The Story of John Wodderspoon and the Wet Dock

In the autumn of 2020, our Window Wizards will be installing our 20th Window Museum display which focuses on the development of Ipswich Wet Dock. Whilst in lockdown our volunteers have been adding the final touches and doing some more research. In doing so they discovered a description of what the town was like just prior to the building of the Wet Dock in 1842 and what this development meant for the town. This was found in a book titled ‘A New Guide to Ipswich’ written by John Wodderspoon (1808-1862) in 1842, a version of which can be found online.

Read on for a brief biography on John Wodderspoon and some extracts taken from ‘A New Guide to Ipswich’ relating to the building of the Wet Dock which provides an amazing insight into the largest infrastructure project the town had ever seen.

The first record of Wodderspoon’s writing and work can be found in the 1830s when he became a reporter for the Suffolk Literary Chronicle, a monthly publication that first appeared in September 1837. Wodderspoon largely drew on the work of local writers as well as his own articles for the Chronicle. But it seems the people of Suffolk failed to appreciate Wodderspoon efforts, with the result that, after 14 issues nothing more was heard of this periodical.

In 1834 he married Eleanor Sadler in Solihull and in 1836 Wodderspoon was on the electoral register in Nuneaton, Warwickshire but working in Ipswich at the time.

By 1838 Wodderspoon was a Newspaper Editor and had written the 20-page publication, ‘Contract between Ipswich Dock Commissioners and Mr. David Thornley’. In 1839 the larger 300-page 8 volume title, ‘Historic Sites in the County of Suffolk’ by John Wodderspoon, was issued with the imprint, printed by R. Root, Cornhill. Upon further research, in 1844 Robert Root was listed as trading in Westgate Street as a printed bookseller, after which nothing more is heard of him.

In 1842, ‘A New Guide to Ipswich’ was published, which includes chapters on the Churches of Ipswich, Witchcraft, Plague among many others. The chapter we are most interested in is simply titled, Wet Dock. Below are a few extracts from this chapter that gives a wonderful insight into Wodderspoon’s view of this important town project.


Greatly, however, as Ipswich has experienced the progress of improvement, and the good effects of the energy of her inhabitants, all sinks into insignificance when compared with the projection and construction of the Wet Dock.

For many years, indeed ever since Ipswich has been a port of any trade, the merchants and ship owners residing in the place, and those foreigners who visited it as traders, loudly complained that the condition of the river, from numerous and constantly accumulating banks, and shallow waters, checked the increase of the commerce which under better convenience might have been attained. There was also a cry that, in consequence of there being no Wet Dock, as in other ports of similar magnitude, ship owners were subjected to a serious deterioration of their property, in addition to the actual loss of considerable trade. These and other deficiencies of the port, led to the active duties of the River Commissioners, a body which, though not perhaps possessed of sufficient energy and means to accomplish all that could be desired, yet did essential service in smoothing many of those difficulties in the navigation of the Orwell, which neglected, might have become, in process of time, insuperable. The Act under which the Commissioners were empowered was obtained in 1805, and this body of gentlemen continued to execute its important functions, until their duties became absorbed, in 1837, in the more onerous undertaking of the Wet Dock.

Many years, however, previously to the Act of the River Commissioners being passed, Mr. Chapman proposed a plan of constructing a Dock somewhat similar to the present Wet Dock, proposing to connect the basin so obtained with the open river, at Downham Reach, by means of an artificial channel cut along the banks of the Orwell. There was also a second plan proposed, in order to secure a large body of standing water near the town – which was, that the river itself should be dammed up at Downham Reach. Both these propositions involving difficulties of a peculiar nature, were each in its turn thrown by and abandoned. The necessity, however, for forming a convenient basin for the accommodation of the shipping frequenting the port was day by day becoming more urgent. Another proposal was then submitted to the inhabitants by Mr. W. Lane, the present collector of customs, and out of this was eventually constructed, upon the report of Mr. H. R. Palmer, civil engineer, the plan of the Dock, in the completion of which Ipswich has raised her character as a port to a great extent.

