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History of Lavenham village

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

Once one of the wealthiest towns in Britain, Lavenham forged its name on the back of the prosperous cloth trade. Learn about the changing fortunes of this picturesque village over the centuries and discover how it was home to the author of a world-famous nursery rhyme.

Lavenham and the Guildhall

The history of the Guildhall is inextricably linked with that of the village of Lavenham itself. The enormous wealth gained in medieval times from the production of its top-quality ‘blew’ cloth for both home and export markets financed the building of the Guildhall.

Situated at the heart of the village in a position of prominence, it fronts the market square, where trading would have taken place at the time it was built.

Living history in Lavenham’s buildings

Though Lavenham Guildhall – otherwise known as the Guildhall of Corpus Christi – is one of the village’s best-known landmarks, Lavenham has over 320 buildings of historic significance.

Lavenham’s wool and cloth merchants became fabulously wealthy from sales of blew cloth and, in the same way as entrepreneurs do now, they spent their money on the trappings of wealth. They built the grand wooden-framed houses you see preserved all around you in the village today – they’re the medieval equivalent of stately homes.

Fortunes fading

In the 16th century this picturesque village was the 14th-wealthiest town in Britain, paying more tax than populous cities such as York and Lincoln.

However, by 1525 the bubble had burst. The demise of the cloth trade for which Lavenham was famed meant that the merchants were left looking for their next venture. The locals were unable to maintain the timber-framed buildings, which had previously been funded by the cloth trade, and the buildings began to crumble.  

By the 17th century there was a threat of mass demolition. The situation was so severe that the Lord of the Manor took some of his tenants to court to prevent the destruction.

Detail of a spinning wheel at Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk
Detail of a spinning wheel at Lavenham Guildhall | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The arrival of the railway

The railway brought great change to Victorian Britain and continued to extend its influence into the middle of the 20th century. The local economy of Lavenham and Melford grew with the introduction of the railway, It brought in raw materials for the horsehair, mat and flax industries, and took out the finished products as well as agricultural produce.

With the advent of the Second World War the railway became a lifeline, delivering hardcore to build numerous airfields and later fuel and munitions to service the planes of the United States Air Force based there.

The railway in decline

The railways continued to be an important mode of transport for both people and goods after the war when petrol rationing was in still in force. However, with the rise of the car in the 1950s and 1960s the writing was on the wall for small branch lines. In 1967 the line to Lavenham was completely closed.

Over 50 years on, the track has long since been removed and now roads, houses and factories have been built where white steam once billowed along field edges and above woodland.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

It’s a nursery rhyme known the world over, but few people know about its author, Lavenham village resident Jane Taylor (1783–1824).

First published in an anthology of poems written by Jane and her sister Ann in 1806, the poem's formal title is The Star, and it’s thought to have been inspired by the Taylor family’s time at Shilling Old Grange in Lavenham.

Jane and her siblings were educated at home by their parents. Jane, having been taught astronomy, would stare at the night sky from the window of the room she shared with Ann.

Becoming famous

The book established the sisters as leading authors of poems and verse, especially when The Star was turned into a lullaby using a simple, yet unforgettable tune. The music possibly originated from Mozart, although Mozart himself is thought to have plagiarised it from a much earlier folk song.

Jane went on to write numerous books and poems, mostly featuring ordinary children in rural settings, but sadly died when she was only 40 years old.

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

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