Stowlangtoft is located in the west of Suffolk about seven miles east of Bury St Edmunds on a secondary road between Pakenham and Walsham-le-Willows. Surrounded on the north, west and south by much larger neighbours, it is one of four small close-set villages in a tributary valley which flows westwards from Walsham to join the river Blackbourn.
Stowlangtoft manor was mentioned in 1086 as being called ‘Stou' or ‘Stow,' meaning place of assembly, meeting or holy place and the estate was originally held in the possession of the de Langetot family. The name ‘Stow' was subsequently changed to ‘Stowelantot' or ‘Stowelangtoft'.
Derived, and incorporating the affix, from the manor incumbent's family name, this change was said to have been made to avoid confusion with other similar names in the locality. It seems the spelling transmuted to the present one of Stowlangtoft during the 13th century.
The comparatively small Parish covers about 1400 acres and the village has a recently assessed population of some 260 persons. In fact, as we scroll through the ages, the population of Stowlangtoft has always been modest: 25 inhabitants mentioned in the Domesday Book, 17 taxpayers in 1327 and 80 communicating adults in 1603. Prior to the twentieth century, the population probably reached its maximum size in 1831 when the census recorded 204 inhabitants.
The majority of the residents have always lived in the village along its principal street, but an estate map of 1824 also showed two farms and five cottages in outlying parts of the parish.
Later, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the village saw expansion in the numbers of residential property built including, social housing, a few dwellings primarily intended for retired folks and a small estate of bungalows which was completed in 1962. This closely grouped, and proportionately fairly large, housing development was within close proximity of the church. Since that time, other than several infill properties, few new dwellings have been built.
This is a magnificent Perpendicular, church, circa 1370, with a lofty square tower, built on high ground situated fairly centrally to Stowlangtoft village which it dominates. This location is thought to be the site of a former Roman encampment. The church is not especially large, having a single central aisle, and is fairly short, with a nave of three bays and a chancel of two. It is, however, tall in all its parts, as well as being the product of a single phase of construction, and it is this above all that gives the building an artistic unity that is largely responsible for the impression it makes. Still more fortunate is the fact that the work is closely dated by several pieces of evidence, including that Robert Dacy de Ashfield, who was Lord of the Manor and appears to have been the church's chief benefactor, asked to be buried in the chancel when he died in 1401, that the rector, William Stanton, in his will of 1392, left the residue of his goods to Robert de Ashfield "towards the chancel, being newly built", and that John de Aysschefeld, in his will of 1394, asked to be buried in the "new church of Stowelangtoft".
There are principally three features of the building that bind it into a whole: the first being the deep parapets and basal friezes covered in flint chequer work, which extend alike around the tower, nave, porch and chancel. The buttresses between the bays on the south side of the nave and chancel have more chequer work on their leading edges and the horizontal tying together of the building is further enhanced both here and to the north by string courses linking the windows at the springing level of the window lights, and by the similar string courses that divide the tower into five stages. The windows, except to the east, are all two-light and triangular-headed.
The main village thoroughfare is called ‘The Street.' The section of road, alongside the church, was in earlier times known as ‘Church Hill.' A later modification, putting the road at this point into a cutting to smooth out the steepness of the gradient, was made. Directly opposite, across the road from the church and at the same level, is a terrace of four, one storey plus attics, red brick alms houses. This terrace of alms houses was built in the early 17th Century and, with the exception of the church, is probably the earliest, virtually externally unchanged, remaining building in Stowlangtoft.
Circa 1830, thanks to the generosity of Henry Wilson of Stowlangtoft Hall, a ‘Parish Room,' later known as the ‘Reading Room,' was established. Set in the heart of the village, a committee of eight was appointed to manage its affairs. There were two classes of subscribers: those who paid two shillings per quarter for the use of the room by day and during the evening, and others who subscribed one shilling for access in the evenings only. Members had the use of daily and weekly newspapers and also of library books, as well as of various games etc., which had been provided for their amusement. The handsome and charming Gothic revival styled flint building, later to serve as the village school for a time, is now in private residential use.
During the latter part of the 19th century a charity was set up, (now defunct), sponsored and supported by Mr Arthur Maitland Wilson of Stowlangtoft Hall, to supply and distribute bags of coal for the relief of the poor.
From the fifteenth century onwards, if not before, the squires of Stowlangtoft were mainly resident. The influence of this fact would seem to be the more ‘closed' character that it has than most of its neighbours. The foremost landowning families were the Ashfields, the Dewes, the Rawlinsons, the Wilsons and latterly, the Catchpoles. This gives particular importance to the Hall which, set in pleasant parklands of over 60 acres straddling a sheltered position in a shallow valley, lies to the north-east of the village.
The present Italianate styled ‘Stowlangtoft Hall', currently a nursing home, was designed by J.H. Hakewill, and was built in 1859 and the old Hall it replaced was demolished. This earlier Hall known as ‘Stow' Hall, from the foundling name for the village, had been some 400 yards away from the new, much grander, replacement Hall and on the south side of the river closer to the village. In 1674 Stow Hall was recorded to contain twenty hearths and was surrounded by stables, yards and two formal gardens. A drawing dated 1835, of the original Hall shows a complicated framed house which appears to be seventeenth-century with Georgian additions.
Though small, Stowlangtoft has significant claims to historical fame and many associations with notable and prominent citizens: It was the home, for instance of Sir Symonds Dewes, Baronet and M.P., from 1602 to 1650, who inherited the estate in 1624. He was a noted lawyer, antiquary and collector, who compiled a journal of Elizabethan parliaments and wrote a diary exposing the gathering tensions of Charles I. He and his father Paul left a varied and rewarding archive, including personal, household and estate papers, which was later sold to Sir Robert Harley.
These documents, with others are now held as part of the Harleian collection in the British Library. Together, combined with other more commonly used sources, would surely establish Stowlangtoft as significantly representative of a certain type of rural community: small, mainly agricultural but not without industry and commerce, with a comprehensive range and high proportion of notable dignitaries. Given this and much movement of people in and out, with well-connected resident gentry, and with frequent and sometimes surprisingly wide, contacts with the outside world Stowlangtoft is not without historical importance.
Mike Keeper, February 2014