On the twenty-sixth of June 1839, the foundation of the lock was laid, amid a large concourse of people, and attended with great rejoicings … The appearance of the scene was of the most imposing character. With the exception of the spot round the immediate neighbourhood of the stone, the excavation was filled with spectators, the preponderance being ladies from the town and neighbourhood. The sloping sides of the ground, as also the summit of the bank, along the whole upper side of the Lock, literally swarmed with people. Indeed, except that part of the channel where the ground was so much broken at to render standing impossible, there was not a single foot of earth unoccupied … All appeared animated with the highest interest towards the particular occasion that had called them together, while the beauty of the afternoon, the sun shining out with even meridian splendour – the fresh green beauty of the landscape – the Orwell covered with vessels of all sizes – the steam-packets – the gay dresses of the ladies – the military and – ever and anon the loud booming of cannon discharged from all quarters, contributed to the interest of a scene that will be remembered by those who witnessed it for many years to come.

The work proceeded with few interruptions until the month of January 1842, when the gates of the lock being closed, the undertaking might be said to have been completed. The performance of this great work, however, cost a much larger sum than that calculated upon the original estimate; and in 1840, the commissioners found themselves under the necessity of applying to Parliament for power to borrow £25,000 (£1,510,000 in 2017) in addition to the £60,000 (£3,625,000 in 2017) previously obtained. After considerable delay, trouble, and expense – and in the face of a powerful opposition raised by the General Steam Navigation Company – the requisite act was at length granted, and the preparations made to take up money on loan.

Possessed of a Dock of such noble dimensions, being three acres more than the whole area of the London Docks, and exceeding by twenty acres the area of water in St Catherine’s Docks, Ipswich has gathered to herself capabilities unknown to many ports of far higher pretensions. Let us hope they may be put in requisition to their full extent, and succeeding years show the cost of providing these great improvements has not been sacrificed in vain.

That Ipswich, however, has not yet availed herself of all the great means of improvement which have been fortunately – and of late years, with a boundless hand-opened to her, the non-completion of the Eastern Counties’ Railway will at once testify.”

J.Wodderspoon, A New Guide to Ipswich, (Ipswich, 1842), pp.168-177.

Another of the important and interesting things found in ‘A New Guide to Ipswich’ is the engraved illustration of the town and the dock from the gardens of Hill House, today known as Alexandra Park. This is one of the last images made of the town and river prior to the construction of the Wet Dock. The variety of churches in the town can be seen as can the original Old Customs House. A steamer can also be seen on the river close to the shore at Stoke. This image is from a scan of an original copy of a first edition ‘A New Guide to Ipswich’.

Front piece illustration from ‘A New Guide to Ipswich

Between 1845 and 1850 Wodderspoon wrote ‘Picturesque Antiquities of Ipswich, drawn and etched by F. Russel and W. Hagreen’, ‘Notes on the Grey and White Friars, Ipswich’ and in 1850 wrote ‘Memorials of the Ancient Town of Ipswich’. This was printed by the Ipswich family print making firm, the Pawsey family, ancestors of one of our Trustees, Bob Pawsey.

By the time of the 1851 Census, Wodderspoon and Eleanor were living in St Stephens Parish, Norwich, where he was a Newspaper Editor, most probably of the Norwich Mercury. But by the 1861 Census both John and Eleanor are missing. Wodderspoon died in 1862 and left less than £600, about £35,500 today, to his wife Eleanor who was living in Lakenham, in Norfolk at the time. Eleanor passed away herself in 1864.

It seems then that although not a local man Wodderspoon had a great affinity with Ipswich and was a key advocate of the town through his writings. His insights into the building of the Wet Dock give us another interesting view on the most important infrastructure project in Maritime Ipswich’s history until the construction of Cliff Quay. Our volunteers are now looking at ways we can incorporate Wodderspoon’s commentary into the new Window Museum display. If you are interested in joining our volunteer team as either a Window Wizard or a volunteer researcher, please do get involved with us.

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