by John | Sep 16, 2014 |

A Brief History of Lowestoft: Famous Faces and Significant Places

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There has been a settlement at Lowestoft, the most easterly point of the British Isles, for over a millenium; but much of what we see today has been established only since the 1800s...

Read through our timeline, covering over 10 centuries of Lowestoftian history!


Early History

The Viking origin of the name Lowestoft – made up of the name Hlothver and the suffix –toft, meaning homestead – points towards the importance of the sea and the people and products it delivered to Lowestoft.

1086 - Lowestoft and the Domesday Book

By 1086, Lowestoft was known as Lothu Wistoft and described as an agricultural village of just 20 families. It was a sub-manor of Lothingland, under the manor of Gorleston.
At that time there was no access to the sea from what are now Lake Lothing and Oulton Broad; all fishing was from the beach.


1349 – The Great Plague

As the most easterly point in England, Lowestoft was still very isolated, but fishing was a growing industry at this time.  
Largely in the control of neighbouring Great Yarmouth, the industry still brought prosperity to Lowestoft and the population grew.
Disaster struck, however, in 1349 in the form of a plague, which wiped out around nine tenths of the population.


The Medieval Period

As the population recovered from the plague, beach fishing grew, and wills and inventories of the 15th and 16th century illustrate that the economy and the physical location of the village shifted to make the most of the rich pickings from the sea. Wealthy merchants lived on the cliff tops, whilst the functional support industry for the fishing grew on the wide open areas of the beach, known as the Denes.

There had always been rivalry between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, but this came to a head during the Civil Wars when the two settlements chose opposite sides; Lowestoft supporting King Charles I.  

In 1643 Cromwell, won a skirmish outside Lowestoft, celebrating with a stay at The Swan Inn after the battle.


1662 – Lowestoft Witches

This was a period of terrible witch hunts throughout the land. Matthew Hopkins, The Witch Finder General, was scouring north Essex and Suffolk for witches. In Lowestoft a local herring merchant, Samuel Pacey, denounced two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny. There was little evidence to support his claims but the two were hanged anyway at Bury St Edmunds on 10th March 1662.

1665 – The Battle of Lowestoft

There were a number of skirmishes along the Suffolk Coast including the Battle of Sole Bay and the Battle of Lowestoft, which took place roughly 40 miles off the coast – within earshot of the town, if out of sight. On Saturday June 3rd 1665, James Duke of York (the future James II) defeated the Dutch fleet commanded by Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer, capturing or sinking some 20 ships, and killing around 6000 men. The English fleet was far superior in numbers and lost between 600 and 700 men.


1757 – Lowestoft Pottery

Hewlin Luson founded the Lowestoft Pottery. His wares were made from fine white clay, designed for the artisan market. Interestingly, one of his lines was porcelain trinkets for visitors – Lowestoft had become a fashionable seaside town, not quite so grand as Scarborough and Brighton but not far off.


The Last 200 Years

The Port of Lowestoft 

In the early 19th century Lowestoft saw a boost in trade. Not all was well in Great Yarmouth and theft there, compounded by inflated harbour fees and the building of a ‘New Cut’ from the river Waveney to the river Yare, meant that Norwich merchants preferred to buy from Lowestoft, rather than Great Yarmouth.
When the lock gates at Mutford failed, trade fell off.


1831 - The harbour at Lowestoft opens 

In 1847 Sir Morton Peto, often regarded as 'the father of modern Lowestoft', purchased the harbour at Lowestoft and built a railway line to the town, thus opening the whole of England as a market for the town's fresh fish.
A quay with the railway siding was built, and then an outer harbour, with a north pier for the fish markets and a south pier for the tourists.
The foresight of Sir Morton Peto ensured the fishing industry of Lowestoft for over a century. Exports of herring (known locally as the ‘silver darling’) grew and grew and workers were brought in from all over the country to assist in handling the catch, including Scots fisher-girls who lodged in houses in the High Street and went down the 'scores' - ancient narrow thoroughfares still to be seen today - to gut herring. Lowestoft was now famous for its herring drifters fishing the North Sea and also for the trawlers which ventured further in search of cod, haddock and skate.

Sailing craft gave way to steam powered vessels and the harbour was filled with tugs and smaller size merchant vessels. Industries ashore supported the fishing industry and local producers made clothing and foodstuffs for the boats, salt for the curing of herring and ice for the trawlers, all of which were traded in the town. Around the market the fish merchants had their offices, buying the catches and arranging onward shipment by rail to parts of Britain and by sea to foreign markets. With all this wealth came other improvements to the town and Lowestoft became famous for its “hanging gardens” and fine terraced gardens that descended from the merchants houses to the base of the cliffs.


1878 Joseph Conrad landed at Lowestoft

This was Conrad's first visit to England. He had joined the French Merchant Marine some four years earlier to avoid conscription but had got himself into financial difficulties. In Lowestoft he joined the Lowestoft fishing fleet before travelling the world again. He was a sailor for around 15 years and used those he met as as figures in his future novels.


1913 – Benjamin Britten born in Lowestoft 

Lowestoft's and indeed Suffolk’s most famous son, Benjamin Britten, was born at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft on November 22nd, 1913. His attic bedroom overlooked the sea and the pull of the waves on the beach would have been a constant background sound in his early years. Benjamin Britten was the youngest of four children; his father, Robert Britten, was a dentist who built up a substantial practice from the house.

His mother, Edith, was a talented amateur musician who gave Britten his first lessons in piano and notation in the drawing room of the house. It was quickly established that Benjamin Britten was a gifted musician and by the age of five he was already making his first attempts at composition. He had completed The Simply Symphony by the time he was 12. He started piano lessons with a teacher from his pre-prep school when he was 7, and viola lessons with Audrey Alston at the age of 10.
After prep school Britten became a pupil at Gresham's School in Holt, North Norfolk, boarding at Farfield House between 1928 and 1930.
 From there he went to the Royal College of Music in London. Lowestoft remained his home base until he started work with the GPO Film Unit in London in 1935. 


World War I and World War II in Lowestoft 

Lowestoft’s location as the most easterly point of the British Isles made it an important base during both World Wars. Lowestoft was bombarded by German ships in April 1916 as the German fleet sought to draw the British fleet south from its base at Scapa Flow.

During the Second World War, Lowestoft had five naval establishments, with 200 officers and 7,000 ratings based there. Mine-sweeping, motor torpedo boat patrol and training at Europa, the base on the North Denes, were amongst the activities. The shores of Lake Lothing, where wooden steam drifters had once been built, saw motor minesweepers and power launches under construction.


Lowestoft in the last 50 years 

The big fishing fleets are now gone and whilst there are still a few trawlers tied up at the harbour, the majority of fishing is inshore or from the beach. However, Lowestoft still attracts plenty of tourists, who can enjoy its history by walking in the centre and along the beaches – taking care not to miss out on the ‘scores’, the deep little lanes linking town and shore – and visiting its fascinating Maritime and Transport museums.


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