This brief history is not intended to cover the whole history of the town, rather it is hoped it will whet the appetite and lead to further study of the town in which we live.
The name Needham Market, according to the gazetteer in a reputable Atlas of the British Isles, means “needy homestead with a market”. Today that name would appear to be inaccurate on both counts. As far as it is known, no mention of Needham Market was made in the Domesday Book, but we should remember that originally Needham was only a hamlet of Barking and did not become a separate parish until the early part of the 20th century. In old notes relating to the town it is spelt ‘Nedeham’, ‘Nedham’ or Neidham’ and the first mention of the town under its present name is in 1245.
It is likely that a hamlet existed before the time the Domesday Book was written, due to its position on the main road to Bury St Edmunds, a very important road at that time, and situated as it is on the river. History shows that Roger Bigot held a portion of the Parish of Barking which included a church. As he did not hold Barking church and as Darmsden was not part of Barking at the time, it is likely that the church mentioned was at Needham. The church is mentioned in the Index Eliensis, a survey of property belonging to the See of Ely in 1277, although this church predates the present building which was probably built in 1460.
Although there were weaving and wool combing sheds in the town in Church Street and Hawks Mill Street, weaving was not a staple trade in Needham as it was in other towns in Suffolk. The principal trade was wool combing, which was a method of preparing wool for the weavers. This was an important industry before 1660 but the trade was lost and never to return, when Needham was isolated due to the plague in 1663 to 1665. During the plague money was left at Chainhouse and Chainbridge and food was left in return. Rumor has it that the town was deserted and grass grew in the streets and that the dead were buried in fields near the Lion Inn and near to Chainbridge at Stowmarket Road. There are no records of the plague in the town and it is not known how many died. What is known is that the houses at the bottom of Bridge Street were ‘sick’ houses and ‘Airing houses’ were provided on high ground at Darmsden for those lucky enough to survive.
In 1245 King Henry III granted a market charter for Needham to Hugh, Bishop of Ely. This market flourished for many years and it is likely that the plague brought it to an end when trade moved to Ipswich and Stowmarket. An attempt was made to revive the market in 1776 but failed. The Annual Fair was held in the main street on the 28th October, the feast of Saints Simon and Jude, this appears to have carried on to some extent until around 1900.
Samuel Read, the well-known artist, was born in a cottage on the site of the old Town Hall. He was the first artist ever sent out as a War Artist when he was despatched to the Crimea by the Illustrated London News. Edmund Pole of Needham Market was burned at the stake for his religious beliefs in 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary. Mr James Day, a blacksmith in the town, built the Needham Two-Man Safety Cycle from a design by George Scopes, also of Needham Market. It is believed to be the only one in existence. Uvedale Hall is named after the great botanist Samuel Uvedale who built Bosmere Hall and whose son and grandson were both rectors of Barking. Joseph Priestley, the scientist, was the minister at the church, now Christchurch, and he discovered oxygen and invented soda water. It is almost certain there are many more residents of note scattered throughout the history of this town. Clark’s history of Ipswich mentions one; William Alexander, who resided in Needham. He was committed to the County Gaol for promulgating the tenets of the Quakers. Another claim to fame, perhaps best forgotten!
Manufacturing in the town has included a glue works, a patent manure works, a paper mill, brick making and a mouse trap factory, but the chief employment after the decline of the wool trade was agriculture.
The modern buildings on both sides of the High Street around the car park bear witness to the bombing of the town by German aircraft during the Second World War in 1942; causing the deaths of seven residents, the destruction of several properties including the telephone exchange. There was also considerable damage to both Christchurch (formerly the Congregational Church) and the Modern School.
The town has its own coat of arms, the Arms of the Earls of Ashburnham, who graciously gave permission for their use. The heraldic description is as follows:
Gules a fess betweens six mullets argent; crest out of a ducal coronet, or, an ash tree proper;
Supporters, to greyhounds sable, their faces, breasts and feat argent, collared and lined.
The connection between the ash tree, the crest and the names of the Earls is obvious.