Lavenham: Our village through time

Visitors at the Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk

Originally built as a religious meeting place for wealthy Catholic merchants, the Guildhall has also been used as a prison, a workhouse, a pub, a chapel and a social club for US troops stationed nearby during the Second World War.

We asked Jane Gosling, Guildhall Manager at the time, and Anna Forrest, the curator for the Guildhall who led the research, to fill us in...
'Lavenham Guildhall is a very special building of national importance. The architecture alone is stunning and is often what brings people to visit us. But not many people realise the Guildhall has had such a wide variety of uses. It’s been amazing what stories we've been able to unearth around a host of fascinating people, that really bring the inside of the building to life.'
'There are so many gripping tales to discover that really give you a sense of the changing fortunes of this unique village. More than anything, the stories we have discovered are really emotionally touching – you get a real sense of meeting these people who lived and worked here so many years ago and who walked through the same rooms we walk through today.'

Intriguing  stories

Among the real life stories featured in the exhibition is the tale of Ann Baker, who was imprisoned in the Guildhall when it was used as a prison in the 1780's. Aged just 8-years-old, Ann was whipped and kept locked inside with others who had fallen foul of the sometimes harsh laws of the time. She was later sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia, then a penal colony, for being ‘an incorrigible rogue’. She died at just 29.
Others stories include Widow Snell, who ran the 18th-century workhouse and created a host of intriguing – and sometimes gruesome – looking medicinal recipes to help treat the ailments suffered by the residents. These included adding 20 live woodlice to cough mixture and crab’s eyes to a treatment for catarrh!

The project

The exhibition, called Our Village Through Time, represents a complete overhaul of the internal exhibition spaces of the Guildhall. The £160,000 project has been funded in part by grants of £85,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £46,750 from Biffa Award and £9,000 from Suffolk County Council, plus several smaller grants.
Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England said:
'It’s wonderful to see the transformation of this well-loved historic building, a key part of the Lavenham community. The new exhibition provides fascinating glimpses of local life through the centuries and showcases one of the most important timber-framed buildings in the country.'
Gillian French, Biffa Award Programme Manager  told us:
'We are pleased to be able to support this project, which is an excellent example of how the Landfill Communities Fund can help protect culturally significant spaces for the benefit of the local community and visitors alike.'
The project has been carried out in conjunction with the local community and the final exhibition space includes an area set aside for a changing community-led display. 
Christine Evans, a member of the local community involved in the project, added:
'The community of Lavenham is incredibly fortunate to have within the heart of the village such an imposing building as The Guildhall. Alongside this there is of course the responsibility to ensure that the building is preserved and developed to enable others to enjoy and also learn from its history. This project brought together the local community and the National Trust with the aim of showing just how important the building has been, and still continues to be, to the village.'