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History of Flatford

Willy Lott's Cottage beside the River Stour at Flatford, Suffolk
Willy Lott's Cottage beside the River Stour at Flatford, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Flatford is the location of a number of unique buildings which all have individual histories. Read on to discover more about the history of this special place.

Willy Lott’s house

Originally part of Gibbeon’s Gate Farm, Willy Lott's House is a Grade I listed building. Willy Lott (1761-1849) was a tenant farmer who worked the 39 acres around Flatford that made up Gibbeon's Gate Farm. He lived in a house attached to the farmland. Willy Lott's parents lived in this house, Willy and his sisters and brothers were born there.

Following a few residents in the house after his death, the house then fell into serious disrepair. A revival of interest in John Constable in the 1920s led to some superficial restoration, so visitors to Flatford could see the outside of it in reasonable condition. It was at this time that the house was renamed as Willy Lott's House.

By 1925 it was in such a serious state of neglect that it was offered to the National Trust in the hope that it could be rescued. In warning the National Trust against taking it on, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings declared ‘The cost of putting Willy Lott's House in repair will be a sum in the neighbourhood of £1750’ and advised that the National Trust should only take it on when it had been ‘repaired and its maintenance guaranteed’.

Willy Lott's House and Flatford Mill were eventually bought by Mr Thomas Parkington, a builder and philanthropist in Ipswich. Thomas Parkington agreed to repair and maintain it during his lifetime and to give it to the National Trust on his death, as a tribute to the memory of John Constable.

In 1943, Thomas Parkington died in near bankruptcy and the National Trust agreed to buy Flatford Mill from Mr Parkington’s Trustees. However, when Thomas Parkington’s estate was liquidated, it yielded more than expected and Mrs Parkington offered to return the money the National Trust had paid for the house and mill.

Flatford Mill

The Domesday Book of 1087 mentions a mill at Flatford and records William the Conqueror's decision to keep it and some of the surrounding land for himself. This means there was a Saxon mill at Flatford before the Norman Conquest of 1066. In the late 14th century The Manor Court Rolls contain a record of a fulling mill at Flatford that was called ‘Flotfordmelle’.

The date stone built into the back wall of the Flatford Mill records the renovating of the mill by Abram and Isabel Constable in 1753. It appears to bear their initials and reads ‘AIC 1733’, but it has been tampered with and the ‘1753’ altered to ‘1733’. The mill was not owned by the Constable family until 1742.

Abram and his wife Isabel had no children and when they died, they left Flatford Mill to their nephew Golding, John Constable’s father. Golding Constable inherited the mill with resident miller Henry Crush. He continued to operate it very much as in Abram Constable's time, but Golding's business ambitions far exceeded those of his uncle.

Abram Constable (John’s younger brother) took over the running of Flatford Mill when his father died in 1816. In 1846, Abram (junior) sold the mill for 2,000 guineas to William Rufus Bentall and Stephen Durrant Lott which marked the end of Constable ownership of Flatford Mill. The National Trust acquired Flatford Mill along with Willy Lott’s House in 1943.

Flatford Mill at Flatford, Suffolk
Flatford Mill at Flatford, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Jemma Finch

Valley Farm

Valley Farm is the oldest building on site at Flatford. Built in the mid-15th century, Valley Farm is a medieval open hall house and would have been home to wealthy yeoman farmers until the early 1900s.

At one time Willy Lott's grandparents (English and Mary Lott) lived at Valley Farm and it was later owned by Willy Lott’s brother John (a farmer like his brother) who lived there with his wife and 14 children. Until the 1930s Valley Farm was surrounded by buildings for all sorts of different agricultural uses. A fire in the 1930s destroyed nearly all of them.

Valley Farm was acquired by the National Trust in 1959 with the Field Studies Council as a sitting tenant.

Flatford Bridge Cottage

Bridge Cottage was constructed as a single dwelling around a timber frame and the gaps between the frame were filled with daub and wattle, a mixture of twigs covered by a plaster made of mud, straw and animal dung.

In the 19th century, Bridge Cottage was converted into two dwellings to accommodate two families. Each family lived in a small parlour with access to a bedroom in the attic. One family accessed the attic by a small twisting staircase while the other used a loft ladder.

In 1985 the National Trust bought Bridge Cottage. In the 1990s, a permanent exhibition was installed downstairs at Bridge Cottage to tell the Constable story. This was later replaced by a Heritage Lottery funded exhibition telling the story of the Clarke family who lived in Bridge Cottage in the 1880s.

Flatford Granary

The Granary was used to store grain until it could be processed at either the water or steam mills, a function it provided until the early 19th century.

By the middle of the 18th century, it was more lucrative to mill grain into flour than to full cloth. Flatford Mill was converted into a flour mill and the Granary was used to store grain and flour. Until his death in 1816, Flatford Granary formed part of Golding Constable's milling estate. The Granary passed to Golding's younger son Abram, who sold it to William Bentall in 1846.

William Bentall modernised the machinery at Flatford water mill and is credited with installing the steam mill at the Granary. However, the steam mill may have been installed by Richard Barrell, a subsequent owner.

In 1929 the Flatford steam mill at the Granary closed, leaving the Granary to fall into disrepair. By the mid-1970s it was derelict.

Between 1977 and 1979, Joyce and Alan Baker restored the structure, converting it into a private house while living there with their family. In the 1980s, Derek and Marjorie Tripp opened part of the ground floor as a museum. When the museum closed, Derek and Marjorie offered bed and breakfast accommodation until they retired in 2015. The Granary was purchased by the National Trust in 2018.

Other buildings and structures to look out for

Dry dock on the River Stour at Flatford, Suffolk
Dry dock on the River Stour at Flatford, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Flatford Dry Dock

The Dry Dock is one of three dry docks at Flatford that would have operated during the childhood of John Constable. The location of the others is known, but only the one that features in Constable’s famous painting, ‘Boat Building’, has been excavated. Using Constable’s drawings and paintings, the Dry Dock was fully restored in 1988.

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Visitors looking over a low wall down towards the river at Flatford Mill, at Flatford, Suffolk

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