Stagnation and Revival: the 20th Century
For Suffolk the 20th century has been full of change and drama, yet its study has barely begun. This chapter can only tentatively survey the main trends, and it is hoped that others will soon substantiate, or modify, these findings with more detailed work.
In the years 1900-39, the population of Suffolk grew by 8.5 per cent to 402,200. This increase was small by national standards, and conceals the fact that it was only major towns and dormitory villages which were actually growing, Ipswich with its industries of engineering, brewing and malting continued to attract immigrants as it had done in the 19th century: from 1901 to 1931 its population grew by 31.3 per cent to make it by far the largest town in the county with 87,502 inhabitants. Lowestoft as an industrial centre and holiday resort attracted many new residents, and in the same three decades increased its population by 40 per cent to 41,769. However, the place which showed the fastest growth was the new resort and port of Felixstowe, ‘the Queen of the East Coast’. Its population escalated by 443.6 per cent, from 2,720 in 1901 to 12,067 in 1931. Meanwhile most rural areas, including many of the smaller market towns, continued to decline.
After 1879, the exodus from rural areas was fuelled by prolonged agricultural depression, and lasted generally until the 1930s. For example, Lawshall from 1841 to 1931 lost 35.4 per cent of its population while Worlingworth lost 39 per cent. In 1901, the RDC of Hoxne lamented the loss of a quarter of its population in only 40 years. As late as 1931, 33 of Suffolk’s 37 census areas still showed that migration was ‘outward on balance’. Of course, exceptions to these general trends can be found. Better housing in estate villages, such as in Helmingham, ensured a slower rate of depopulation. Occasionally, a successful local industry or institution enabled a village to remain stable or even grow. Thus, Brantham profited from its xylonite works established in 1887, and Martlesham grew between the wars because of its ‘Aeroplane Experimental Establishment’.
Economically, the life of Suffolk in the early 20th century was dominated by agricultural depression, caused by the unrestricted importation of cheap food from abroad. In 1902, having interviewed many local landowners, farmers and agents, Rider Haggard described conditions as ‘disastrous’. Agricultural prices were low, the value of land was declining, rents had fallen by a half or even two-thirds, wages were rising, and the farming community constantly complained of the burden of taxes, rates and tithes. As a result, some land was allowed to grass over, buildings were neglected, less money was invested, the number of agricultural jobs declined and bankruptcies mounted among farmers.
Conditions on heavy clay land were bad because drainage and other costs were high, while much of the sandy land was ‘given up to sport’. Yet it is important to note that, by hard work and specialisation, some enterprising farmers weathered the storm quite well. Oliver Johnson of Barrow, chairman of West Suffolk County Council for 15 years, produced vegetables, eggs and poultry for the London market, and Clement Smith of Trimley built a small factory which made cheddar cheese.
During the First World War, Britain had to produce more of its own food, and the farming industry gratefully responded. By 1920, agricultural prices were 192 per cent higher than they had been in 1913. Land under grass was again ploughed, with the help of steam-ploughs and the new-fangled tractor. Many farmers bought land during or just after the war, when large numbers of estates were broken up as a result of death duties and rising costs. Unfortunately, this revival was short-lived. The Corn Production Act of 1917 which guaranteed minimum prices and wages was repealed in 1921 and, once again, the farming industry was thrown back into depression. Prices fell rapidly: by 1931 they were only 12 per cent above pre-war levels. Farms on heavy land were again falling derelict because no spare money could be found for drainage, phosphates or lime. Some of the lighter land with its low yields was not worth ploughing and reverted to ‘gorse, bracken and rabbits’. George Pretyman of Orwell Park abandoned nearly 1,000 acres which had been cropped during the war, while the newly established Forestry Commission bought huge areas in the Breckland for a few shillings an acre.
The renewed depression of 1921-39 was not, however, so deep as that prior to 1914. Although some land reverted to pasture, about 70 per cent of Suffolk’s farmland remained arable. Once again, certain individuals survived well enough. Justin Brooke built up a large holding at Wickhambrook producing, among other things, rose trees and fruit juices. The Elveden estate even managed to make the Breckland productive, by combining cattle with the growing of lucerne as a fodder crop. What ensured a brighter future for the farmer, however, was that central government slowly accepted the need to protect British agriculture. Sugar beet was subsidised, and the marketing of agricultural produce was improved by setting up special boards. Farmers invested more in machinery such as tractors and lorries, and showed a new interest in the rearing of pigs and poultry. The poultry population of Suffolk rose from one-half million in 1930 to two million in 1935. Collectively these developments did not make farming prosperous but they saved it from ruin and laid the foundations for rapid development during the Second World War.
