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 A Brief History of Mildenhall by Dr. C. M. Dring

The history of the small market town of Mildenhall can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times although nothing remains of the original settlement except for a large cemetery just outside the limits of the present town. The Domesday survey of 1086 recorded that the town was well established with a church, a mill and a total of sixty-four families, not to mention a flock of a thousand sheep. The whole of the manor of Mildenhall belonged to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and the abbot had total control over the area, including the right to hang criminals in the market-place. On a less macabre note, a weekly market on Fridays has been held regularly since 1412 when a royal charter for this was first granted. An annual two-day timber and servant hiring fair was also held on Fair Spot Field, the site of the present Riverside School, until about 1850.

The manor of Mildenhall was confiscated by the Crown at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and later sold to Sir Roger North of Kirtling, whose son Henry settled in Mildenhall soon after 1586 and built the manor house. The estate passed through four generations of the North family, some of whom were prominent in national politics and all of whom were staunch royalists – King Charles II stayed at the manor during one of his regular visits to Newmarket. The last of the local Norths, Sir Henry, was a melancholy man who shot himself in the manor house in 1671 but, being lord of the manor, was buried in the parish church rather than in unconsecrated ground as was normal then for suicides. The estate passed to Sir Thomas Hanmer, Henry’s nephew, who became a famous speaker of the House of Commons. Sir Thomas extended the manor house and gave the town four almshouses and a workhouse, all in the churchyard. It is said that he married twice, once for love and once for money but was successful in neither: his second wife eloped with his cousin, Thomas Hervey. Sir William Bunbury, Hanmer’s nephew, inherited in 1747 and Mildenhall remained in the hands of this family until the final break up of the estate in 1933. Legend has it that in 1780 Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury tossed a coin with Lord Derby to decide whose name should be given to a new race. Derby won the toss but Bunbury’s horse won the first Derby.

The ancient parish of Mildenhall, which included the hamlets of Beck Row, Holywell Row, Kenny Hill and West Row, covered 17,000 acres and was the largest in Suffolk. The parish was so extensive because much of the land was of marginal value and a large area was required to support the population. The following account by the 2nd Earl of Oxford, who was clearly not impressed by the area, gives a graphic description of the landscape in the eighteenth century:

 The next day Thursday, September the 21st, 1732, we set out from Brandon, seven long, very long miles to Barton Mills over the sands, terrible tedious travelling both to man and horse. I could not but reflect what terrible travelling it must be where the heat of the sun is intense upon the wide sandy deserts, where the poor travellers are often smothered with the sand or scorched with the sun’s heat reflected from the burning sands. We leave the sands at Barton Mills which we were very glad of. The river that runs by Barton Mills is navigable as I said to Bury. We left Mildenhall, the seat of Sir Thomas Hanmer, on the right hand, a most miserable situation. On one side he is subject to be choked with sand, on the other he lives close to a dark vile black fen which lies to the north east of him; so that he enjoys that wicked wind with the addition of the air from that fen.

The landscape has changed much since then. The fens have been drained and now comprise some of the most fertile land in the country. The dry Breckland area, formerly used mainly as rabbit warrens and sheep walks before becoming vast sporting estates, is now largely covered by the plantations of the Forestry Commission. Ancient man evidently found the region much more congenial than did the Earl of Oxford for there has been life here for at least half a million years, the date confidently ascribed to the traces of Old Stone Age man found at High Lodge, just outside Mildenhall. The combination of the marshy fenland and the dry, easily tilled, Breckland was favourable to hunting and early farming so it is not surprising that so many traces of settlement, from the Old Stone Age onwards, have been found in the vicinity. The Romans had a ring of farmsteads around the fen edge and the fabulous Mildenhall Treasure, thirty-two pieces of silver tableware now in the British Museum, was discovered near one of these during the Second World War. Another Roman hoard, this time of pewter, was discovered in 1962 when the remains of a crashed wartime bomber were being excavated.

