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Foxearth and District Local History Society Meeting Report – 11/9/18

About 25 members gathered at a meeting of the district society in Foxearth Village Hall on Tuesday 11th September to hear Dr Richard Young talk about the Victorian observatory dome  and   telescope on the top of the Athenaeum Club building in Bury St Edmunds. Although the town is not short of historical features the presence of the observatory was not widely known until the Club – which owns the observatory – decided in 2015 to launch a project for its restoration seeking to raise intially £6,000. The purpose of the project is to preserve a rare piece of astronomical history, show to the public views of the stars and to teach their location. Dr Young, Founder and Chairman of the enterprise described, with many photographic examples, the work involved with the first priority being the repair of the access stairs to the dome. In its present form the Athenaem building dates from 1789 with the dome being added after the Astronomer Royal, George Airy,  had given a talk on Donati’s comet which was then – in 1858 -  causing great excitement to local sky watchers. Rev. Lord Arthur Hervey was President of  the Athenaeum Society and a leader in the dynamic scientific community who added his weight to the movement for a dome.

The restoration will include a complete overhaul of the telescope which was made by the 19th century renowned firm of instrument makers – Troughton and Simms. It is a 4 inch retractor with a magnification capacity of between 30X and 300X and complete dismantlement, cleaning and re-assembly will be necessary to ensure its valued use for generations to come.

Dr. Young also talked about the rare sundial situated in the Abbey gardens.  The dial is on the side and at the top of a tall stone column – a Victorian drinking fountain -and dates from 1870 when it was given to the people of the town by the 3rd Marquess of Bristol. It is thought to be possibly the earliest example of a dial which allowed people to set their clocks by Greenwich mean time. Many photographs showed the details of the apparatus and the various astronomical inscriptions and calculations it bears.

This was a fascinating insight into a hitherto unexplored aspect of local history which generated a large number of questions and earned a warm response for Dr Young.

Secretary Clare Mathieson informed members that a reservation had been made for the Annual Dinner of the Society on Tuesday 11th December at the George, Cavendish. Members will shortly receive the menu and booking and deposit details.

Next meeting: Tuesday 9th October 7.30pm when Kelly Cornwell will talk about investigating your family history.

Ken Nice


Foxearth and District Local History Society

In a fascinating exposition of what “digging up the past” really means, Foxearth archeologist and author Corinne Cox entertained at the Society’s meeting on 8th May. Secretary Clare Mathieson welcomed 25 members and guests of the Stour Valley Archeological Group to hear Mrs Cox focus on the test pit excavations in Foxearth in 2013 and 2017.

As Corinne explains in her book “Foxearth Treasures” of  2014 it seems likely that the village’s name has nothing to do with a burrowing fox! Research into Old English supports a derivation from two Anglo-Saxon words meaning “folk or people” and “a piece of land or ploughed field” – but why spoil a good myth!

With the help of a large screen and computer technology Corinne took us through the excavations in private gardens and fields illustrating the detailed and meticulous approach that can prove that even a tiny piece of pottery can be the source of important information about settlements in the past. Taken together these snippets can build a comprehensive picture of community life thousands of years ago. Before any digging (a misnomer as the work with very small trowels is slow and painstaking) can take place a one metre square is marked on a site that is measured and accurately charted. Any turf is cut and put on one side before soil removal begins in layers of 10cm. The maximum depth of a pit would be 90cm. Soil strata and colour are noted and sifting to find any small pieces takes place. Some pits do not reach maximum depth because a layer of natural material e.g clay or in one case chalk is encountered -or because of time constraints. Finds in Foxearth have included many flint tools (dating back to 4,000 BC), Roman coins, a vast range of medieval pottery fragments, clay pipes – which can be quite accurately dated because over time bowl shape and stem design changed – and even some Spanish tin-glazed ware which was a very expensive commodity. All these treasures are recorded and photographed and sent for expert evaluation when necessary.

Corinne acknowledged the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Scheme – All our stories – project and the local residents who had allowed their personal space to be briefly invaded; everything is put back as it was at the end of the two-day excavation. An exhibition showing some of the artifacts and photographs is continuously on view in Foxearth church. An invitation was made to all villagers to consider offering one square metre of garden for the next series of excavations on Wednesday and Thursday, 6th and 7th June 2018. Please contact Corinne if interested.

The 2017 exercise gave senior pupils from schools in Sudbury and Haverhill the chance to experience test pit digging and this year a similar insight will be available to interested students in Bury St Edmunds and Halstead.

Another book is in the pipeline – and this is Corinne’s research into Foxearth and  the First World War. It will be called Foxearth Pals, is due for publication later this year and is eagerly awaited.

Corinne was warmly thanked by Clare for her most interesting talk which was clearly well appreciated by her audience.

Next meeting: Tuesday 12th June A guided tour of Hadleigh  – in the hands of Jan Byrne 

Ken Nice

Foxearth and District Local History Society – Meeting 10th Oct 2017 – Report

The artistic connections between two painters and the Suffolk/Essex landscape.

This was a subject fully explored by Dr. Judy Ivy – Liston resident, member of the Society and university lecturer – in her talk to the Foxearth and District Local History Society on 10th October 2017. A large audience of about 25 members and guests were treated to a comprehensively illustrated exposition of the individual approaches that Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable had to the countryside of the Stour valley; the obvious affection they both had for the area shines through in their work.

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury in 1727, the son of a weaver. Having impressed his father with his talent for painting heads and laandscapes he was allowed to go to London in 1740 to study art privately. One of his earliest and best-known  works is his portrait of Mr and Mrs Robert  Andrews – newly-married landed gentry – of about 1750. This is an unusual composition in that the sitters are outside, there is no sign of the house which would ordinarily have been included as a status symbol and half of the picture is concerned with the farm land as evidenced by the seed drills and the stooped corn.  Later portraits were more conventional but Gainsborough’s favoured subjects were landscapes and it is possible that the combination in the Andrews picture was to show off his preference to wealthy clients. Some landscapes suggest a dreamy side to Gainsborough’s character and there are even fantasy compositions. Thomas Gainsborough elevated the genre of British landscape painting and was a founding member of the Royal Academy.

John Constable was born in East Bergholt in 1776- one of six children. His father owned Flatford Mill and when he left school young John worked in the corn trade. He loved to take sketching trips in the Suffolk and Essex countryside and, although his family did not want him to become a painter,  in 1799 he persuaded his father to allow him to study at the Royal Academy where he was inspired by the works of Gainsborough – who had died in 1788.  Although Constable painted many fine portraits, he found this work dull; it provided a living but his real interest was in scenes of ordinary daily life involving villages, churches, farms, cottages, mills, rivers and such like.. This was somewhat unfashionable in an age that looked for a more romantic style. One painting, commissioned as a wedding gift, is a landscape featuring Dedham church in the background and farm workers in the front dealing with a large pile of manure! Constable was a persistent sketcher and many of his most well-known paintings like Flatford Mill, The Hay Wain, Willie Lott’s Cottage have an associated number of drawings from various angles. In fact Willie Lott’s cottage was derelict in the 1920s but was rebuilt with Constable’s paintings and sketches providing valuable guidance. John Constable was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1829. He died in 1837.

Judy demonstrated a deep level of research into this important piece of local history and warm thanks were expressed to her by Secretary Clare Mathieson. Both artists lived and worked at times in other parts of the country but the affinity which each had for the countryside in which they were raised endures in their beautiful legacies.

Next meeting: Tuesday 14th November 2017 7.30pm when Corinne Cox will talk about Foxearth and The Great War.

Ken Nice