Sudbury Floodgates pool

In the 21st century, the Freemen are justly proud of their part in the history of this unique town and the Freemen’s roll contains surnames that were once common in Sudbury. Many Freemen will remember grandparents and parents telling them about their own Admissions and being impressed at their pride in the Freedom of Sudbury which dates back to at least the time of Edward the Confessor.

Family names connected with the Freedom of Sudbury were just as important in the 18th century as they are today. Zorobabel Ginn, for example, born in 1755, was called after his father and his grandfather. He also went on to name three of his own sons ‘Zorobabel’ – in 1780, 1788 and 1805. The first son died in infancy whilst the second died in 1795, aged seven. Fortunately, the third child named ‘Zorobabel’ survived into adulthood and the Ginn family continued to claim admission to the Freedom by birth until the late Victorian period.

It is likely that Zorobabel Ginn listened to stories about the importance of the Freedom from his father and grandfather. At that time, the Freedom could be purchased by those who wanted to open a shop or run a business but most candidates inherited it by birth. Some acquired the rights of Freemen through apprenticeship. Once obtained, the Freedom could bring in a little extra income at election time.

Poverty was rife in Sudbury and there were many poor families, (where the Freedom was passed on from one generation to another), who depended upon the rights of the Freemen. Those Free of the Commons were also entitled to grazing rights and were able to make use of hunting and fishing privileges as well. The Freemen were also the only people in Sudbury able to vote in parliamentary elections as, before the beginning of the 18th century, the town had acquired the right to elect two members of parliament. Since there was so much bribery by the prospective members of parliament, small sums of money were freely distributed to what was often thought of as the ‘riff-raff and rabble’.

Aged just sixteen and too young to take up the Freedom, Zorobabel Ginn felt very strongly about the rights of the people who were entitled to it by birth. Whether by accident or design, he was caught up in a notorious riot of October 29th, 1771 when relations between the Capital Burgesses of Sudbury, who ruled the town, and the rest of the Freemen broke down.

The 1771 Riot came about partly as an indirect consequence of the parliamentary enquiry into bribery at the election of 1701. This led to a ruling that Freemen were entitled to vote without being formally admitted to their Freedom. For fifty years the Sudbury Corporation failed to admit or keep records of those who were Free by birth or apprenticeship. This ruling did not cause a problem initially but, from 1747 onwards, after thirteen years without a contested election, political intrigue and corruption flourished when Thomas Fonnereau of Ipswich was elected an MP for Sudbury.

Ipswich from the grounds of Christchurch Mansion by Paul Sandby

Thomas Fonnereau was the eldest son of a Huguenot refugee who made a fortune as a London linen merchant. Claude Fonnereau settled in Ipswich and bought the Christchurch Estate in 1735 and leased it to Thomas. (A portrait of Thomas Fonnereau may be seen at Christchurch Mansion.)

Thomas Fonnereau

For 27 years, Thomas Fonnereau continued as Member of Parliament for Sudbury and was a reliable supporter of the government. His defeat at the election of 1768 by Patrick Blake and Walden Hanmer made him determined to win the seat back at the next election and take his revenge on the Freemen who had voted against him and supported the candidates put forward by his rival, Thomas Fenn, a banker and a leading Nonconformist.

The Sudbury Riot of October 29th, 1771, was a direct result of his plot to deprive some of the Sudbury Freemen of their vote as so many potential Freemen who were entitled to vote by birth or servitude had not been formally admitted. Research by Judith S Campbell and Allan W Berry in 2001 using the accounts of participants and eye-witnesses has shown that the origins of the unrest occurred because of “a political conspiracy masterminded by Thomas Fonnereau of Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich”.

Fonnereau had very strong links with the Corporation; he had persuaded his Huguenot friend, Peter Delande, to settle in Sudbury. Delande was a wealthy man who bought shares in the Stour Navigation and became involved with the coal trade. He was elected Mayor of Sudbury in 1755, 1756, 1762, 1765, 1767 and 1770.

Another supporter on the Corporation, William Strutt, proposed that a Committee be set up to consider admissions to the Freedom in October 1771. (Both Delande and Strutt had purchased the Freedom.)

For Peter Delande, owner of one of the finest houses in Sudbury at that time, the Red House in Bullocks Lane, trouble with the Freemen began after 1768 when he was encouraged by his friend Thomas Fonnereau to reject the claims of men to the Freedom whose fathers had not been formally admitted.

The Red House, Sudbury

In the summer of 1771, on July 2nd, a threatening letter was found in the back yard of the Red House.

The letter was addressed to: “One of the Devil’s Agents”

Sir, not with standing your Conduct for some Years have been such as have merited the ill Will of some hundreds of the freemen of this borough, yet not with standing Humanity teacheth me to caution you against the dreadful Effects that will fall on your Heads from the bitter Resentment such Freemen have or may surtain from your devilish and hellish Proceeding which will be no less than certainly to take away your L- by a premeditated Scheme which will surely be effected by a Small though desperate Set of Men, who have bound themselves upon oath to accomplish the Same before you are aware of, and that not to you alone but some others who deserve and will surely share the same fate, but will have no Caution unless you please to communicate it yourself, pray pardon me for being so free for this, I surely know that you will have your just deserts by one Eternal blow. This from as good a freeman as anyone black amongst you, which as Nathan said to David “Thou art the Man”. (‘The Ipswich Journal’, August 10th, 1771, page 1 of 2)

The Ipswich Journal noted that Delande had offered a pardon to anyone, (except the person who actually wrote the letter), who could discover “his, her, or their accomplices”. A reward of £50 was also offered.

