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Listed Buildings
of Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House reflected in Willis Building (both Grade I)

Newsletter, April 2011 (Issue 183)

The Grand Old Duke of York

The Grand Old Duke of York
He Had Ten Thousand Men, in Ipswich!

I am sure all of you are familiar with the nursery rhyme, 'The Grand Old Duke of York' and I suspect some of you have wondered if there was a historical event that it was based on. There has been great debate about this and quite a few places claim to be the location with, I suspect, an eye to attracting tourists. So can Ipswich join in and put forward a claim to be the location? I think it can.

One of the best candidates for the identity of the Grand Old Duke of York is Frederick Augustus, the second son of George III and brother to the Prince Regent. So, did Frederick ever come to Ipswich? Well, yes he did on more than a few occasions. And on almost every occasion he was involved with the military. Hardly surprising as Ipswich was full of soldiers during the wars with France and Frederick was Commander in Chief of the army. Horatio Nelson had identified Suffolk as the most likely place the French would choose to land an invading army. As a result Ipswich was stuffed full of soldiers. There was also a very large army camp on the Woodbridge Road between the present day Barclays Bank and Heath Road Hospital. There were also other army camps further up the coast. Nelson must have thought this would provide a safe environment because in 1797 he bought a house for his wife and children and father to live in, right next to the army camp, on the site of what is now St John's Primary School in Victory Road.

Now let's get back to the Duke of York. He arrived in Ipswich in November 1797 with the British army units which had been defeated in Holland and taken prisoner. They were allowed to return under a prisoner exchange agreement. They were walking down the main road to London and were in a very poor condition, so I doubt Frederick would have marched them up and down hills. Then in August 1803 Frederick stayed in Ipswich for four days visiting troops in the area. He reviewed the Ipswich militia on Pickers Hill (wherever that was). A possibility for the nursery rhyme but I don't think there would have been a thousand soldiers. But in the years to come there were several large reviews of troops by the Duke of York on Rushmere Heath including thousands of soldiers and cavalry. In 1805 eight thousand troops were present. Again a large number were reviewed in 1806 and in 1807.

But in September 1811 we come to an occasion that stands out as a distinct possibility. The Duke of York, who at this time was 48 years old, with the Prince Regent and the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge came to review about ten thousand troops on Rushmere Heath. All the cavalry, artillery and soldiers marched out from Ipswich up the Woodbridge Road followed by thousands of spectators. A great military display took place. The foot soldiers paraded and manoeuvred, the cavalry staged several charges and the artillery fired off their guns regularly, in a sort of mock battle. Afterwards the Duke and his brothers rode on horseback with the troops as they marched back to Ipswich along the Woodbridge Road. They then stayed for a meal at the cavalry barracks at St Matthew's.

And here we come to the nursery rhyme. Did the Duke stop off at the Duke of York pub for a swift half? Is that why it is called the Duke of York? And if he did I suppose all the troops would have had to wait for him on the flat bit of land between the Horse and Groom and the Duke of York pubs! Halfway up the hill, neither up nor down. Is this the origin of our present version of the nursery rhyme? I don't know for sure - but I like to think it might be so.


    Front cover of issue 183 Cover, issue 183

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