Looking for the vanished North Gate of Ipswich

The Suffolk town of Ipswich has almost no historical monuments, or historical feel, despite being one of the oldest towns in England.  Indeed it was founded in the early Anglosaxon period.  Three gates are preserved in street names – west, north and east – and there is certainly evidence for two of the medieval gates, the West Gate and the North Gate, both destroyed around 1800.  It seems to have had at least some stone walls, various town ditches, and there is still a street known as “Tower Ramparts”.

The West Gate is relatively well-known from pictures and an 1960s excavation.  But the North Gate is very much more obscure.

The actual position of the North Gate is very obvious on Google Maps, at the head of Northgate Street, where the Halberd Inn projects on the street facing another building.  Note the position of the chimney stacks, in line.

Aerial view of the site of Ipswich North Gate (St Margaret’s Gate / Old Bar Gate)

A correspondent sent me a view, looking out of the town into Crown St, towards the later Baptist Church.  The Halberd Inn is on the left.  The “Alexandra Hair Artists” sign is on the other building.  This is mainly timber-framed but it has a very solid wall facing Northgate Street, seemingly of large stones.

Here is the view looking in:

Ignore the chimney low-down on the right – the Halberd Inn chimney is higher up, and behind the roof.

There is only one drawing known to me of the North Gate.  I have not seen the original, but a reproduction appeared in a slim rectangular self-promoting booklet issued by an antique shop named Green and Hatfield.[1]  The shop seems to have ceased trading in 1970.  Part of the text reads:

FROM early times the town of Ipswich was bordered by a rampart and ditch—demolished by the Danes and later repaired and fortified in the- reign of King John. The town was divided into LETES or Wards, four in number, each named after the four gates of the town. These gates in the ramparts were named after the four principal points of the compass – the NORTH GATE being the northern boundary of Northgate Lete and the exit to St. Margarets Plain, Christchurch, and the hills and country beyond.

Little evidence now remains of the old North Gate but the drawing on this page is a reproduction of a contemporary pencil sketch— “The demolition of the North Gate, in the latter part of the eighteenth century.” This rare and unique record was found in an old portfolio by Mr. W. E. Hatfield and is carefully preserved in the premises of Green & Hatfield.

It is of particular interest to them as their large ANTIQUE SHOP occupies the corner and site to the East of the old North Gate — part of the premises being built over the actual ramparts and ditch of the old town’s northern boundary. Until fairly recently fragments of the Tower Ditches, St. Margaret’s Ditches and the Rampart remained with the line of the fosse clearly marked, the sites now being located by Crown Street Car Park, an Omnibus Garage, and other buildings.

To many people all over the globe the ANTIQUE SHOP of GREEN & HATFIELD is well known and their homes contain Constant reminders of their visits to these interesting premises with their multitude of showrooms packed with ANTIQUES and decorative objects gleaned principally from old East Anglian homes;…

The illustration is signed L.R.S. – which is Leonard R. Squirrell (the double-l spelling is correct).  The Ipswich Society web site here has another illustration of Ipswich from the same source, which it attributes also to the same artist.

The view in this illustration is, I think, from without, looking toward the town. The street visible behind the gate is Old Foundry Road.  The gate was, as usual, a stone rectangle, with an arch, and a chamber above the arch.  It is clear that two walls extended forward from the stone rectangle.  The figures are in scale, and the buildings look correct.  The building at front left is now vanished.

But notice the two chimneys, again.  These indicate precisely the position of the gate.  (It looks from the aerial photo as if the Halberd Inn was extended after this date, adding an extra roof without a chimney in front of the existing one.)

We can see that the render was peeling off the wall of the other building where it faced the Halberd Inn.  Underneath are what look like large stone blocks, rather than bricks.  The edges of the “blocks” are, in fact, just about visible on Google Streetview through the render.  Could this be part of the North Gate?

East internal wall of the Ipswich North Gate?

Possibly this is over-optimistic, but it is clear from the drawing that the building on that side of the gate suffered damage, and it is conceivable that the owner made use of a nice firm standing wall, exactly as high as it was left in the sketch above.  The upper storey of the building, and most of the rest of it, is timber, I should add.

However research by members of the Ipswich Society (whom I emailed) suggests otherwise:

There is no building stone in Suffolk therefore, when the Northgate was demolished I’m pretty sure the stones would have been used elsewhere. (The West Gate was sold for the value of the stones).

However it is equally likely that the foundation stones were not dug out of the ground, the foundations of the West Gate caused a great deal of interest amongst Museum staff when they dug a nearby sewer. I also have heard the Halberd cellar story but I’ve never been down.

Leonard Squirrel was born 1893, died 1997 so didn’t ever see the Northgate, therefore his sketch is from other source material.

The stones for the North Gate would have been hewn, not saw cut, ie with a rough surface rather than an ashlar finish.

There is another interesting drawing available, which appeared with an article by Felix Walton, “16th Century Ipswich: Northgate Street Continued”, East Anglian Daily Times 16th March 1923:

For many years controversy has raged round the Old North Gate, or St Margaret’s Bar Gate as it was originally named, and I am afraid many people possess water-colour sketches of a tall building, red-tiled, over an elliptical arch showing a church spire in the distance, which is supposed to be the Tower Church, but by no ingenuity could a view of that edifice be obtained from the position of the artist.  These however were reproduced in numbers – I have three or four – by the late Hamlet Watling, and labelled “The Old North Gate.”  Some time ago, looking through a book of views of towns in France, I came across this very picture, described as “The Gateway to a French Town.”  It is perfect in detail, and what induced Watling to adapt it to Ipswich is a mystery.  John Clyde mentions it in his “Illustrations of Old Ipswich,” but doubts its authenticity.  A pencil sketch, however, exists, done by a lady in 1794, when the workmen were actually engaged in demolition of the Gate. Fred Pocock made a water-colour sketch from this in the early days of his career, and this I was fortunate enough to purchase some years ago. The colours, however, were so faded that it was impossible to obtain a photograph from it so I employed Mr. Leonard Squirrell to copy it in pen-and-ink, and the picture reproduced here is the result . The view of the French gate by Hamlet Watling being disposed of, I think we may safely assume this gives a correct representation of the Gate in the last stages of its existence. Its exact position we know, because its foundations were found still in the ground some years back during excavations; it crossed the street (then called Brook Street, remember), forming the junction between the Tower Ditches, and St. Margaret’s Ditches. These facts form another instance of the difficulty the historian meets with when trying to unravel the truth about past times.

