At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Stephen, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Arras Square

Palm Sunday 2020: St Stephen Ipswich St Stephen St Stephen's Ipswich St Stephen

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As with many towns that were prosperous during the late medieval period, Ipswich entered the second half of the 20th Century with a surfeit of Anglican parish churches. This was partly the fault of the Victorians who somewhat overstretched the Church of England with the building of massive new churches in the suburbs at the same time as enthusiastically restoring the surviving medieval ones. Unfortunately, their work began to wear out at pretty much the same time as the congregations began to melt away, and in any case Ipswich had been less successful than most towns at encouraging people to live in its town centre. By the 1970s, the population of this parish was probably in single figures.

At the time the church was declared redundant in 1978 it was lost in a sea of rundown shops overlooked by a redundant factory. I first visited it in 1987 when it was being used for performances of TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It was ideal for this, its high, dark, shabby interior a perfect setting for Eliot's austere prose. Soon after this the area was identified as the location for the new Buttermarket Shopping Centre, and various plans were made to include St Stephen in the complex. All the buildings around it were quickly demolished, but then the recession of the early 1990s set in and St Stephen stood high and dry for several years, looking more prominent than it probably wished to be.

The church suffered heavily from vandalism at this time, and several of the tomb chests in the churchyard were disrupted. But at last the shopping centre was completed, and as part of it a new open space was created to the north-west of the church called Arras Square after Ipswich's twin town. The church looks grand in its new setting and in 1994 St Stephen became the new Tourist Information Centre for Ipswich. It was thoroughly restored inside, its former shabbiness cloaked in brilliant white. All the fixtures and fittings were sensitively showcased, and you still entered through the west doorway with its flanking niches and stoup past the font. The fine 16th Century roof had been cleaned, the memorials stood out splendidly from the whitewash, and the holy end was sensitively preserved as an exhibition space and was even for a few years used by St Mary le Tower, into which this parish had been subsumed, for its St Stephen's Day eucharist.

The church had been restored extensively in 1866 by the Ipswich architect Frederick Barnes, and then again in the 1870s by another local man, EF Bishopp. However, Henry Ringham's lovely nave roof of the 1840s with its kingposts and queenposts survived both restorations and has a pleasing pre-ecclesiological quality. The brick repairs to the tower appear to predate all of this, and perhaps it is surprising that Barnes did not do something about them, given what he got up to with the tower of St Lawrence a hundred yards to the north. Perhaps the money was not there, but in any case the mixture of flint and brick is pleasing at this distance in time.

You step into a small church with a wide south aisle which became the staff counter area when the conversion to the Tourist Information Centre was made. Straight ahead, hanging from the chancel arch in what was probably their original position, are the royal arms of Charles II with the fleurs de lys of the Prince of Wales dated 1661 on the back.

Charles II royal arms 1661 Prince of Wales feathers 1661

These double-sided sets of arms were in several Ipswich churches, and perhaps others may have had them. They survive today at St Margaret, and there was also a set at St Mary Elms until it was destroyed in an arson attack of 2010. Their significance is not clear. Even Munro Cautley, an expert on both royal arms and Suffolk churches, confessed in his 1934 book on the subject I can hardly think these apply to Monmouth, yet if they do not I can offer no explanation.

There are several memorials, the most prominent of which is set on the north wall of the chancel. It is to Robert Leman, a one-time Lord Mayor of London, and his wife Mary. They face each other across a prayer desk. Mourning them below are one son and five daughters facing each other across the inscription, which tells us that the couple died on the same day, 3rd September 1637, the same sunne that closed her eyes in the morning shutting up his in the evening. The inscription continues:

Beneath this monument entombed lie
A rare remark of a conjugal tye.
Robert and Mary, who to show how neere
They did comply, How to each other deere
One loathe behind the other long to stay
(As Married) Died together in one day.

It is likely that both were taken off in one of the plague epidemics of the early 17th Century. How terrifying these routine outbreaks must have been in the days before modern sanitation and medicine! I write this in the year of the covid-19 pandemic, the dangers of which are very mild compared with those medieval and early modern terrors, of course. But it has had an unfortunate outcome for this church, because as part of a necessary cost-cutting exercise in reponse to its reduced income, the Borough Council has made the decision to close the tourist information centre before the end of 2020. The building remains in the stewardship of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust, but there are at present no plans for its future.


Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking west looking east The stoning of Stephen (Casolani for Powell & Sons, 1868)
Leman son (1637) Robert and Mary Leman (1637) 'the same sunne that closed her eyes in the morning shutting up his in the evening' (Leman memorial, 1637) Leman daughters (1637)


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