.gifPlaybill for Scraggs and Fischer company.


Share this page:

CUH Journal

Urban History

Urban History, published by Cambridge Journals, is edited from the Centre for Urban History

CUH Journal

The New History Lab

NHL mouse and mug portlet edit

Celebrate the diverse range of history being studied in the School along with tea and homemade cake!