Southwold owes an enormous debt to one man. Without his generosity the town would be quite a different shape and an altogether different sort of place. There would be no Common, the Town Council would have no income from its property portfolio and our local taxes would certainly be higher.
Yet most people who love Southwold, even many who live here, have little or no knowledge of who our benefactor was or how much we owe him. This article is an attempt to set the record straight in the hope that it might help the residents and friends of this town to start valuing more what they have been given and, perhaps, taking steps to preserve what’s left of it and avoid it simply being given away and lost.
So who was this man? His name was William Godell (or Godyll) and 2009 is the 500th anniversary of his death. To understand who he was and what he did for us we need to go back to the Middle Ages.
For much of the mediaeval period, Southwold (or 'Sudwolda' as it was then called) was, to all intents and purposes, an offshore island. It formed part of the Manor of St Edmunds under the Bishopric of East Anglia but the whole manor had been given away by the Bishop to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.
According to the Domesday Book of 1086, the town was obliged to pay the Abbey 25,000 herrings a year as a sort of tithe or tax. However, a century or so later, ownership of the Manor of St Edmunds changed. The Abbott of Bury had his eye on Mildenhall which belonged to the Earl of Clare and the two agreed a swap in 1206. Eventually ownership of the Manor passed, first to the Duke of York, during whose tenure our present Church was built in 1430, and then to Edward IV.
But the big transformation for the better in Southwold's fortunes happened after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, after which Henry VII began the great Tudor dynasty. At the centre of these momentous local changes was a local man of apparently considerable influence – William Godell.
Not a huge amount is known about William beyond the fact that he was probably the most prominent landowner, farmer and businessmen in the area. There is a map of Southwold dated 1588 in the Record Office which shows a very small inhabited area at the southern end of what we now think of as Southwold and we believe that Godell probably lived here with his wife and son. The rest of the locality is shown as heather moorland and marsh, all of it part of the Godell estate.
There is a record of a visit to London by William Godell and a fellow Southwolder of substance, Robert Bishop in 1485 – coronation year. It is tempting to surmise that the purpose of this trip may have been to obtain an audience with the King to urge him to intervene in Southwold's long-running dispute with Dunwich over control of the Port.
Certainly, soon after this visit, things really started to happen for Southwold and, indeed, for William Godell. William came to be appointed as an official 'wafter' (victualler) to England's North Sea anti-pirate patrol fleet. He also landed another highly influential role as a member of an élite group known as ‘The Company of Merchant Staplers at Calais’ which had a virtual monopoly of Britain’s wool exports.
William possessed a major trading fleet of his own and the harbour would have been heaving with his ships. Which is why he must have been more than content when, four years later, Henry VII issued Southwold with its Charter, a key feature of which was that Dunwich had to surrender to Southwold all its “jurisdiction, tital and interests” in the haven port and all its rights to levy “customs, payments and duties”.
As a 'Chartered Corporation',
the ‘Bailiffs and Commonality’ of Southwold became effectively
‘Lords of the Manor’ in their own right with the power to
run the town’s own affairs, control its harbour and foreshore and
with the right to salvage wrecks off its coast. As part of the Charter,
Henry unsurprisingly appointed William Godell himself and his colleague,
Robert Bishop as the Corporation’s Bailiffs.
Throughout the 500 years that followed, revenue from the Godell Trust, in the form of rents and leases, has been used to fund the town’s exchequer. In 1835, the Municipal Corporation Act turned Southwold into a ‘Borough Council’ and, in the subsequent decades, demands on the town’s coffers were relentless, not least in defending the town and its fishing industry against repeated, merciless attacks by the sea. Much of the Trust’s land was either sold or leased to raise funds. Most notably, most of the land north of St Edmund’s Green – the Town Farm Estate – was sold in 1898 to the East Coast Development Company which planned to exploit the new Victorian craze for seaside holidays by extending the town northwards with holiday homes, hotels and a new pier capable of berthing the company’s fleet of pleasure steamers.
The next big series of municipal changes started in the 1960s, first with the Royal Commission on Local Government under Harold Wilson’s government and then with the Radcliffe Maud report which was to spawn the Local Government Act of 1972. I was serving on Southwold Borough Council at the time and it looked to me quite possible that, with the planned two-tier local government regime, Southwold could find itself without a council altogether and could become part of a Great Yarmouth District Council.
Uppermost in our thoughts as a Council was that phrase in Godell’s will: “give or sell” and the fear, of course, was that the remaining part of the Godell Trust’s estate, most particularly Southwold’s Common, could be sold off for development by the new regime. A solution was proposed by our then Town Clerk, the ingenious Horace Townsend. He suggested that a Charitable Trust be formed to administer the Common as a recreational facility for the benefit of the townsfolk – the “commonality” as Godell called us. And that is exactly what happened. The Common Trust was registered by the Charity Commission on 26 January 1971 with the provisos that the charity had to be completely divorced from the Council and its Standing Orders, that its chairman was not to hold office on the Council and that Trust meetings were not open to the public.
In the event, the Labour Government did not adopt the Radcliffe Maud recommendations. Nevertheless, in 1974 we did cease to be a Borough when the incoming Tory government under Edward Heath deprived us of the Chartered Corporation status which had been conferred on us by Henry VII. 485 years of history wiped out at a stroke!
Now, all we had become, in effect, was a humble parish council with responsibility for looking after the War Memorial and the allotments and very little else. Any of our property that could be called ‘corporate’ was taken over by the new Waveney District Council. That included the Town Hall, the Town Farm house (which we had retained after the sale of the land) the Harbour and so on. The parish was, however, allowed to keep its other properties and, as a sop to our damaged municipal pride, we were allowed to call ourselves a ‘Town Council’ with our own Town Mayor if we fancied having one.
On May 8 1973 our Council had a credit balance of just £528.48. Even so, as successors to the original Bailiffs we made a very important policy decision in the spirit of Godell’s bequest. We decided that our town would continue to be self-financing using income from our remaining properties, rather than by ‘precepting’ for a town rate. Since then, partly by introducing more realistic leases and partly by selling off three properties, the Town Council has succeeded in sustaining this self-financing principle. Unlike virtually all Suffolk towns of equivalent size, our ‘Commonality’ has never had to pay a local precept within its Council Tax.
Today, though, we are once more under threat. The Brown Government’s plans for local government reform could mean that control of our property and the income from it could finally be removed from us.
Those of us who served on the Council in the 70s, 80s and 90s have been living with this possibility for a long time. Which is why, in the year 2000, it was decided to form a Southwold Town Trust. It was established in November of that year and two Deeds of Variation subsequently transformed it, first into the ‘Southwold Foundation’ and then into the ‘Southwold Millennium Foundation’. The Trust made it possible to transfer the “Give or Sell” powers of Godell’s original trustees – the town Bailiffs and their successors, Southwold Town Council – to the Trustees of the new foundation. The stated aim of the Millennium Foundation was to “serve the common good of the town of Southwold” a goal of which I think William Godell would have approved. The Millennium Foundation has recently become synonymous with the Stella Peskett Hall project. It is, I think, a pity that, as a town council, we are not free to use this Foundation more creatively to channel our not inconsiderable income into more projects which can be seen to directly benefit the community.
William Godell’s bequest is worth fighting to keep – and well worth celebrating.