For centuries, the payment of tithe had caused friction between the farming community and the Church of England. In the 1930s, this irritation erupted into the so-called Tithe War. When agriculture had slumped again in 1922, many of the new owner-occupiers felt the burden of tithe for the first time. Arrears piled up and defaulters were brought to court. Two monuments, at Wortham and Elmsett, record how bailiffs were sent to distrain on the goods of local farmers. A National Tithepayers’ Association was formed in 1930 and kept up a lively campaign until the Second World War. The first president was a Suffolk farmer, Albert Mobbs of Oulton. Some of the protesters were nonconformist but all objected to the injustice of making one economic group support a church which certainly did not represent the whole population. Thanks to their efforts, the payment of tithe has now disappeared.
In 1900, Suffolk was still a deeply rural county. Only five towns had more than 5,000 inhabitants and their population amounted to only 35 per cent of the total. The majority still lived in more than 500 villages and small market towns. Unfortunately for them, rural life in the early 20th century was at a low ebb: farming was barely profitable and its workforce was shrinking, shops were closing, craftsmen like wheel-wrights and millers were giving up their trades, while the rural population as a whole was declining and ageing. For agricultural labourers, the outlook was particularly bleak. Their housing was poor, their diet monotonous. Improved wages won in the 1880s and ’90s were offset by rising prices after 1900. Their work was hard and repetitive, and gave few chances of promotion. Furthermore, villages still had social hierarchies in which the principal farmers, clergy and landowners usually kept control.
The demoralisation of country-dwellers was made worse by their increasing awareness of the outside world. Since the introduction of compulsory education in 1880, most countrymen were literate enough to read newspapers, now comparatively cheap to buy, and had some smattering of geography and current affairs. The bicycle, too, gave ordinary people a new mobility and taste for exploration, while the railway system afforded easy opportunities for travelling further afield. The ‘bright lights’ and superior amenities of towns, whether Ipswich down the road, Manchester in the north or the ever-seductive London, were a perpetual lure for the young, dissatisfied and ambitious. On top of this came the appeal of emigration to the new worlds of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Yet, paradoxically, this period witnessed enormous efforts to make village life more varied and satisfying. As well as Friendly Societies and clothing, coal and pig clubs inherited from the 19th century, many new institutions and events were established: social gatherings such as Penny Readings, lantern and film shows, whist drives, dances and outings by train or charabanc; educational facilities such as night schools, parish libraries and reading rooms; recreational clubs for football, cricket or quoits; for the other half of the population, Mothers’ Meetings, Girls? Clubs and the Women’s Institutes. The new custom of producing parish magazines is particularly important for today’s local historian. When written by an observant and public-spirited clergyman, this could virtually be a parish newspaper covering all aspects of ecclesiastical and secular life. All these various initiatives did not halt the decline of rural areas, but they certainly improved the lot of those who remained.
The First World War
In 1914, men flocked to the colours with patriotic enthusiasm. A single meeting at Southwold in September 1914 produced 60 recruits who were sent off with bands and crowds. Like other regiments, the Suffolks were rapidly expanded from two to 27 battalions. Thousands of young men left, many to be killed and even more to be wounded or maimed. The 7th Battalion was almost completely wiped out at Cambrai in 1917. At Carlton Colville in 1918 Canon Bignold wrote of a family which had lost all three of its sons, and of a man who had been wounded three times yet survived. By the end of the war, this community of about 3,000 souls had lost 90 men in the army or navy and another 37 fishermen on patrolling and minesweeping duties—a total of 127 men. War memorials all over the county tell of similar losses and sacrifice.
Meanwhile, the civilian population of Suffolk were blacking-out their homes and experiencing the first air raids. Southwold was bombed by Zeppelins in August 1916, and Felixstowe was attacked in 1917 by German seaplanes. In April 1916 German ships bombarded Lowestoft with about 60 shells; some 40 houses were destroyed and four lives lost. But much more important was the dramatic way in which ordinary life was disrupted and transformed.
