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History of Lavenham Guildhall

The half-timbered medieval exterior of Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk
The half-timbered exterior of Lavenham Guildhall | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Visit Lavenham Guildhall and immerse yourself in nearly 500 years of colourful history. Unearth tales of personal fortunes made and lost, amazing stories of courage and hardship, and discover the people that shaped this unique building and the village of Lavenham itself.

Medieval merchants

The origins of the Guildhall and the wealth that formed Lavenham itself can be found in medieval times. At this time England's wealth was largely built on the success of its high-quality wool and cloth industry. Much of the production was exported, which brought enormous tax revenues to the Crown, as well as making wealthy men out of merchants.

A religious guild

The Guildhall was originally founded as a meeting place for a Catholic guild. Religious guilds were essentially groups of wealthy cloth and wool merchants. The manufacture and export of woollen cloth, particularly ‘Lavenham Blew’ cloth, underpinned Lavenham's wealth in medieval times. Those same rich medieval clothiers and merchants built the Guildhall and the houses that characterise the village today. 

Religious guilds date back to the 11th century and were originally associated with the monasteries. But by the 14th century they had taken responsibility for the repair of bridges and roads and the founding of schools, almshouses and colleges.

A change in fortunes

After a while the thriving cloth industry in and around Lavenham became a victim of its own success. Cheaper copies and foreign competition emerged and Lavenham's decline became inevitable. Heavy taxes were levied on the merchants and clothiers by the Crown. Just as happens today, those who ran the businesses very quickly moved on to escape the financial burden.

Before the demise of the trade there were many powerful families steering the future of Lavenham, among them the De Vere family, Earls of Oxford. During their heyday they were the Lords of the Manor of Lavenham. Today De Vere house on Water Street in Lavenham is best remembered for its role in the Harry Potter films.

Two historic wooden spinning wheels inside Lavenham Guildhall in Suffolk
Spinning wheels at Lavenham Guildhall | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Natural cloth dyes and familiar phrases

Within the Guildhall's garden there is a section dedicated to the cultivation of plants that originally produced the natural dyes used in the making of Lavenham’s famous ‘blew’ cloth.

The blue colour comes from a natural dye produced from a plant called woad. Its flowers are yellow but the leaves produce blue dye. The original Lavenham ‘blew’ cloth was dyed at the raw wool stage, spun into yarn, then finally woven into cloth; hence the familiar expression ‘dyed in the wool’.

Important measurements

During the production process the cloth was often hung outside on a frame. These wooden frames, often arranged in lines like fence panels, had small hooks or spikes all round them and were called ‘tenters’. The wet woollen or linen cloth was stretched, not to prevent it from shrinking, but rather as a means of measuring, controlling and stretching each piece.

Measurements were important since cloth was covered by a strict set of statutes and standards. In the case of Lavenham 'blew' cloth, each piece had to be 28 yards 28 inches long and 53 inches wide.

Tenterhooks are the hooks on the ‘tenter’ frame to which the cloth was attached, thereby keeping the correct dimension until folded for storage or shipping. The expression ‘being on tenter hooks’ has come to mean being in a state of tension or suspense.

The Guildhall as a prison

Much later, in 1785, the Guildhall was used as a prison, or 'bridewell' as it was then known. The courageous story of a little girl called Anne Baker comes from this time.

Anne had run away from the workhouse, but she didn’t get far before being caught and tried. Judged as an 'incorrigible rogue' and found guilty of burglary and previously escaping the workhouse, she was sentenced to three years in the Guildhall, with subsequent deportation to Australia.

She boarded the ship for Australia in December 1789. With over a thousand convicts divided across four ships, it was a gruelling and cramped life below decks. Disease spread rapidly and around a quarter of the convicts died before reaching Australia. Did Anne survive the journey? Her life story is vividly retold at the Guildhall.

The Lavenham workhouse

Between 1655 and 1836 there was a workhouse within the walls of the Guildhall. A prison existed for some of that time but was totally separate. The word ‘workhouse’ conjures up the image of the dreadful Victorian institute of Dickensian times as portrayed in Oliver Twist, but things were different in Lavenham.

It was a largely benevolent, if somewhat frugal place and was established in the village to help the poor and those who’d fallen on hard times survive and get back into work. The workhouse operated under the supervision of one Judith Snell, a widow who came to be known simply as ‘the Widow Snell’.

She cared for between 30 and 40 local people at a time. The poor and needy would arrive seeking a roof over their heads, something to eat and perhaps even clothes if they needed them.

Once accepted, they’d go on to receive training in local skills such as spinning and weaving. The girls might also be trained as housemaids and the boys in whatever local apprenticeships could be found. The purpose was to get them back into work as quickly as possible.

Widow Snell's potions and lotions

It’s Widow Snell’s curious attitude towards rudimentary healthcare, and her ‘homebrew’ potions and cure-alls that reserves her a place in the Guildhall’s list of characters.

Among her homemade remedies were:

  • The treatment of ‘Scald Head’ – a form of ringworm – by applying pork lard to the scalp under a dressing three times a day for a fortnight and then pulling out the remaining hair with pincers.
  • Treating catarrh with a mix of crab’s eyes, whale fat and castor oil, with the patient to take one spoonful each morning.

If you have the stomach to see and smell the weird and wonderful potions for asthma, diabetes and colic for yourself – woodlice, sweet mercury and dragon’s blood are all involved – then a visit to the Guildhall is in order.

The plaque outside Lavenham Guildhall commemorating its donation to the National Trust
Commemoration plaque at Lavenham Guildhall | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Francis Lingard Ranson

Tucked away in a small room upstairs in the Guildhall, Francis's story is vividly told through the pictures of the village he captured in the early 1900s and on film. The walls are covered in black-and-white images from the early 20th century and there's a British Council film, a time capsule of Lavenham life, transporting visitors back to gentler landscapes, rural idylls and an altogether slower pace of life in the countryside of the 1940s. 

Produced in 1942 at a time of enormous upheaval and in the midst of war, the British Council film entitled ‘Lowland Village’ painted an idyllic, though somewhat stylised, picture of rural life in Lavenham. Nowadays it takes on an entirely different role as a rare film record of the village. 

An advocate for Lavenham

A Master Tailor and Outfitter by trade, local resident Ranson (1882–1950), was a leading figure in the movement to obtain national recognition for the architectural and historical importance of Lavenham. An early conservationist and ‘green’ pioneer, it's his legacy that you see all around you today in the many preserved buildings in the village.  

Alongside collecting photos, Ranson played a key role in the negotiations with Sir William Eley Quilter, Baronet and son of Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, who restored the Guildhall and bequeathed it to the people of Lavenham.  

Ownership of the Guildhall passed to the National Trust in 1951, a year after Ranson's death, although negotiations had started as far back as 1946. Today the National Trust maintains and cares for this jewel in the architectural crown of Lavenham.  

Visitors looking at a replica model of a medieval thumbscrew at Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk

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