On April 4th 1786 a party of three men, Parson Woodforde, his nephew William (a Captain in the Royal Navy who was staying in Norfolk with the parson) and their servant Briton arrived in Southwold about midday. They had ridden from Beccles that morning.
Woodforde found the town “but an indifferent Place, but the Situation being so near the Sea is very pleasant”. Neither was he impressed by the Inn where they stayed, the Old Swan in the Market Place. The Swan Inn has been rebuilt since Woodforde’s day, although parts of the hotel date back to the 14th century. The Swan no longer has the appellation “Old” placed in front of its name. Despite not thinking much of the inn, the parson found the innkeeper “a very civil man”. His name was Mr Berry and he had previously been servant to Sir Thomas Gooch of Benacre Hall. The next day on the way to Lowestoft they saw Benacre Hall which Woodforde described as a fine house. Sir Thomas Gooch had succeeded to the baronetcy in 1781 and had served as Sheriff of Suffolk in 1785.
How Parson Woodforde could have thought Southwold so indifferent a place, when it was dominated by such a beautiful church, only shows how tastes have changed over the centuries since his time. Although he was impressed by the splendour of Benacre Hall, the medieval architecture of the church meant nothing to him. Also, on the previous day, he had dismissed his visit to the ruins of Bungay castle “as scarcely worth seeing”. In this respect he was typical of his age; Mary Hardy, whose home was few miles from Weston at Coltishall, had toured Yorkshire a couple of years earlier than Woodforde’s visit to Southwold. She was very taken with the 18th century Palladian mansions she saw, but the picturesque ruins of Fountains Abbey she dismissed as merely “curious”.
Woodforde’s party may have found the town plain but with the beach they were on the other hand very pleased. They walked along it for three hours before returning for dinner at about four o’clock, and spent another two hours there when they had eaten. They were principally interested in looking for curious pebbles, although they found nothing exceptional. Seaside holidays had yet to become popular except perhaps in Brighton, but Woodforde’s excursion to the coast gives a hint of things to come. I have been rather more fortunate than the parson in finding several carnelians on the beach at Southwold, although it is true I have spent rather more days in the town than he did.
My wife’s great-great-grandfather (her mother’s mother’s father’s father) was born in Southwold and spent his youth in the town. His name was William Jarvis, and Jarvis was a common name in the town. He was born in 1826 at a time when most men in Southwold worked as fishermen. William however was not a seaman but a woodman (i.e he made things like hurdles). In 1848 at the age of 22 he married Mary Page and as a young man he moved away to South Norfolk, no doubt because trees are not plentiful in a seaside town. Nevertheless there was an important service that a woodman did for a fisherman; one of the products he made were the hoops round the barrels used to send the salted fish to market. For this he used hazel withies. The barrels themselves were made by the specialist barrel maker, the local cooper. Once a year William’s son Japheth (also a woodman) used to walk over twenty miles from Woodton in Norfolk to Lowestoft to get orders for his barrel hoops. Another son, Robert, was also a woodman living in Honing in north east Norfolk, and he specialised in making hurdles. His two sons followed him in the trade, which must have been coming to an end by the early 20th century.
One industry still remains in Southwold after many centuries. Although the Adnams family did not purchase the brewery until 1872, there had been a brewery there since the middle ages. William Hardy, the Norfolk brewer, rode over to Southwold in 1790 with a view to buying the business which was up for sale. The Sole Bay Brewery was set up under that name in 1818. Nearly 200 years later the business goes from strength to strength having outlived all the old breweries in Norfolk. Tolly and Cobbold which was another famous brewery in Ipswich closed a number of years ago, but another Suffolk brewery, Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, is also expanding its trade strongly.