To meet the threat of invasion, men who were exempt from military service were enlisted into the Volunteers and National Guard, and women were increasingly diverted to war work and farming. Incessant military traffic was seen on local roads and railways; troops were billeted in private houses; horses were picketed on local commons; summer-time was introduced in 1917 to help the war effort; and ‘spy-mania’ became a common obsession. As food became scarcer, prices escalated and great efforts were made to plough and dig more land. In December 1917, rationing was introduced and coupons were issued for sugar, meat, butter and margarine. Finally, nobody could forget the carnage on the Western Front because the rumble and thud of the guns were often heard in many parts of Suffolk.
Canon Bignold’s record of life at Carlton Colville brilliantly evokes the horrifying crisis of 1918 when the Germans were still able to mount a mighty offensive. One Suffolk battalion was reduced to 47 men but in three days was restored to 900 by new drafts. To replace the huge losses, men up to the age of 50 were called up. As the battle swayed to and fro, Bignold wrote movingly of ‘this crucifixion of humanity’. At home, be described the strenuous efforts to grow more food, promote savings and still prepare for the strong possibility of enemy raids or even invasion. The Canon also appreciated that profound social changes were taking place. The wages of labourers had doubled; social distinctions were being dropped; and the outlook of ordinary village lads was transformed by the experience of travelling to France, Greece or Palestine. Finally, he instinctively knew the enormity of the world events he was witnessing, especially the collapse of the German and Russian empires and.the advent of Bolshevism—events ‘comparable only to the fall of the Holy Roman Empire’.
A new style of government
No account of life in the 20th century can ignore the work of county councils created in 1888, or of district and parish councils established in 1894. Though the records of these bodies are copious, they are as yet almost unused.
Suffolk had been traditionally administered by magistrates meeting in Quarter Sessions, one court for the east and another for the west. The old system was already a complicated blend of justice and administration with a structure of committees, sub-committees and paid officers. Magistrates met regularly, issued by-laws, licences and orders, and often took on new responsibilities delegated by acts of parliament. The main significance of the Local Government Act of 1888 is that it took county administration from the hands of appointed magistrates and gave it to elected councillors.
A fascinating controversy in the 1880s had questioned the wisdom of having two divisions of magistrates for east and west Suffolk. In 1882, a letter signed by 89 magistrates argued for one Quarter Session for the whole county, meeting at Ipswich. The western court objected to the proposal and appealed to the Marquis of Bristol as hereditary High Steward of the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds. These disagreements were overtaken by the Local Government Bill which proposed a single county council for Suffolk. The magistrates and ratepayers of the west immediately leapt to defend the principle of ‘Home Rule’. In the Commons Lord Francis Hervey put forward an amendment seeking two administrative counties, but it was narrowly defeated. When the bill got to the Lords, the Marquis of Bristol argued the west’s case vigorously, and won the support of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. As a result, the amendment was carried decisively by 122 votes to 68, and West Suffolk retained its ancient independence for nearly another century.
At first the responsibilities of the new county councils resembled those of the old Quarter Sessions. They took over the administration of main roads and bridges, shared the running of the police forces with local magistrates, and carried out less costly functions such as the regulation of weights and measures, control of animal diseases and inspection of food and drugs. Their initial costs were surprisingly low: in their first year West Suffolk spent only £16,207 and East Suffolk £30,500. Relentlessly, however, the budgets grew as both county councils expanded their services and took on new responsibilities (illus. 147).
A major milestone was the Education Act of 1902, which gave county councils the status of local education authorities and greatly increased their work. By 1910, East Suffolk was spending over £230,000 and education alone counted for nearly half. Other new services included the registering of midwives, administration of smallholdings, and licensing of vehicles. In 30 years, West Suffolk built up an estate of over 10,000 acres which was, in 1939, rented to 579 smallholders.
After the First World War, East Suffolk achieved distinction in two fields. First, they established a new system of secondary or ‘area’ schools which, with new buildings and playing fields, ‘attracted visitors from all over the world’. Secondly, they were amongst the earliest authorities to realise the importance of planning; after a conference in 1931, they set up a central planning department with a Planning Officer, six area planning committees and an advisory panel of experts.
