A short history of Hitcham

David Turner

A few Bronze Age artifacts have been picked up in the fields of Hitcham (an arrow head and an axe head) but the earliest archaeological sites that have been dutifully recorded are both Roman, at which coins, fragments of pottery, tiles and small ornaments have been found. These have been dated from the first to the fourth centuries. The settlement pattern, however, has evolved from the early Anglo-Saxon period as has the name HITCHAM; first recorded in AD992 and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as HECHAM.

The parish church dates from the 14th century but the Domesday record describes an earlier church. In 1984, a site in a field behind The White Horse was excavated, revealing an ancient burial ground with a number of well preserved skeletons and the foundations of what might have been a church. Fragments of pottery found suggested a date of 10th or 11th century.

By the end of the 13th century, farms and homesteads were in much the same positions as they are now, the prominent ones being Hitcham Hall, Wetherden Hall and Loose Hall. Thus the settlement pattern of Hitcham became one of scattered hamlets as it is mostly today – Bird Street, Cross Green, Cooks Green, the Water Run and so on – small clusters of houses around or near a farm.

During the medieval period, up until 1559, the Lords of the Manor of Hitcham were successive Bishops of Ely who extracted feudal dues from all who lived in the parish, whatever their status.

The late Tudor and early Stuart periods seem to have been times of relative prosperity (for some anyway) in Hitcham, as many of the farmhouses were virtually rebuilt during that time. Ennals is a fine example of an ‘L’ shaped Tudor house and Chapel Farmhouse and Brick House Farm have excellent examples of Tudor brickwork.

The long years from the end of the 17th to the early 19th century seem to have been marked by a slow descent into impoverishment. Few improvements were made to houses, virtually no new and lasting building took place and nothing was done to the church. Indeed, in the 1840s Hitcham was described as being one of the most poverty stricken parishes in pauperised Suffolk. This could have been largely due to the system of land ownership prevailing in Hitcham. Farms in the west of the parish were part of the estate of the Wenyeve family at Brettenham Park, noted for having no money, and most of the rest of Hitcham’s farms were owned by absentee landlords who collected rents without carrying out improvements.

When the Rev Professor John Henslow arrived at Hitcham in 1837 the parish was in dire straits with about half the labouring population receiving meagre benefits from the village Feoffment Charity. Henslow introduced a number of social measures in the village to improve conditions, but it was the general agricultural prosperity of the 1850s which had the most marked effect, allowing the better landlords to carry out improvements to their properties and the farmers to increase wages.

However, another farming slump began in the 1870s, and in Hitcham several farm workers joined a newly formed labourers’ union in a bid to force farmers to increase wages. This led to the ‘Farm Lock-out’ of 1874 and a number of disturbances in the village. Victory went to the farmers and several Hitcham families were obliged to leave the village.

Farming economics continued in an up and down fashion until the first world war when many Hitcham men joined the army. It is believed that 42 young men from Hitcham were killed in action.

In the 1890s a scandal arose in Hitcham over water. A number of children died from infectious diseases and water was deemed to be a cause. The only supply of domestic water in the village was from ponds which in summer often became fouled. As a result of an enquiry carried out by the newly formed West Suffolk County Council, a water tower was constructed at Cross Green and the village was supplied with a number of pumps and stand-pipes from which clean water could be drawn.

Electricity arrived in Hitcham in the interwar period and Cosford Rural District Council built two sets of council houses (at the top of Browns Hill and in Brettenham Road) to accommodate families from the village living in cramped conditions.

During the second world war 93 men and women from Hitcham served in the armed forces, and eight men lost their lives. Able-bodied men required to stay behind to work on the land enlisted in the Hitcham Platoon of the Home Guard. A number of Hitcham girls fell in love with and married US servicemen stationed nearby.

After the war a further batch of council houses was built on the Causeway Estate. When a mains sewerage system arrived during the 1960s, houseowners took the opportunity to improve their homes, and country properties became attractive to people who wished to move from the towns. This led to some startling increases in house values and one Hitcham cottage, offered for sale in the 1950s to anyone who would take it off the owner’s hands for £100, would, in the year 2000, probably sell for about £150,000.