The economy of the town and the surrounding villages has, until recent times, been based almost solely on agriculture and Mildenhall has figured little in national history. However, in 1144 Geoffrey de Mandeville, the archetypal robber baron who changed sides frequently during the troubled reign of King Stephen, made the mistake of taking off his helmet to cool down while besieging the unfinished castle at nearby Burwell. He was struck by an arrow and retired wounded to die at Mildenhall. Then, during the 1381 Peasants’ Uprising, John de Cambridge, the prior of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, was murdered on Mildenhall Heath. Apart from such events as these the town lay low for centuries. The old open fields were enclosed in 1812 but the area suffered greatly during the agricultural depression of the later nineteenth century. The main London to Norwich railway could have come through Mildenhall but this was opposed by the local gentry; it was not until 1885 that a branch line from Cambridge appeared, but this was too late and too little to allow the town to expand to any extent, and finally closed in 1964.

All began to change in 1931 when Mildenhall was selected to be the home of the first of the Royal Air Force’s new style bomber bases. Building began then and the base was officially opened in 1934, just after the famous Great Air Race from Mildenhall to Melbourne, Australia had started from here on 20 October 1934. The race attracted enormous international interest and Mildenhall was at last in the limelight. Crowds came to see such famous fliers as Amy Johnson and there were traffic jams for miles around on the actual starting day. The race was won by a de Havilland Comet, flown by C.W.A. Scott and T. Campbell Black, who reached Australia in less than seventy-two hours, an incredible feat for those days. The airfield was also in the news in 1935 when King George V, accompanied by his sons the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, came for the first ever full review of the Royal Air Force in honour of the king’s silver jubilee. RAF Mildenhall was an important British bomber base during the Second World War but, since 1950, has been home to the United States Air Force and is now one of the most important American installations in this country. Crowds in their hundreds of thousands attend the annual two-day air fetes which are now an established feature of life in the area.

The arrival of the air force started to improve the economy but major development did not come until the 1960s when an agreement was reached with the Greater London Council to move families here from London. Many new houses were built and a light industrial estate established to provide employment for the newcomers. The town now has a secure industrial base and can face the future with some confidence.


The town

Mildenhall centers on a market place with a 16th-century hexagonal Market Cross  and Town pump. The town's market is held here on every Friday and originated as a weekly chartered market in, it is believed, the 15th century. The Mildenhall Museum  in the centre of the town contains displays of local history and wildlife, the history of the RAF base, and information on the Mildenhall Treasure. In 1934, Mildenhall was the start point of the MacRobertson Air Race  to Melbourne, in Australia. Mildenhall currently (2011) has its own radio station, ZACK FM (Forest Heath Public Radio), broadcasting on 105.3 FM; the transmitter is located at the top of St Mary's church and radiates 100 W. The station format is Classic Hits and broadcasts 24 hours a day with a mix of music, news and information Mildenhall is mentioned in passing in the Pink Floyd  song 'Let There Be More Light' on the 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets  as a speculated location for first contact between humanity and extraterrestrial life:

Then at last, the mighty ship

 Descending on a point of flame

Made contact with the human race at Mildenhall

Due to the airbase, Mildenhall currently has the highest concentration of American residents  in the country, as 18% of residents were born in the US


Up to 1834  

Mildenhall had a parish workhouse from the 1720 in a property situated immediately to the south-west of St Andrew and St Mary's Church. It was provided by Thomas Hanmer, local benefactor and a Speaker of the House of Commons who also endowed some adjacent almshouses.A parliamentary report of 1777 recorded a parish workhouse in operation at Mildenhall with accommodation for up to 70 inmates.

After 1834  

Mildenhall Poor Law Union was formed on 12th November 1835. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 15 in number, representing its 13 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

County of Suffolk: Barton Mills, Cavenham, Elvedon or Elden, Eriswell, Freckenham, Herringswell, Icklingham St James and All Saints, Kentford, Lackenheath, Mildenhall – St Andrew's (3), Tuddenham – St Mary, Wangford – St Dennis, Worlington.

The population falling within the union at the 1831 census had been 8,100 with parishes ranging in size from Wangford, St Dennis (population 52) to Mildenhall itself (3,267). The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1833-35 had been £5,978 or 12s.9d. per head of the population.

