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We know that Haverhill goes back to pre-Roman times, on account of some Iron Age artefacts discovered in the area. In the first century AD, it is possible that Ostorius Scapula, the Roman Governor of Britain from 47 to 52, was active in the region, and there was almost certainly a battle near Sturmer in 60 AD between the ninth Roman legion, under Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, and the British forces composed of the Iceni and the Trinovantes (originally under the command of Queen Boudicca).

In the next three centuries, Roman villas and other settlements flourished at Castle Camps, Haverhill, Ridgewell and Wixoe, and a Roman cemetery was discovered at Withersfield in the eighteenth century. The River Stour was apparently navigable as far as Wixoe, and the main road through Cambridge, the Via Devana which originated in Chester, definitely went as far as Withersfield, and probably went on through Haverhill to Colchester.

After the Romans' departure in 410, the history of Haverhill is obscure for the next 500 years, though many theories have been advanced, usually with little credibility. By the tenth century, however, Sturmer was the leading power in the area, sending a famous battalion, under their Saxon chief Leofsunu, to fight at the battle of Maldon (August 11th, 991). The focus then shifted to Haverhill, an established market town by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), which may have had a market even earlier, around 1050. By the twelfth century there were manors at Haverhill, Horsham and Hanchett, and possibly a castle, although there is no direct evidence of this building until 1373, and it may well have been merely a fortified manor house rather than a fully-fledged military establishment.

From 1008 onwards, most of the town was in the Risbridge Hundred of Suffolk for administrative purposes, but one third of it, in what is now the Hamlet Road area, was in the Hinckford Hundred of Essex. This curious split continued for almost 900 years, until the end of the nineteenth century, and explains why Hamlet, even today, is very different in character from the High Street. Now, of course, the whole of Haverhill is in Suffolk.

The mediaeval town developed first around Burton End, where there was an eleventh century parish church, dedicated to St. Mary, later called Bovetown church (In the nineteenth century this name was misrepresented to become St. Botolph's, a serious mistake, since it has caused confusion ever since). A second church developed from the Market Chapel in the thirteenth century on the main highway, and the town centre, with the market, shifted to its present position. Both churches were for many years under the patronage of Castle Acre in Norfolk. In 1551, however, the people requested that the old church be abandoned as it wasn’t large enough, and it was promptly pulled down. Nothing of the Burton End church now remains, though an excavation carried out in 1997 by the Hertford Archaeological Trust uncovered many ancient skeletons and funeral relics.

During the later Middle Ages, Haverhill prospered, and was featured prominently on 14th and 16th century maps of England, much more so than some of its neighbours like Linton, Clare and Sudbury. Records of the market in the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI (1413-1461) give evidence of a significant trading centre, with shops and stalls selling meat, fish, cloth, small goods, lace, etc., and traders coming in from places like Hundon and Steeple Bumpstead. Haverhill was also a minor centre of the woollen industry and became a weaving town, a characteristic it maintained for several centuries.

In the sixteenth century the town continued to flourish. It obtained a royal connection on January 27th 1541, when the parsonage, lands and right to appoint clergy were granted to Henry VIII’s fourth, and recently divorced wife, Anne of Cleves. A further royal connection came when Queen Elizabeth passed through Haverhill in 1568, on her way from Horseheath Hall to Kedington Hall.

By 1620, Haverhill had become well known as a Puritan town. It produced many leading Puritan preachers such as the Ward family (John, his sons Samuel and Nathaniel and his grandson John), the Faircloughs and the Scanderets. There were several emigrations to America where Haverhill, Massachusetts, was founded in 1640. The Barnardistons of Kedington were leading officers in Cromwell's army, and the whole area supported Parliament against the King in the Civil Wars.

Then, on June 14th 1667, most of Haverhill was destroyed by the "great fire" which started at the Swan public house in Swan Lane and fanned by a strong wind, quickly spread up the High Street. The Essex part of the town seems to have survived, but little of the centre remained, and the parish church was not able to be used again until 1670. Unfortunately, few records survive of the post-fire period up to about 1730, though the population figures suggest that Haverhill suffered a severe decline, going down to less than one thousand inhabitants.

However, we are lucky to possess the diaries, journals and poems of the two weaver brothers, Barnabas and John Webb, whose writings began in the 1790s. They present a lively and colourful picture of a rather beautiful small town, full of interesting characters, customs and the occasional sensational event. The town’s fortunes did in fact revive during the Industrial Revolution, with the establishment of Gurteen's textiles in 1784, and other enterprises such as the Haverhill Rope Works and Atterton's Iron Works coming later.

By the end of the nineteenth century Haverhill had almost come to resemble a Midlands red-brick mill town, dominated by Chauntry Mills, the Gurteen's factory. There was much company housing, several non-conformist churches, a fine Town Hall (given to the community by the Gurteen family), a local newspaper and two railways stations, Haverhill South on the Colne Valley line, and Haverhill North on the Stour Valley Line. Domestic architecture included a block of twelve houses known as Weaver's Row, each of which had three stories, the middle one containing the loom. Around the town were no fewer than three windmills, including the unique ring-shaped Ruffles Mill on Chalkstone Hill, which was pulled down during the Second World War.

The population of the town in 1901 was around 4,800, and Haverhill remained much the same as it had been for the first half of the twentieth century: a small but active agricultural and industrial township. After the Second World War, however, there was a further decline, and the town council invited the London County Council (which later became the Greater London Council) to develop it as an "Overspill" community. In the 1950's the first estate, Parkway, was built, and others followed in the next three decades: Clements, for example, in the 60's and Chalkstone by 1972. Industrial estates were also started in the 1960’s, and a totally new image of the town was promulgated under Sir Frederick Gibberd's special plan of 1971. Unfortunately, the railways were removed in 1967 just as this plan was beginning to take shape. A bypass, however, was successfully completed in 1996 after twenty years of discussion.

Today Haverhill, connected with Bury St. Edmunds administratively, but more with Cambridge commercially, is still at a cross-roads, since further development is again taking place. It promises to be as controversial a town in the new millennium as it has been for centuries past.

© Michael Horne 1999, revised with permission 2018 by Haverhill & District Local History Group.