A Brief History Of Our Community


There were small groups of middle to late Stone Age hunter-gatherers wandering across the countryside, setting up simple camps, until shortage of game forced them to move on. They made their tools and weapons from the flints found in abundance in the area and it is still quite common to find flint implements and detritus in neighbouring fields. 

Although no significant Roman remains have been found in the village, with the close proximity of the Icklingham and Mildenhall treasures, both on the River Lark, there is little doubt that the Romans also had a presence. The coming of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and their inter­marrying with the native British, led to the establishment of fixed settlements and associated forest clearing and farming. An excellent example of this was at West Stow, with further examples found in many sites round about. Within Fornham, two small burial sites have been excavated.

The name ‘Fornham’ is thought to be of Saxon origin meaning ‘The homestead by the trout stream’. The village is well documented in the Domesday Book and, as with much land in the locality, was controlled by the Abbey of St Edmundsbury. The main settlement was in the area of Old Hall Lane, around the Old Hall.

Even a ‘brief’ history would be incomplete without mention of the ‘Battle of Fornham’ which took place in October 1173 when a strong force of Flemish mercenaries under the then Earl of Leicester was defeated by a combined force, loyal to Henry II, of townspeople and men under the command of Humphrey de Bohun, Constable of England. Fighting extended from Tollgate to St Genevieve along the valley and terraces of the River Lark. It was a touch-and-go affair and had the result not gone in favour of the King, it would have changed the history of these Isles. Very few items of interest survive the battle, except perhaps, the Fornham sword in Moyses Hall Museum.

In 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries the whole area of‘the Fornhams’ was given by Henry VIII to his friend Sir Thomas Kytson whose family controlled the associated estates until 1731 when St Genevieve was purchased by Samuel Kent, member of parliament and High Sheriff of Suffolk. In 1760 St Martin was bought by his son in law, Sir Charles Egleton, thus creating the three Fornhams.

In 1778 a change of ownership of the villages occurred with Bernard Edward Howard, later 12th Duke of Norfolk, buying St Genevieve and building Fornham Hall. This was sold to Lord Manners MP in 1842, who in 1862, then sold it to Sir William Gilstrap. As the Gilstrap family owned Fornham All Saints, all the three Fornhams came under one ownership until the end of the century. There is no doubt, that over the latter half of the 19th century the Gilstrap family exerted significantly more influence within the area than the Ord family. They owned some 4,000 acres and, in 1895, the then Prince of Wales was a guest at Fornham Hall during the shooting season. The Gilstrap estate was partially sold off during the first part of the 20th century but was finally disposed of by the last owner in 1950 which led to the demolition of the Hall and the inevitable break-up of the Fornhams into what they are today, with many tenants becoming owners.

With the demolition of Fornham Hall the most significant building in the village was and still is, Fornham House, but this never had a large estate. It is now a residential care home for the elderly.

Recent Changes

Three changes have had a significant impact on the community. In the 1970s, extension to the Barton Hill development and creation of the Lark Valley estate of nearly 200 dwellings increased the number of households in Fornham St Martin by 60%. Opening the A134 Fornham St Martin bypass in 1992, and subsequent HGV restrictions, led to a dramatic reduction in heavy goods traffic through the village.

The development of a golf course in parallel with the Lark Valley housing development, and more recently an associated hotel, plus in the early 90’s, creation of the Oak Close development of affordable and shared equity housing, are other changes of note.

The Fornham St Martin Mills

The River Lark rising south-east of Bury in the Bradfield/Sicklesmere area, and picking up the River Linnet en-route, cannot be considered much of a river.  Today the volume of water passing through is less than it used to be, particularly through the Fornhams for, in a dry summer, it has been known to dry up completely.  However, even as far back as the Doomsday Book, water-mills have been recorded along its course until it joins the River Ouse at Littleport.  The river runs through a relatively flat part of Suffolk and in order to obtain a sufficient head of water to drive a water-mill recourse was made to erecting a staunch across the river, in effect an artificial waterfall which also provided a mill pool.  Such a system can be seen at the Pakenham and Anglesey Abbey water-mills.  It is also significant that when the River Lark was canalised between Mildenhall and Bury in the mid to late 17th Century these staunches were converted into locks and so served a dual purpose.  Hence, the Fornham St. Martin mill was alongside the lock at the bottom of Lark Valley Drive on land that became the site of the original golf-course club house, now a group of flats or apartments.

It is interesting that, in East Anglia, there was often a wind mill not very far from a water-mill, a good example is at Pakenham.  It appears that one supported the other when a drought occurred, and Fornham St. Martin was no exception.  Sadly there is no evidence on the ground now, but the attached copy of a photograph taken in about 1875 shows very clearly two windmills, fairly close together at the top of the meadow behind Wentworth Close and within a few metres of the public foot path.  Fortunately their precise location can be seen as “crop-marks” on the Google earth map, an aerial photograph taken in the summer a year or so ago.

The windmills are two different types, one being an “open-trestle” post-mill and the other, somewhat larger, a smock mill.  The former was built in about 1824 but was taken down in about 1880 and supposedly rebuilt at another site.  The smock mill was of typical construction, being an octagonal brick built base of some twenty feet in diameter with a timber structure above.  Its height to the crown was about fifty feet, and the sails were about sixty feet in diameter, in other words quite a big mill.  The post-mill was significantly smaller, with a height of some thirty-five feet and correspondingly smaller sails.  The smock mill, built in 1836, was destroyed by a gale in about 1926, although the brick built skirt was still in place until well after the 1939-45 war, ie, within living memory.

Regarding the water-mill, a Mr Parnell, now living near Wisbech, lived there before the war and he described the situation to us extremely well when we met him recently.  His grandfather, a farmer in the Rougham/Rushbrooke area, bought plots of land for his sons and the existing meadow land and water mill were part of that given to Mr Parnell's father.  This was in about 1930.  At that time the mill was no longer in use although the wheel and three sets of mill stones were still in place.  Adjoining the wooden built mill was Mill House, partly flint built and two storeys high.  In front of the mill and house was Mill Lane leading up to the Culford Road the top portion of which, much later on, became the drive to the bungalow known as “Rebel's Lodge.”  Opposite the mill were a collection of farm buildings comprising a barn, sheds and pig sties.  Alongside the mill race, which was ducted under the drive, were watercress beds and a well.  Near the lock gates there was a simple bridge, connecting with the tow path on the opposite side of the river.  All this was to the west of the public foot path which led, as it does now, from Fornham St. Genevieve to the bottom of School Lane, where the village smithy stood.  Mill Lane was wide enough to take the lorry which delivered coal to Mill House.

The mill had a low breast wheel fourteen feet in diameter and five feet wide, similar to that at Pakenham.  That meant that it would have needed something like a seven foot head of water.  This ties in with the size of the lock gates and the much wider river upstream towards Bury, as seen on the photograph of 1875.



Cedric Hanson.                                         Richard Freeman

Village Historian                                       Village Local History Recorder