Another important milestone was the Local Government Act of 1929. This made county councils responsible for all roads in rural districts and, by abolishing the Poor Law Unions, for the running of workhouses and granting of assistance to people in their own homes. Accordingly, the total expenditure of East Suffolk jumped from £554,500 in 1929 to £873,000 in 1931.
In the early days of county councils, elections were usually quiet and predictable though occasionally, especially in large open villages like Rattlesden, Hitcham and Bildeston, a vigorous contest took place along party lines. At Bury in 1889, 16 candidates stood for six places, an event ‘unprecedented in the history of the borough’. In general the traditional leaders of local society retained the authority they had held in the past. In the first elections of 1889, 60 of the 105 councillors in the two councils were returned unopposed, 53 were magistrates as well, nine were clergy, seven were titled, seven had military ranks, and at least 26 were farmers. Nevertheless, the ‘feudal’ interest was already weakening because at least 24 councillors were local businessmen or industrialists, and eight others were professionals such as solicitors. Added to this, there was the occasional working-class representative like S.W. Downes of Glemsford who was a blacksmith and loom-maker.
By 1939 the picture had naturally changed. The clergy were less prominent, the military contingent was stronger (especially in West Suffolk) and 14 women had been elected. Returns for East Suffolk in 1967 show a much greater diversity among 66 elected councillors: farmers were still the largest occupational group (19), 10 had military ranks, 13 described themselves as retired, and nine were women. The commercial, industrial and professional occupations ranged from a signal lampman and electrical fitter to doctor and company director. The changing social backgrounds, occupations and political leanings of local councillors, from 1888 to the present day, is a fascinating subject which needs much more detailed investigation.
District councils, founded by the Local Government Act of 1894, were modelled on earlier bodies called Sanitary Districts. Their principal task, whether urban or rural, was to look after basic services such as water supply, sewage disposal and public health. Urban districts usually had more income and took on extra responsibilities like highways, street lighting and cemeteries. As a result of the 1894 act, Suffolk was divided into 18 rural districts and eight urban districts. By 1935, the pattern had been changed to 14 rural and 11 urban districts.
Perhaps the most important achievement of these bodies is the building of council houses after the First World War. They improved accommodation for those who had wholly depended on rented or ‘tied’ houses, often seriously substandard. By 1920, schemes for 1,268 homes had been started in East Suffolk, and for 473 houses in the west. The authority which achieved most in this field was Ipswich; between the wars the borough built 4,200 council houses, mainly on the northern and south-eastern fringes of the town. At the same time it demolished over 2,000 ‘slums’ (which today would probably be classed as ‘conservation areas’)
For centuries the secular and ecclesiastical affairs of each parish were regulated by its vestry. In 1894 this was replaced by the parish council, which was greeted enthusiastically as a means of breaking the hold of ‘squires, parsons and farmers’. In the early years, many parishes did, indeed, produce large numbers of candidates and voters. In 1894, Gazeley had 13 candidates for seven seats; at Bacton 103 out of 115 qualified electors went to the poll; at Great Ashfield, crowds waited to hear the results declared ‘amid considerable excitement’. Although the farming interest normally won, parishes were sometimes riven by controversy. It was claimed that labourers in the Stowmarket area were intimidated by a radical clique, and that Old Newton had been subjected to ‘venemous attempts to set class against class’. Generally, the political enthusiasm died down after 1900, when it was realised that parish councils ‘could not work miracles’. Nevertheless, in spite of the very limited powers given to them, these councils remained useful sounding-boards of local opinion and controversy. At Bardwell, for example, arguments about local charities and the village school were exacerbated by rivalry between Anglicans and Baptists.
The Second World War
In the years 1939-45, the life of Suffolk was again galvanised by war. The county regiment was once more expanded, and the old yeomanry converted into artillery units. Suffolk battalions fought in many areas of conflict, at Dunkirk, at the fall of Singapore, in Burma and in Normandy on D-Day. Enemy aircraft bombed Suffolk on many occasions, and several actions took place off its coast in ‘E-boat alley’. One of the earliest tragedies of the war was the sinking of HMS Gypsy which hit a mine in the mouth of the Orwell; nearly all her crew were drowned.
