Flatford - Early Years

Flatford is a hamlet on the southern edge of the parish of East Bergholt in Suffolk. The parish is just over 3000 acres and was established in Anglo Saxon times. It was divided into four manors with Old Hall Manor the principal manor containing part of Flatford hamlet. It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1084 as the royal parish of ‘Bercolt’, it being held as the personal property of the king. East Suffolk is mainly an agricultural area and, until the mid 16th century, was very involved with the the cloth trade.

The Manor to which Flatford belonged 

Flatford was part of two manors, Old Hall and Illaries. The task of finding the history of Old Hall manor is made  difficult by the poor condition of many rolls and by the fact that until 1734 the information recorded in court rolls was  in Latin. The Manor Court Rolls (which begin in 1382) recorded most major decisions relating to the property, the inhabitants and incidents occurring in the manor. During The Peasants Revolt in 1381 the bailiff to the Old Hall Manor  was forced to produce most of the Court Rolls and they were publicly burnt in front of the church gate. The Illaries Court Rolls are in a much worse state – only excerpts exist and they cover only very limited periods!

Flatford Buildings

The principal buildings in Flatford today are timber framed buildings which are good examples of a range of early buildings. There is:

  • Bridge Cottage – a small cottage, typical accommodation for a family working on the river, in the mill or on the land;
  • Valley Farm – a rich persons house possibly belonging to a clothier or farmer or someone who was both;
  • Willy Lott’s House – a farmhouse and
  • Flatford Mill – a watermill.

The earliest sign of human activity in Flatford is a site about 150 yards downstream of Willy Lott’s which was later known as the Swans’ Nest. In his book, published in 1923, Rev Paterson describes it as being a rectangular enclosure about 45 by 32 yards surrounded by a wide moat. He considered that it was a defensive position built perhaps by the Romans or Anglo Saxons to prevent boats moving upstream.

River Stour at Flatford

Flatford was built on the Northern bank of the River Stour about 2 miles from the river’s estuary and in early times was the lowest point on the river which could be forded by traffic between East Suffolk and Essex. For centuries, the river between the estuary and the town of Sudbury, 25 miles upstream, was used to transport heavy goods. The steady increase in riverside activities and a natural tendency to shoaling, the River Stour became difficult to navigate.  The problem was recognised and in 1705 the River Stour Navigation Act was passed by Parliament – this meant meant that a series of locks and bridges could be installed to make the river navigable by commercial barges. 

Population of Flatford

It is unlikely that the number of cottages and houses in Flatford today would have been sufficient to accommodate the number of work people and their families needed to work the local farms, the mill and the river activities.  Although firm evidence is rare, there are some pointers:

  • The Domesday Book records East Bergholt parish as having two churches which seems at least one too many for such a small place.  One church is known to have been in East Bergholt village, the other is thought to have been in Flatford. This in itself suggests a larger population.
  • In 1714 the Reverend Edward Alston moved the Flatford Rectory to the ‘Old Rectory’ in Rectory Hill, East Bergholt. This suggests there must have once been a church in Flatford itself
  • In 1781 William Brasier’s map named the field adjacent to Valley Farm in Flatford, as Church Field against suggestive that a church had once stood in Flatford in this field.

Peter Tonks 2017