The History of Lowestoft
The Viking origin of the name Lowestoft – combining the personal name Hlothver and the suffix –toft meaning homestead – points towards the importance to the town of the sea and the people and products arriving from it.
From the Domesday Book of 1086 we learn that Lowestoft (appearing as Lothu Wistoft) was a tiny fishing village, home to a mere 20 families. The most easterly point in England, it was an isolated place for much of its existence in comparison with its more cosmopolitan neighbour and eternal rival Great Yarmouth which benefitted from excellent river communications.
The progress Lowestoft made over the next two and a half centuries, when it had grown in importance as a local provider of fish, was more than arrested by the great plague of 1349, said to have left barely a tenth of the population untouched.
Rivalry with Great Yarmouth came to a head during the Civil Wars : naturally the two settlements chose opposite sides, Lowestoft coming out for King Charles I . In 1643 Cromwell won a skirmish near the town, going on to stay at The Swan Inn there briefly.
The witch craze touched Lowestoft in 1662 when a local herring merchant Samuel Pacey denounced two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny. In spite of the evident trumpery of the charges the two were hanged at Bury St Edmunds on March 10 1662.
Three years later a rather more glorious incident in Lowestoft’s history occurred: the Battle of Lowestoft which took place roughly 40 miles out to sea – within earshot if not within sight. On Saturday June 3 1665 James Duke of York (the future James II ) defeated the numerically inferior fleet of the Dutch Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer, capturing or sinking some 20 ships as compared to English losses of either one or two depending on whether Dutch or English records are believed, and losing between 600 and 700 men as against ten times that in the enemy fleet.
One of the few developments in Lowestoft not linked to the sea happened in 1757 when Hewlin Luson founded the Lowestoft Pottery, whose wares were for the lower end of the market – perversely this means fewer survived and so they are comparably rare and much sought after today. This works closed at the very beginning of the 19th century not because of demand but supply – its fine white clay ran out. During the same period the town first became fashionable as a seaside resort, and it retains some notable buildings from that time. The two were linked by the sale of porcelain trinkets to visitors, some of the pots early holiday souvenirs bearing the wording ‘A trifle from Lowestoft’.
In the early 19th century trade in Lowestoft was boosted when inflated harbour fees and excessive pilferage in Yarmouth saw merchants seek an alternative port, canal work at the same time opening the route to Norwich . In 1831 the harbour at Lowestoft was created, a development rendered more important when in 1847 the great railway entrepreneur Sir Samuel Peto built a branch line to Reedham, joining the mainline between Norwich and Great Yarmouth there. Immediately this opened up markets inland for fish landed at Lowestoft, accelerating the growth of that industry.
Lowestoft was famous for its herring drifters fishing the North Sea and also for the trawlers which ventured further in search of cod, haddock and skate. The herring catch was famously processed by Scottish fisher-girls who migrated along the coast as the fish moved south.
Fishing attracted one of Lowestoft’s most famous visitors: Joseph Conrad ’s first landing in England was there in 1878. For a short time Conrad sailed on a fishing vessel out of the port. A more celebrated cultural link, however, is that with Benjamin Britten , born in the town in 1913.
Lowestoft suffered from enemy action in WWI and WWII . In the first conflict it was bombarded by German ships in April 1916. In the second it was a Luftwaffe target for the many naval establishments there, easily found given its geographical position. The damage done by bombing in the war was compounded by the terrible North Sea floods of 1953.
Nearly all the local fishing has gone now, and the employment provided by North Sea Oil is far from rock solid. But the place still attracts tourists aplenty, who can enjoy its history by walking in the centre and along the beaches – taking care not to miss out on the ‘scores’ the deep little lanes linking town and shore – and visiting its noteworthy number of museums .