James Brown and Samuel Brown senior

In the days when Sudbury was known far and wide as one of the great centres in East Anglia of the bunting, crape (mourning fabric), and worsted manufactures, James Brown purchased the Freedom on June 4th, 1760.

James Brown swore the Freeman’s oath of loyalty to the town in a first floor room of the Moot Hall where the Courts of the Borough met. (Image by C.P. Leggett)

Aged only 21, he would have needed considerable financial backing from his family in order to comply with the restrictions on trade imposed by the Corporation on newcomers setting up in business in Sudbury. It is likely that his family lived near to Sudbury – perhaps in Glemsford, Cavendish or Long Melford – but even if he lived in Ballingdon or in Sudbury itself he still needed to purchase the Freedom unless he gained it through apprenticeship to another Freeman or inherited it from his father.

The right to trade was one of the privileges of the Freemen of the Borough of Sudbury and ‘foreigners’ were expected to purchase the Freedom if they wanted to set up in business. (This right not only raised money for the Corporation but also restricted competition from traders outside the town.)

With the purchase of the Freedom, James Brown became free of the Borough and the Commons. He was entitled to vote in parliamentary elections as Sudbury returned two MPs to Westminster but, perhaps even more important, were the benefits gained for his sons and future generations of the Brown family as they inherited the right to the Freedom by birth.

James Brown was a wool comber and a crape manufacturer. During his life time the woollen busines was Sudbury’s dominant industry but making a profit could prove difficult as the trade was affected by the various European wars and the increase of woollen manufacture in France.

Gainsborough’s ‘A view near to Sudbury in Suffolk’, was engraved and published by John Boydell, (1720 – 1804).

The young Frenchman, Francois de la Rochefoucauld, who was visiting Bury St. Edmunds in 1784, noted that: “The country round Sudbury is pleasant enough; the hills and valleys provide agreeable prospects , and yet the town and its neighbourhood are inhabited only by people without any fortune, by smugglers, bankrupts and the like”. (‘A Frenchman’s Year in Suffolk, 1784’, edited and translated by Norman Scarfe, page 110).

The comment about bankrupts could have referred to James Brown as, despite branching out into other lines of business such as selling chapbooks, broadsheets and ballads, and operating as a carpenter and a dealer, his name appeared on a list of bankrupts and was printed in papers all over the country.

His creditors met at the Coffee House in Sudbury on August 25th, 1784, to receive their dividend after the sale of his goods. Among James Brown’s property that had to be sold were two houses in North Street, in which Henry Fish and Mark Mills lived.

The Coffee House Inn, Sudbury, demolished to make way for the Corn Exchange, is in the centre of the image beyond the Swan Inn. (Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive.)

1784 was a year the Brown family must have wished to forget. James and his wife Ann, ( nee Bonney), had a large family to provide for. The disgrace of bankruptcy and the sale of their property would have caused severe financial difficulties. It is to be hoped that they were helped by other family members.

James Brown died, aged 60, in 1798 and did not live to see his sons take up the Freedom. His third son, Samuel, became a Freeman on July 2nd, 1802. Samuel married Susan Ginn in March 1801 and the couple eventually had 5 children. Samuel was a manufacturer; his business was related to the woollen trade.

In the early 19th century in Sudbury silk succeeded to wool and apart from a small branch, the making of bunting for ships’ flags, the woollen industry went into decline.

Early 19th century view of North Street, Sudbury

Business must have prospered to begin with as Samuel owned a shop in North Street together with three cottages which were rented to Samuel Platten, Mrs White and Phillis Jeffery. By January 1811 he faced financial disaster when he was forced to enter into bankruptcy arrangements through his bankers, Messrs. Fenn and Addison of Sudbury.

His household furniture, brewing equipment and the tools of his trade were sold in a public auction at his shop on February 4th, 1811. Bedsteads, feather beds, bedding, tables, chairs, chests of drawers together with shop fixtures, some drapery and wool, 3 weavers’ looms and say slades all were sold leaving another generation of the Brown family with no income. On the evening of the same day, his cottages in North Street were also sold.

Undaunted he sought employment and was appointed driver of the Sudbury to London Coach, a post he held for many years until his retirement. His working week would have been very different. As a coach driver, he would have worked to a strict timetable. This must have been a difficult operation as the stage coach horses had to be changed regularly at posting inns on the route from Sudbury to London. There were numerous hazards on the roads, including the possibility of severe weather such as blizzards and heavy rainfall, and the danger of collisions with other vehicles or animals that could overturn the coach and seriously injure the passengers. James Brown was very good at his job and successfully delivered both passengers and parcels for many years.

Evidence from local newspapers such as ‘The Ipswich Journal’ and the ‘Bury and Norwich Post’ tell us something about his weekly routine. In 1816, for example, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the Sudbury Coach set off from the Rose and Crown at 10 a.m. It returned to Sudbury from the Green Dragon Inn in Bishopsgate at the same hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Overnight stays in London were part of the job.

The Rose and Crown, Sudbury, from a photograph taken in the early 20th century. (Sudbury Photo Archive)

The new career enabled Samuel to provide for his family. His daughter Susan was given sufficient education to work as a governess and his sons were established in different trades. James became a banker’s clerk, William trained as a cordwainer and Benjamin was taught to weave. The oldest son, named after Samuel, became a very successful butcher and landowner.

Samuel senior died, much respected in 1841, in the 70th year of his age, having proved that he could restore the family’s prosperity through hard work and a willingness to adapt to change.

‘North country mails at the Peacock, Islington, 1821’ By James Pollard (1792 – 1867)