Basil Brown: Beyond Sutton Hoo – Local History on his Doorstep

Sepia photo closeup of basil excavating kiln

In this third article in a series of four by guest writer, Sarah Doig, she investigates Basil Brown’s passion for local history, as well as taking a closer look at some of Basil’s digs on his doorstep. In each blog, Sarah draws on Basil Brown’s notebooks and other papers, the majority of which are held by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service and Suffolk Archives.

Throughout Basil Brown’s life, he not only dug in the ground in search of remains of our past, but he was also a passionate local historian. Basil’s scrapbooks and notebooks contain numerous cuttings on Suffolk’s local history – many of these were from articles in the “East Anglian Miscellany” series written by Revd Edmund Farrer, a one-time curate of Rickinghall and subsequently rector of neighbouring Hinderclay. The notebooks also demonstrate Basil Brown’s extensive research on the history of Rickinghall, Botesdale and Redgrave using books and historical documents, often at the Cullum Library in Bury St Edmunds.

It was natural that Basil Brown should take a keen interest in the history of his own neighbourhood. In fact, one local man was warned “You have to be a bit careful if you are doing some building work and you find something unusual because if Basil hears about it, he’ll come and have a look and say ‘you’ve got to stop this while we investigate and then you can go on again’ and so you’d keep rather quiet about it!”

In 1946, Basil persuaded the owner of a field in Gardenhouse Lane in Rickinghall to allow him to carry out some excavations. Here Basil uncovered a Roman kiln.

Sepia photo of Basil standing in trench looking at the excavated kiln
Basil Brown with the Roman kiln he excavated in Gardenhouse Lane, Rickinghall

When a local resident decided to write a book about the history of the Rickinghalls in 1952, it was natural that the author should turn to Basil Brown for information, including about Rickinghall Superior church. The rector applied for permission for excavations to take place and Basil started work there in March 1952. A typescript record in one of his notebooks summarises Basil’s main findings:

There appears to have been a building (14 ft x 6 ft 6”) attached to the South Porch on the West. The existence of this building was well known but not its extent: indeed it was believed to be a Mortuary Chapel, just large enough to contain a tomb. In 1494, a Gild of Our Lady is mentioned as existing in the Parish of Rickinghall Superior. In 1526, a certain Thomas Sheppard, whose will was proven in that year gave to the ‘Lady’s Chappell of Rikyngale the Over a donation of six shillings and seven pence’ a goodly sum in those days.

Permission having been obtained, Mr Basil Brown dug in the hopes of funding further details about this ancient building and the fragments arranged below were discovered. From the evidence obtained and by the trench dug which revealed the course of the old walls it was decided that the building must have been a Lady Chapel dedicated to the Virgin. Among these relics are encaustic tiles (probably of local manufacture) some are monogrammed dated about 1400, of great interest. They are usually found in monasteries.

In this case it seems they were part of the grave of WILLIAM HOVELL who died in 1402. Definitely a grave is still there and may have given rise to the idea that the chapel was a Mortuary Chapel, whereas the Faithful liked to rest under the protection of Out Lady in those days. The sacred monogram is very clear and corresponds to the ‘M’ outside the porches of both St Mary’s Inferior and Superior. Similar tiles are found at Clare. The light brown lines on the plan indicate the walls which have fallen outwards, the yellow interiors who the pavement floor of long age. The tomb is clearly marked.

sketched plan of the church with labels and notes
Basil’s plan of the Lady Chapel at Rickinghall Superior church
sketch of tile fragments and notes
A page from Basil Brown’s notebook showing the monogrammed tiles he uncovered at Rickinghall Superior church

As well as Basil Brown’s numerous notebooks and site registers, he maintained a card index of local finds. These “cards” were often scraps of paper and reused postcards such as the one on which he recorded details of a coin found near Crackthorn Bridge on the Redgrave/Hinderclay border.

hand written notes with sketch of a coin
One of Basil Brown’s card index entries

Once again, Basil Brown was on hand when local builders were undertaking alterations in 1961 to a fourteenth-century house in Botesdale called Kenilworth (now called St Catherines). During the renovations, a carved archway in an exterior wall was uncovered and Basil was called on to give his opinion on the find.

He describes in his notebook how he observed:

an early doorway with interesting carvings above the arch, on the left is a dragon apparently swallowing a smaller one, and on the right a winged dragon. These are fine and apparently rare examples of period carving of the Middle Ages. The wood (oak) is well preserved due to the doorway having been plastered over for some centuries”.

hand drawn detail of doorway and notes
Basil’s sketch of the carved doorway uncovered at the house in Botesdale

In Sarah’s next (and last) article, she will take a look at Basil Brown’s final dig at Broom Hills in Rickinghall, as well as exploring Basil’s ability to enthuse others.

Sarah Doig is an independent historical researcher, author and speaker (www.ancestral-heritage.co.uk). She is also Chair of Quatrefoil (www.quatrefoil.org.uk), a small group of local historians who research, write and publish on all aspects of the history of the Suffolk villages of Botesdale, Redgrave and Rickinghall. Sarah Doig is currently writing a book for Quatrefoil on Basil Brown which will hopefully be published in late 2021.

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