The greater emphasis on air-power probably had the most lasting effects on Suffolk. The first bombing attack against Germany was mounted from. Wattisham, and before the war was over the county was dotted with no fewer than 34 airfields. Most of them were created by bulldozing the flatter parts of Suffolk’s hedged landscape—an omen of major changes to come. They were used by the British and American Air Forces, especially for the great bombing offensive against Germany and occupied Europe. From the airfield of Framlingham, for instance, the 390th Bombardment Group of the 8th American Air Force flew 300 missions against the enemy and dropped 19,000 tons of bombs; 176 young men from that base died on active service.
At the end of the Second World War, Suffolk was poorly provided with modem amenities, particularly in rural areas. For their water, most countrymen still depended on wells, springs and ‘tea-ponds’, which might easily dry up during summer droughts. Sewerage hardly existed outside the towns, and electricity had not penetrated far. In 1946, the Planning Officer of West Suffolk described conditions as ‘frankly disgraceful’ and promised rapid improvements. By 1962, RDCs in the west were able to report that water was piped to all major settlements and that 44 parishes had been sewered.
Post-war censuses show the progress of this great revolution in living standards. In 1951, out of 132,456 households in Suffolk, 34 per cent were entirely without WCs and many others shared, 53 per cent without fixed baths and 28 per cent without piped water. Twenty years later, out of 185,175 households, only 11 per cent lacked baths and 4 per cent were without WCs. By then piped water was generally available, and only 11 per cent of households did not have hot water.
Natives and newcomers
After the Second World War, the local population began to grow again strongly. Indeed, in the decade 1961-71, the population of Suffolk rose by no less than 15.2 per cent, making it one of the fastest growing parts of the British Isles. Over 70 per cent of the increase was the result of inward migration stimulated by planning policies.
For several generations the west had been the more rural and feudal half of the county, and its population had actually declined between the wars. In 1961, the county council decided to attract 40,000 new residents to inject new life into the region, an increase of more than a third. The towns of Haverhill and Bury St Edmunds were to grow by 10,000 each, with smaller expansions at Sudbury, Mildenhall, Brandon, Newmarket and Hadleigh. Large new estates of council housing were built, while new firms and industries were deliberately attracted to give more employment. By the mid-1960s about 120 new factories had been built and about 1,600 new jobs in manufacturing industry were being created each year.
This planned migration stimulated an even greater degree of voluntary migration. A wave of private building swept over local towns and many villages. In the mid-1960s, over 2,000 new houses were erected in West Suffolk each year; most of them in private estates. In addition, many traditional buildings were restored. In the years 1967-76, West Suffolk County Council gave 19,100 grants for conversions and repairs. Many of the newcomers were commuters who lived in villages and worked in towns. They and other migrants were attracted by improving opportunities for employment, rising affluence, houses which were comparatively cheap and the general attractiveness of a hitherto undeveloped region.
Meanwhile, East Suffolk followed a more cautious policy, and its key areas grew less strongly. While in the decade 1961-71 the district later known as St Edmundsbury grew by 28.7 per cent and Babergh by a huge 34.6 per cent, Ipswich grew by only five per cent and Suffolk Coastal District by 7.6 per cent. Nevertheless, a new government strategy for south-eastern England proposed, in 1966, to expand the population of Ipswich by a staggering 70,000 in 15 years. The plan envisaged a string of new developments up the Gipping valley, increasing Needham Market alone from 1,800 to about 20,000 people.
The unprecedented growth and breathtaking visions of the 1960s were not, in fact, sustained. After 1970 the emphasis changed nationally to the building of new towns, and it became more difficult to attract new industry to Suffolk. The climate of local opinion was changing as well, and planners were beginning to use new terms such as ‘limited growth’ and ‘planning restraint’. By 1979, the county councils had designated about 90 ‘conservation areas’ and 23 places of outstanding historical importance, while they accepted the Stour valley, Orwell estuary and Sandlings as areas of outstanding natural beauty. In spite of this slowing of development, however, the county still grew by 8.4 per cent in 1971-81, as compared with a figure of 0.3 per cent for England as a whole.
The growth of Suffolk since the war conceals many local variations. Planning authorities encouraged large ‘key’ villages like Elmswell and Capel St Mary to grow very fast; as a result, their historical cores were clamped, incongruously, with estates of suburban-style housing. Many other villages, however, usually with smaller than average populations, remained fairly stable or continued to shrink. Thelnetham and Dallingboo have experienced no dramatic change in population for many decades, and Cookley and Benacre are steadily declining.
