Abandoned Communities ..... Dunwich
I will pick out just three topics from the Minute Book, namely incidents of violence, records of wreckage, and representation in parliament.

The coffers of the town received a regular boost from fines imposed after violence had been threatened or inflicted by one resident upon another. On page 8, for example, we read that Edmund Swattys junior was fined ten shillings for beating John Hardy and his wife Joanna with a cudgel and drawing blood. William Chock drew his knife on Robert Genew, incurring a fine of 40 pence. Walter, the parson of Saint John's, drew his knife on Peter Barker, and was likewise fined 40 pence. Peter Odham drew his cudgel on John Orford, and drew blood. He was fined ten shillings. You will have noticed that, as at Kenfig, the fine was a good deal more punitive when blood was drawn. The bailiffs did not record more detailed information about these various quarrels. We have to use our imagination to guess how, for example, when John Hardy was assaulted by Edmund Swattys junior his wife Joanna became involved as well.

During the medieval period, and indeed for several centuries afterwards, shipwrecks were a significant, if irregular, source of income for people near the coast. At Dunwich the rules stated that all wrecked goods and materials found on the coast between Dunwich and the port of Minsmere belonged to the town of Dunwich. In practice, however, wrecked items could be kept by the finder on condition that they were reported to the bailiffs for valuation and a sum of money equal to half their value was paid into the town's coffers. Looking again at page 8 of the Minutes we read that John Rounton and James Schipman paid 6 shillings 8 pence for a barrel of lard. Peter Barker and William Byrd did the same. We have to assume that two men were needed to carry off a barrel of lard, and by the time the first pair had got back to the site of the wreck the second barrel had already been taken away. On the same occasion we hear that Peter Rounton claimed one turbot, and Robert Caunceler one porpoise, for which he paid 5 shillings. The turbot and the porpoise may not have come from a wrecked ship. They were regarded as royal fish, and were treated as "wreck" if caught in the normal way.

Other articles recorded as found in or near the sea included a sail, for which 5 shillings was charged, and a pipe of wine, incurring a charge of 40 pence. A larger quantity of wine was found on 6 September 1416 by Frelond and his crew, who were required to pay six marks for it.

One magnificent piece of wreckage can still be seen in the museum at Dunwich. It is a chest elaborately decorated with carved floral patterns and small pictures of sailing ships and coastal scenery. Its origin is unknown. For many years it was used by the town's officials to contain important documents. Today it is a receptacle for donations by visitors to the museum.

Dunwich had been represented in parliament since 1297, another indication of its importance at that time being that Ipswich was then the only other town in Suffolk with representation. The Minutes often mention the town's two members of parliament, usually in connection with the fees and expenses paid out to them. In addition, it was sometimes necessary to raise special taxes in order to pay the MPs and cover their expenses. When John Pollard and Philip Canon were elected to parliament in Westminster in 1427-1428 their fees were 6 shillings a week. In addition to their parliamentary work MPs would also carry out a range of other duties on behalf of the town, especially when parliaments were held in Westminster. Peter Codon, for example, who was an MP in the early fifteenth century, took delivery of 40 shillings to pay the fee-farm into the Exchequer.

The fee farm was the rental due to the king from the town.

At another time the same Peter Codon had to be reimbursed for certain litigation costs, the hire of horses, and the purchase of a gun costing 6 shillings 8 pence.

While we are on the subject of Dunwich's MPs a couple of points may be worth making about the later history of the town's representation. During the fifteenth century it became increasingly difficult for Dunwich to pay the fees and expenses of its MPs. The outcome was that the candidates for election ceased to be men living in the town, but usually were men from elsewhere who were wealthy enough to support themselves without reimbursement. They were willing to bear the cost of representing Dunwich in return for the influence, status, and indirect remuneration it would bring.

Dunwich continued to be represented until the Reform Act of 1832. As the population of the town dwindled the number of voters fell to 40 in the seventeenth century and only 12 in the eighteenth century. A cartoon of April 1831 depicts Dunwich as one of the "rotten boroughs", those places that retained parliamentary representation on the basis of an almost negligible electorate.


Decorated chest, retrieved from a ship wrecked off Dunwich