The History of Southwold
Just north of Southwold at Easton Bavents excavations have revealed ancient artefacts, including flint tools predating Homo sapiens. The area around Southwold has thus been occupied for untold millennia. Finds relating to more recent prehistory have been far rarer. Certain pottery shards indicate the Beaker People found their way here, however, which along with a fine Bronze Age axe-head suggests continued habitation, as would seem likely given the rich land and the harvests of the sea.
Few Roman remains have been discovered, though they are thought to have worked salt pans in the area. What became Southwold was probably of Saxon origin, the name meaning “south wood” at various times rendered as Suwald and even Sole, the name still used for the bay to the north.
The sea has given up evidence of a Viking presence in the district, in the form of wooden rudders. Whether the Vikings settled or just passed through on raids is not clear.
In the decades before the Norman Conquest Southwold was held by the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds , paying that foundation a hefty tithe of that medieval staple herring, indicating a place of some size. The 1086 Domesday Book recorded Sudholda as a fishing port.
By 1202 it was prosperous enough to support a church, St Edmunds , and 20 years later was granted the right to a market. Southwold’s place in the world in the early medieval era was largely determined by its southern neighbour Dunwich . As Dunwich waned from its battering by the sea from 1286 onwards, so Southwold waxed.
The 15th century was a time of great progress for the town. The original St Edmund’s was destroyed by fire, to be replaced with the magnificent building seen still today, begun about 1430. In 1489 Henry VII granted Southwold its first charter, allowing the place two fairs. It was also given control of the port at Dunwich, a century later securing this control by the digging of the New Cut which shifted the course of the Blyth to a new mouth between Southwold and Walberswick .
The present form of Southwold was determined by nature - marshes delineating its edges; by its great benefactor the merchant and farmer Thomas Godyll who in 1509 bequeathed land, now The Common, to the town; and by accident when in 1659 a fire destroyed much of the centre, some spaces cleared by the blaze kept as fire breaks, now the pleasant greens.
Rivalry with the Dutch has been important in Southwold’s story: in 1672 the Battle of Southwold or Sole Bay was fought between fleets led by James Duke of York and Dutch Admiral Michael de Ruyter. Southwold was provided with cannon by the Royal Armouries in 1746 to defend itself against Dutch raids, and four years later the Dutch were given further reason to resent the town when it became the centre of The Free British Fishery, intended to smash Dutch dominance of the herring trade.
The economic rise of Southwold was bolstered by the opening of the Blyth Navigation in 1761, seven miles of canal to Halesworth facilitating movement of goods inland. The Navigation was declared insolvent in 1884, though it continued to be used until just before WWI , its demise doubtless precipitated by the building of the narrow-gauge railway between Southwold and Halesworth in 1879.
The close of the Victorian era was eventful for Southwold: in 1887 its great lighthouse entered service in 1890, the same year that the Sole Bay Brewery run by Adnams was built. And in 1900 a symbol of the changing face of Southwold arrived – its pier .
Visitors had come since the end of the 18th century to enjoy the fresh air and sea-bathing. As the 20th century progressed this became increasingly important for the local economy. The railway may have folded in 1929; the sea nearly destroyed the pier in 1934; and the Great North Sea Floods swept through the place in 1953; but tourism continued and continues to grow. These days it is sometimes called Hampstead-on-Sea, with many media figures owning second homes there.