Indeed, much debate in recent years has centred on so-called ‘dying’ villages. Some are small, remote and predominantly agricultural settlements where major development is discouraged and the prospects for employment are not good; in such places, empty cottages often fall into the hands of weekenders, and the number of amenities tends to shrink. Sudbourne declined from a population of 631 in 1831 to 298 in 1981, and since the war has lost its shops, post-office and school. Arnpton is in danger of dying altogether: from 1971-81 its population fell by 50 per cent to 33, yet it had 147 inhabitants in 1841. The decline of rural bus services also means that 30 per cent of Suffolk households who have no car are increasingly at a disadvantage. In 1985, the north-east of Suffolk, which has many of these stagnant and declining parishes, was designated a Rural Development Area in the hope of revitalising social and economic life.
Another kind of ‘dying’, or rather ‘ageing’, community is the especially attractive conserved village. As the old agricultural and native population breaks up, such places are increasingly colonised by middle-class newcomers—particularly the retired. One such village in the south of the county has already been described, rather disrespectfully, as ‘God’s waiting room’. The census of 1981 revealed that 25.4 per cent of Suffolk’s population were of pensionable age, as compared with only 22.6 per cent under the age of 15—a dramatic turnaround since the early 19th century.
The economy of the county has also changed fundamentally. In 1961 the farming community was still the largest economic group but by 1981 they were outweighed by those in retail trade, in transport, engineering and various professional or technical services. By the 1980s, Suffolk was firmly part of the industrialised and technological world with industrial estates, ever-changing patterns of retail trade and rapidly expanding service industries. The improved A45 (now A14), Orwell Bridge and thriving Haven ports demonstrate Suffolk’s importance as a gateway to Europe.
A new agricultural revolution
Since 1939, the farming industry of Suffolk has flourished by combining the enterprise of farmers with strong protectionism from the state and taxpayer. Incomes and profit margins rose dramatically, especially in the 1970s, and large farmers were particularly well placed to benefit from higher output, guaranteed prices and grants. Between 1955 and 1979, the total number of farms and smallholdings in Suffolk was halved from 8,067 to 3,977, while the total acreage of large farms (over 500 acres) almost doubled. The revival of the industry precipitated yet another Agricultural Revolution, more radical than its counterpart in the 17th and 18th centuries and with far-reaching consequences economically, environmentally and socially.
The swing towards arable farming, which began in the late 18th century, has continued so that 83 per cent of available land is now ploughed and all forms of grassland account for only 12 per cent. Simultaneously, the industry mechanised itself as never before. The number of combine harvesters rose from a mere 32 in 1942 to 2,970 in 1968. Traditional implements were greatly improved, and completely new machines introduced such as beet harvesters, sprayers and rotary balers. Inevitably the population of working horses plummeted from 44,000 in 1911 to 4,000 in 1958. They virtually disappeared from the land in the 1960s, having given many centuries of strong and patient service. As the growing of cereals and sugar beet was profitably extended, the population of grazing animals declined. Between 1959 and 1981, the number of dairy cows in Suffolk fell by over 40 per cent and sheep by 55 per cent. By contrast, other animals multiplied because they were intensively reared in special buildings. In the same period, pigs increased by 159 per cent to 617,200, more than in any other English county.
East Anglian fields of the 19th century normally yielded about 16 cwt of wheat per acre. In 1948 the barrier of 20 cwt was broken, and in 1962 that of 30 cwt; by 1984, yields had climbed to 60.6 cwt. This unprecedented improvement can be attributed to new strains of wheat, the chemical control of weeds and pests, and to the vastly increased use of chemical fertilisers.
The most dramatic human consequence of the farming revolution has been the dwindling number of agricultural workers. In 1901, Suffolk had 27,319 farm workers out of a total male workforce of 114,401 (24 per cent). By 1981, farms employed only 4,780 out of a total male workforce of 159,720 (3 per cent). The farming community as a whole accounted for only 5.3 per cent of the male working population, or 3.7 per cent of the total working population including women. While the industry has prospered economically, it has shrunk massively in terms of manpower. For the first time in their history, villages are no longer agricultural communities because the majority of their inhabitants do not depend on the land. Earlier this century, the social history of villages centred on the uneasy relationship between farmers and agricultural labourers. Now farmers find themselves increasingly out-numbered in a new rural society, largely middle-class and increasingly articulate, which is prepared to question their methods and to challenge their political influence.