Relations between the Freemen and the Corporation did not improve over the next few months and eventually led to the Sudbury Riot of October 29th, 1771 when the Mayor, John Oliver, three of the Aldermen and eleven members of the Corporation were imprisoned in their own Moot Hall for ten hours without food or drink.

Zorobabel Ginn may or may not have been involved in the plot to intimidate Peter Delande by threatening his life but he would have known about the shocking anonymous letter as it was common knowledge in the county. However, he was certainly involved in the actual Riot as his name appears frequently in the statements of witnesses.

The Moot Hall, Sudbury (Painting by C P Leggett)

The dispute began when the Mayor and his friends refused to admit three men to the Freedom as a direct result of Fonnereau’s plot to secure his re-election to parliament by preventing supporters of Thomas Fenn from gaining their right to vote.

At the end of the meeting when the Mayor and his friends tried to leave the Moot Hall they were stopped and many people – possibly several hundred – climbed over the partition between the Court and rest of the hall. “Many got on the table and others fastened the inner door”. The crowd refused to disperse until the candidates for the Freedom were admitted.

Zorobabel Ginn was one of the people who climbed onto the table. He was particularly rude to Peter Delande. As J.S. Campbell and A.W. Berry noted in their book ‘The Sudbury Freemen’s Revolt of 1771’, (pages 16 – 17), “he leaned on the Mayor’s cushion and cut meat and bread into small pieces on it and derisively presented them to the mouths of Delande and Humphry. He pulled out some cards, and played on the cushion with John Amy, shoving the cards in Delande’s face ..” He also stated that Delande was lousy.

The riot lasted from noon until about nine in the evening when the Mayor eventually agreed to admit three Freemen and to make an order for holding a Court for more admissions. By then, the Moot Hall had been vandalised: several cushions had been torn to pieces, the glass in the windows had been broken by stones thrown from outside, people had climbed across the beams and torn down mouldings inside the Hall and missiles such as pieces of coal, turnips and apples had also caused considerable damage.

Rioting in the town continued and a troop of dragoons was sent to Sudbury to keep order. The Mayor and members of the Corporation were furious and soon started to pursue legal proceedings against some of the rioters.

At Easter the following year, Zorobabel Ginn made a confession to trespass, contempts, riots and unlawful assembly. Perhaps he had had second thoughts about his behaviour during the Riot or maybe he had hoped to be treated more leniently? Forgiveness was in short supply after the political Riot of 1771.

Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of ‘Sunset: Carthorses Drinking at a Stream’ shows a possible example of the type of wagon that was stopped by the rioters.

A Sudbury Food Riot in April, 1772 was harshly suppressed and seventeen of the rioters who had stopped wagons of food bound for the London market and resold the contents very cheaply to the poor were committed to Bury Gaol.

Zorobabel Ginn also found himself imprisoned in Bury Gaol and charged with the crimes listed in his confession together with assault and misdemeanours. He was, along with five others, found guilty by a jury at the Assizes in Bury St Edmunds in August 1773, of riot but not guilty of the other charges and remained in prison to await sentence.

The Marshalsea Prison, London

On February 5th, 1774, he was committed to the custody of the Marshal of the Marshalsea Prison and sentenced to six months in the most notorious prison in London. No doubt conditions at the prison in Moyse’s Hall, Bury St Edmunds, had been harsh as all prisons were run for profit and those who could not pay the gaoler for food relied on charitable gifts. The Marshalsea Prison, for debtors and political prisoners, was a far more terrible place where prisoners were cruelly treated. Zorobabel was lucky to survive his sentence and return to Sudbury. Many prisoners died from sickness or even starvation in the 18th century.

Zorobabel married Rachel Ginn, a distant cousin, at St Gregory’s Church, Sudbury, on December 8th, 1778. It may have been a marriage of necessity as Rachel’s child, also called Zorobabel, was baptised there the same day. It was on that day also that Zorobabel, weaver, was admitted to the Freedom of Sudbury by birth.

It is likely that he was able to vote at the parliamentary elections in 1780, 1781 and 1784. His name may be found in the poll book for the 1790 election.

He moved his family to Chelmsford in 1807 and spent the next 22 years in the town until his death on June 14th, 1829. Both his sons, Zorobabel and Philip, became Freemen of Sudbury in 1826.

Notes: Given that Zorobabel Ginn was only 16 years old at the time of the Sudbury Riot in 1771, it is possible that his father was the man named in the accounts of participants and eye-witnesses used in the legal proceedings against the rioters. The burial records for St. Peter’s Church, Sudbury, list a Zorobabel Ginn who was interred in November 1776. If the death can be proved to be that of Zorobabel senior, it may have been brought about as a consequence of imprisonment and ill treatment.

View of St. Peter’s Church, Sudbury, 1814, by John Constable

Zorobabel Ginn was described as a ‘blacksmith’ in the legal records whereas the Zorobabel Ginn admitted to the Freedom of Sudbury in 1778 was a weaver. This confusion could have resulted from a mistake made by a witness or may have been due to a change of career after the prison sentence. We may never establish the truth.

When the same Christian name is passed down through four generations of one family, not to mention being used by other close relatives, there is always the possibility of labelling the wrong Zorobabel as a leading figure in the fight for Freemen’s rights in the 18th century.