Jacob’s cross in Lavenham

HAD IT NOT BEEN FILLED WITH parked cars, Market Square in Lavenham (Suffolk in East Anglia) would probably be recognisable to those who lived in the town several hundred years ago. The square is surrounded by old buildings, many of which are half-timbered. The most impressive of these is the Guildhall that was built in 1529. This large building attests the former wealth of the town, when it was an important centre of the wool trade in East Anglia. In its heyday, cloth from Lavenham was sent all over Britain and exported to Holland and Spain via the port of Ipswich. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Lavenham was the fourteenth richest town in England.

Lavenham boasts a 16th century market cross. Market crosses were erected to indicate that an area had been designated as being a market square by a bishop, or a baron, or the monarch. Lavenham’s market cross is made of stone. A three stepped pyramid supports a slender column surmounted by a stone sphere. A metal plate informs the visitor that:

“The market cross was erected in 1501in accordance with the will of William Jacob”.

So, who was William Jacob?

Jacob was one of Lavenham’s wealthy clothiers, involved in the wool textile trade. Despite his surname, it was highly unlikely that he was Jewish because most Jews had been expelled from England in the 13th century (and it was not until the mid-17th century that Jewish people began returning).  According to text on the website deverehouse.co.uk:

“William Jacob was the tenth wealthiest clothier and businessman in England, making an annual profit of 67 marks and with a gross turnover of 223 whole cloths (a gross turnover of £12m in today’s money, around 400 marks).  On his death he paid for the erection of the market cross that is still there 520 years later.  He did not branch into “straites” or “narrow cloths” and within 25 years of his death the cheaper narrow cloth was dominating the market and Jacob’s family were seeking other work.”

In his will, dated 1500, he wrote:

“I will have a cross made of my perpetual cost that shall be set upon the market hill in the village of Lavenham.”

The cross that was erected in Lavenham in 1501 was a copy of the market cross already present in the city of Cambridge. The Cambridge market cross has long-since disappeared. The stepped base is all that remains of the cross paid for by Jacob’s estate. The slender shaft that now stands on it was put up in 1725. It is interesting to note that far away in Florence (Italy) Michelangelo was beginning work on his famous statue of David in 1501. That sculpture was completed in 1504. Although many visitors come to Lavenham, many more visit Florence.

Suffolk was the most important clothmaking county in 15th/16th century England. William Jacob was one of the county’s 100 clothiers in business between 1480 and 1500. Other counties had far fewer members of this trade. Although William Jacob was the tenth most wealthy, the wealthiest was Thomas Spring III (c1474-1523) of Lavenham. By 1500, Suffolk was the most industrialised and urbanised county in Britain, but by 1700, the county had become a rural backwater. Suffolk and much of the rest of East Anglia might be regarded as a bit of a backwater nowadays, but it is a largely picturesque one with wonderful landscapes and a great architectural legacy due to its past prosperity during the golden age of the wool trade.

Pillar of salt

“IN TWO HUNDRED YARDS TURN LEFT on to Shoot Up Hill, and then immediately right onto Mapesbury Road”, commands a disembodied, strangely accented voice in the GPS navigation system. So many people are now using digital routing devices to find their way around that I wonder whether the need for roadside direction signs will disappear sometime in the future. I hope not because although many of these signs are mundane in appearance, some of them are quite distinctive. Recently, I saw one which is a veritable work of art.

 

BLOG PILLAR 3

 

The Pillar of Salt is not only a biblical tale, the fate of Lot’s wife when she looked back at the city of Sodom, but also the name of an unusual road direction sign in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (England). I had noticed this curiously designed signpost of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmonds on previous visits, but it was only a few days ago that I examined it carefully. It looks like a short lighthouse with arms projecting from it in three directions. Two of the arms have the names of places and road numbers (e.g. ‘MILDENHALL A1101’). A third arm bears the words ‘NO ENTRY’. The signpost looks distinctive but somewhat surprising in a square where it is surrounded by buildings that are mostly well over one hundred years old. It stands a few feet from the magnificent, massive gothic Abbey Gate, which was rebuilt in the 14th century.

A plaque at the base of the Pillar of Salt reads that it is:

“Considered to be the first internally illuminated traffic sign in this country.”

It was designed by Basil Oliver, the Architect to Bury St Edmund’s Town Council, and erected in 1935. The information on the plaque adds:

“It was granted special approval as it did not conform to regulations”.

The problem was that the sizes of the letters and numbers on the signpost did not conform to official standards. According to the britishlistedbuildings.co.uk website:

“The Town Council went to great lengths to find something worthy of this important location when increased motor traffic made signing essential. Basil Oliver advised on the design and at the time when road signs were being standardised under the 1933 Regulations, this sign is individual and probably unique. It was approved by the Ministry of Transport in June 1935 subject to the letters and road numbers being 5” [inches] high. This was a compromise since the new standard was for letters 4.5” high and numbers 6” high.”

Fortunately, this problem with the characters on the sign were resolved amicably.

Basil Oliver (1882-1948) was born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury a year after his parents had married in Hampstead, London. He attended school in Bury St Edmunds, where according to the website suffolkartists.co.uk he began his study of architecture. He continued his studies at Liverpool University; the Royal Academy School; and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. By 1904, he was articled to an architect in London.  The website mentions:

“His best-known building is the Borough Offices, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk (1935–1937), described by Pevsner as ‘Neo-Georgian, tactful, and completely uneventful’…”

In contrast, I feel that his signpost in Bury is anything but ‘uneventful’ and it is not ‘tactful’, as it catches the attention by being almost the only ‘modern’ structure in an otherwise old-world environment.

Oliver lived and worked both in Suffolk and London. He died a bachelor in the town where he was born.

The Pillar of Salt, fascinating as it is, is not the main reason that people visit Bury St Edmunds. Many people come to enjoy the grounds that contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, once a significant Benedictine monastery. It was in the abbey church, now in ruins, that the barons of England met in 1214 to agree to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This was the forerunner to the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Within the ruined church there are two plaques commemorating that important gathering of the barons and listing their names.

Thus, Bury St Edmunds was the birthplace of both the Magna Carta and, also, the internally illuminated direction sign, two developments separated by a gap of 720 years. Much of the research for this short essay was done using the same technology that powers the GPS electronic navigation systems. Useful as these gadgets are, give me an old-fashioned direction sign any day.