The environmental results of the new Agricultural Revolution are huge and still incalculable. In about 40 years, the drive to mechanise farming and extend arable acreages has changed the Suffolk landscape faster and more radically than at any other time in its history. Using the modem technology of bulldozers, JCBs and power-saws, farmers and landowners have dismantled large parts of the traditional landscape which their predecessors created slowly by hand over many centuries. In most parishes, 50 per cent of the landscape features recorded on 19th-century maps have been destroyed (in some places, 70 per cent). They include hedges, ditches, road verges, green lanes, ponds, moats, woods and parish boundaries. All this happened without planning consent or public consultation, yet with the massive support of the taxpayer. Not surprisingly, this transformation has provoked much criticism and led to the development of an increasingly vocal conservationist lobby.
Yet the Suffolk landscape still contains a diversity which overall statistics conceal. On one side of a ditch, a particular farmer may have created a scene which is desolate, depressing and ecologically impoverished. On the other side, his neighbour may have found a successful compromise between modem efficiency and environmental responsibility: he may have removed many hedges and trees, but still retained a sense of enclosure and that vital thread of continuity from the past.
In all probability, the churches in the early years of this century had more worshippers than at any other period of history. Furthermore, in 1914 for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon period, Suffolk achieved the distinction of its own bishopric. To reflect the ancient division of Suffolk, the new Anglican bishop was given the title of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, having his cathedral in the former parish church of St James in Bury, and his residence in Ipswich.
In the 1980s, increasing numbers of abandoned chapels and redundant churches clearly indicate a decline in the appeal and status of organised religion. However, this decline is not easy to measure. The record of communicants does not fully reflect the strength of congregations, so perhaps the best evidence lies in the number of clergy and livings. In 1961 Suffolk had 540 clergy and ministers of religion (Anglican, nonconformist and Roman Catholic) but by 1981 the number had fallen to 280. Out of 516 Anglican benefices recorded in 1835, only 207 survived to 1983. In some cases, as many as eight parishes are now grouped together. Another measure may be found in the published membership of individual Anglican churches. Taking the Deanery of Hoxne as a sample, the ‘electoral rolls’ of its 20 constituent parishes fell from 2,006. in 1939 to 781 in 1983, yet those same 20 churches have the seating to accommodate 5,525 worshippers. In the same area, out of 13 nonconformist chapels which existed in 1912, seven survived in 1983—including four which were Strict Baptist. In 1989 the only religious census to be attempted since 1851 found that 12 per cent of the adult population of Suffolk attended some form of worship.
The writings of clergy in this century have frequently complained of falling attendances and a declining interest in religion. The Rev. Arthur Ashton of Uggeshall and Sotherton wrote in 1936 of ‘coldness and indifference’ among a generation devoted to amusements such as the cinema, motorbikes and cars. Like many other clergy with shrinking incomes, he found the rectory too large and the gardens too costly to maintain.
The churches have undoubtedly lost touch with the majority of the population, and no longer have the social cachet which they once possessed, but this may have given them greater cohesion and strength. At the very least, they will remain important and influential minorities or pressure-groups in an increasingly diverse society. A recent development is the creation of non-denominational ‘house-churches’ of an evangelical or charismatic kind; these may yet prove to be historically significant.
The Suffolk of the 1990s is very different from that of 1900. It is no longer a depressed agricultural backwater, with an impoverished and demoralised population exporting its youth and much of its talent. Its agriculture has become efficient and prosperous (but now faces a far less certain future as a result of overproduction) while the majority of its inhabitants work in commerce, manufacturing and service industries. A huge increase of population has been accommodated, and the standard of living has improved dramatically. Yet the best evidence that Suffolk is back in the forefront of national life lies in the problems and dangers which it faces. How do we plan economic growth without destroying local identity; reconcile mechanised, chemical farming with a countryside which is ancient, beautiful and fragile; house a rising population while still preserving a priceless heritage of historic towns and villages; plan future supplies of energy with safety for human beings and the environment? How do we combat the apathy and cynicism which devalues local democracy; and build a new regional consciousness which involves young and old, native and newcomer?