East Anglian Daily Times 16th March 1923.  Supposedly the Ipswich North Gate, 1794, and redrawn in 1923 from a watercolour of a contemporary pencil sketch.  Probably not, tho.

This drawing shows a wide gateway and low surrounding buildings.  But the height of the Halberd Inn is actually about the same as the width of the site, so this looks wrong.  The buildings around the gate do not seem to be those visible today, nor as visible in the other illustration.  The human figures are small compared to the gate.  So I think that we may question whether this is what it is supposed to be.  Indeed it has more in common with the 1776 drawing of the West Gate.

I have no idea where the originals of these drawings might be found.  An enquiry at the Ipswich Museum was unrevealing.

The North Gate was also known as St Margaret’s Bar Gate, as an advertisment from December 1763 (online here in a curiously titled volume of “Suffolk notes from the year 1729”, p.63) makes clear:

In John Glyde, “Illustrations of Old Ipswich” (1889), p.8, in the middle of discussions of the West Gate, we find this interesting paragraph:

It is somewhat singular that whilst the form of the “ West Gate “ is preserved in several engravings and drawings, no authenticated engraving or drawing of the “North Gate* is known—although George Frost, to whom we are indebted for so many sketches of our picturesque antiquities, resided in the Town long before its demolition. On this subject Mr. H. C. Casley has favoured us with some details. The “ North Gate,” or, as it was frequently called St Margaret’s Barr Gate, stood across the upper part of Northgate Street, the contracted point between “The Halberd” and the opposite house plainly indicating its position. It is believed that no trustworthy representation of this gate, either in its pristine condition or in its venerable decay, exists, although sketches purporting to depict it are to be found in the hands of some collectors. The basis for them all is believed to have been an oil painting offered for sale by the late Mr. William Mason, a broker of this town. It gave the prospect from N. to S. of a lofty structure in rough stone with high pitch tile roof, having a central archway for road traffic with foot gates on either side. Through this middle arch could be seen the street, in those days called “ Brook Street,” with a Church spire in the distance. Making every allowance for an artist’s licence, Ipswich readers scarcely need to be reminded that the only spire in early days in this vicinity was that of the Municipal Church of St. Mary at the Tower, and it would have been perfectly impracticable to have viewed the present spire—a much more imposing structure than its predecessor—looking through the gateway in any position, but the old spire stood several feet further to the north-west, and was destroyed by lightning in 1661, whilst the picture was certainly not 150 years old. It is somewhat strange, too, that the painting did not show either of the premises against which the Bar abutted, although the maps of the day evidence that those on both sides of the street were in great part in existence, whilst the picturesque gateway of Archdeacon Pykenham’s former palace (1471) is likewise ignored—and no provision is seen for the brook which until comparatively recent years ran down the centre of the street.

Probably if the truth could only be known, St. Margaret’s Barr Gate, like the “Lose” and the “Bull” Gates, had little about it that found favour in the artistic eye, which would account for no perfect delineation of the edifice having been handed down to us. It was a great obstruction to the highway, and its demolition was one of the first acts of the old Paving and Lighting Commission, after they obtained their Act in 1793. A dated pencil sketch by a lady, in the possession of the contributor, represents it in July, 1794, when the workmen were engaged upon the demolition of the wing walls, the Gate-house chamber being already gone. There is certainly little that is attractive in the fragment thus depicted. Specimens of the rough stone of which it was constructed may still be seen in the lower part of the “Halberd Inn.”

Claims in modern books often need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but this paragraph in Susan Gardiner, “Secret Ipswich” (2015), chapter 11: Gates and Walls, is interesting, although unreferenced:

Northgate Street takes its name from the gate – also known as St Margaret’s Gate – in the town’s ramparts that stood at the top of the road, where P. J. McGinty’s pub, is. Until quite recently, McGinty’s was called the Halberd Inn. A halberd was a type of weapon, a combination of a spear or pikestaff and an axe – the kind of thing that is only used for ceremonial military displays by the yeoman of the guard at the Tower of London now. The original building is much older than it appears, and dates from the seventeenth century, although the exterior was rebuilt in the nineteenth. The Halberd Inn itself is aligned with the old tower ramparts and their remains can be seen in the walls of the south side of the building. More old stonework can be found inside the bar and the cellar of the pub, and are said to be what is left of the old St Margaret’s Gate itself.

The reason for the demolition of the North Gate is not known to me.  Possibly the town records might say.  But probably the reason is the same as with the gates of Norwich, demolished around the same time: that the gates were actually very small and had become a constant nuisance to those passing in or out of the town.  Even without the gate house, the entrance to Northgate Street is very narrow.

  1. [1](No author), Green and Hatfield, Ipswich: Ancient House Press (not dated).  A copy is held by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, filed in a box at Suffolk Record Office / The Hold, reference T4721 box 23, location L3/V/54, in the envelope “Ipswich West Gate”.

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