A life of service in Sudbury

In April 1955 Suffolk farmer, James Eglington Francis, made an extraordinary gesture when he donated his 1,906 acre estate, known as Caustons Hall, Little Cornard, (valued at £20,000), to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. The gift was the result of a resolution made in the 1930’s when Mr. Francis was hard hit by the agricultural slump. He saw neighbours go out of business and decided that, if better times came, he would try and help other farmers who were experiencing difficulties.

Image from ‘The Suffolk Free Press’, January 1957

This was not the end of his generosity as, in January 1957, he gave away more property. The second gift was made up of 36 buildings: 10 houses in New Street and 20 cottages in East Street, Sudbury; one house in Broom Street and 5 cottages in Phillips Field, Great Cornard. The properties were all in good repair and none was scheduled under the local Slum Clearance Act. The freehold properties were given to the Borough of Sudbury.
When he made the presentation, he said he was handing over the deeds in his lifetime so that the council could benefit from the rental income – said to be £1,000 a year. He also explained that the houses he was handing over were built by his grandfather: Joseph Garnham.

East Street, Sudbury

James was born in 1882, a year after the death of both his grandparents, in the family home at Stour Street, Sudbury. His mother, Mary Frances, had seven children and was fond of telling them anecdotes about Joseph. A favourite story was that he was never happy unless he was building something and, while supervising the erection of some three-story houses in Sudbury he fell head-first from the roof to the ground. Although over 80 at the time he was not hurt!

Gradually Joseph became less active. When he died, aged 93, he was the oldest inhabitant in the district. Several years were spent as an invalid but, until then, he played a very active role in the town. Indeed, any search of local papers between the mid-1830’s and 1870’s will find the name of Joseph Garnham frequently mentioned in connection will all sorts of organisations. He was a gentleman of quiet and inoffensive habits and demeanour in every way who spent much of his time working to improve the lives of Sudburians.

Joseph Garnham, (born at Redgrave, on the Suffolk/ Norfolk border, in 1788), came to Sudbury c1831 at a time when it was a small town of around 3,950 people with Ballingdon a separate hamlet in Essex.

Stour Street, Sudbury

A large house was bought in Stour Street – most likely the house that is known as ‘St. Mary’s’ – which, in the 1830’s, had views across not just the Common Lands but also over the open ground in between part of Stour Street and Gregory Street and down to Walnuttree Lane. At the time, it was considered to be part of The Croft and it was where the fairs and markets were held. (After putting up with the noise and disturbances of the annual fair for thirty years, Joseph was one of the people who managed to put an end to centuries of tradition.)

Sudbury was a Borough ruled by a Corporation, whose authority only extended as far as Ballingdon Bridge. Despite its size, Sudbury returned two Members of Parliament but the vote was entirely in the hands of the Freemen.

Locally and nationally, times were changing in the 1830’s and Joseph’s move to Sudbury coincided with several reforms that enabled him to exert considerable influence for the good of the town; an influence that had previously been mainly restricted to the Freemen. The widening of the electorate after the 1832 Reform Act meant that £10 rate payers such as Joseph Garnham were able to vote in Parliamentary elections. The abolition of the Corporation and its replacement with an elected Town Council brought an end to the dominance of local government by the Freemen. It provided another opportunity for Joseph Garnham to be involved in the running of the town. In March 1840, for instance, the annual election of two auditors took place and Joseph was elected as the Reformer candidate.

Local Acts of Parliament in the 1820’s had also made it possible to improve and extend the town; Joseph Garnham was to be involved in the process which enabled the town to grow through the provision of more housing, more drains – and eventually a supply of clean drinking water – as well as a public cemetery when the churchyards were closed to internments. In August 1858, for example, he filed a bill in Chancery so the Court could grant an injunction to restrain the Burial Board from selling Moon’s Hall Field in Newton Road, which had been purchased for the purpose of a public cemetery.

Sudbury Cemetery


Over many years, his skill with figures and finances was second to none: he ran the Municipal Charities; he was a member of the Paving and Lighting Commission; he was a shareholder in the original gas company; he was connected with the British Schools; and was also a member of the Burial Board. He even found time to act as secretary for the Mechanics Institute.

The Municipal Charities Chest which Joseph Garnham would have used when he was Chairman.

Joseph had previously been in business as a draper and grocer in Mildenhall and must have made a good living out of drapery as he was soon involved with buying, building and selling property in Sudbury and quickly gained a reputation as an authority on the different types of buildings in the town. However, entries to Suffolk Directories of the period placed him firmly in the section of Sudbury labelled ‘gentry’ and not part of the extensive list of ‘traders’.

Although baptised into the Church of England, Joseph was a leading member of the congregation at the Friars Street Chapel. His allegiance to non-conformity may have come about when he married his first wife, Sophia Moore, in Mildenhall in 1823. She died in September 1851 and was buried at the front of the Chapel in Friars Street, (towards the side). Joseph’s second wife, Frances Meeking, (from Lavenham), was also a Congregationalist.

When the staple manufacture of the town was silk velvet, in partnership with local builder Samuel Webb, he built a number of cottages with wide upper windows to give light for the looms. This was during the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Unfortunately, as handloom weaving went into decline with the opening of silk manufacturies, the weavers’ cottages turned out to be of less value than anticipated, thus considerably reducing his income.

Joseph made his will in 1863 but, by the time of his death on March 18th, 1881, his property portfolio was much reduced. (His fifteen cottages in Copford (near Colchester), for example, were put up for sale in August 1865.) In 1881, his personal estate was worth only £41 7s 9d but it still included the Sudbury cottages in New Street and East Street. Joseph’s wife, Fanny, died in the same year, six months later. No doubt encouraged by the family solicitor, friend and former neighbour, F.E. Walsh, she made a will in August 1881. She left her residuary estate to her daughter, Mary Fanny Francis, (the wife of Francis Roland Francis). The cottages stayed within the Francis family until James Eglington Francis gifted them to Sudbury Town Council in January 1957.

Altruistic and over generous with his time, after fifty years of service to Sudbury Joseph had little to leave his wife and daughter except the cottages. Fortunately, stories of his life of service were passed on to his grandchildren and they too showed great concern for the well-being of others.