In 1836, the new Mildenhall Union took over the existing parish workhouse and the Poor Law Commissioners authorized the sum of £400 for its enlargement. It then comprised three main sections: a central accommodation building, a building to the north containing the Master's accommodation, and a building to the south which included the Guardians' board room. The workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1882 map below.


King's Way Workhouse

In 1894-5 a new workhouse was built at the north side of King's Way. It comprised a T-shaped main block, two storeys high, with women's accommodation at the east, and men's at the west. A small side-wing at the west side contained boys' and married couples' accommodation. A central wing at the centre contained the dining-hall and kitchen. A separate infirmary stood at the north of the site. The site entrance at the south was flanked by the Guardians' boardroom at the east and vagrants' wards at the west.

A contemporary report provides a more detailed description of the buildings


THESE new buildings, which are grouped together at right angles to the main road leading to Bury St. Edmund's, were officially opened on Dec. 13, 1895. The grounds are entered from the main road through wrought-iron entrance gates and ornamental brick and stone piers. On the right hand is the board-room block, containing spacious board and committee-rooms, clerk's room, waiting room, and lavatory ; on the left hand and opposite this building is the porter's lodge and tramp block for males and females, with day and night cells, association wards, receiving wards, &c. Behind these is situated the main block, with the master's house in the centre, three stories high. The right wing, two stories high, accommodates the female paupers, and the left wing the male paupers, with necessary day-rooms, dormitories, attendants' rooms, &c. A range of buildings, one story high, flanking the male paupers', contains the boys day-rooms, dormitories, &c., and accommodation for married couples, with garden for each. At the back of the master's house is the administrative block, containing spacious kitchen, scullery, and stores for meat, bread, linen, clothes, and dry goods ; also a lofty dining hall, and behind the kitchen are located the boiler-house, coal-house, and pump-room. The boiler-house contains two boilers for supplying the whole of the buildings with hot water and steam for the purposes of cooking, warming rooms and corridors, and water supply to baths, sinks, and laundry. The cold-water supply is obtained from a well, and forced by steam-pumps to large tanks in the tank-room, over master's house, and from thence it is distributed to various parts of the buildings. At the back of the grounds, completely isolated from all other buildings, are located the infirmary buildings, containing nurses' administrative department, with lying-in wards at back, and right and left wings for male and female patients, with foul wards for each sex at the extreme ends, quite distinct from general wards. A mortuary is erected on the west side of the site. Airing yards are provided for each sex in the different departments, bounded by high brick walls. All the baths, closets, slop-sinks, and other conveniences are up-to-date in design, and all sanitary blocks are intercepted from main buildings by fresh-air lobbies. All the different departments in the various blocks are connected by covered ways, so that communication can be made between each without being exposed in wet weather. The rainwater is stored in a large rainwater tank near the laundry block, and all the sewerage is conveyed to a tank at the extreme end of the- site ; all necessary manholes, flushing tanks, and interceptors are provided on the most approved modern system. The buildings are all built with Suffolk white bricks and dressings, quoins, moulded courses, and other finishings in red bricks. The roofs are covered with slates. The whole of the work has been expeditiously carried out by Messrs. Kerridge and Shaw, contractors, Cambridge. The moulded brickwork was supplied from Mr. Brown's brickyard, of Braintree, and Mr. Walter Godfrey has acted as clerk of works. The whole of the buildings have been designed and carried out by Mr. Frank Whitmore, architect, of Chelmsford and Bury St. Edmund's, and county surveyor for West Suffolk. The cost of building and site has been about £11,500.

In 1894-5 a new workhouse was built at the north side of King's Way. It comprised a T-shaped main block, two storeys high, with women's accommodation at the east, and men's at the west. a small side-wing at the west side contained boys and married couples accommodtion. A central wing at the centre contained the dining-hall and kitchen. A separate infirmary stood at the north of the site. The site entrance at the south was flanked by the Guardians boardroom at the east and vagrants wards at the west