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Historian Martyn Taylor explains why Bury St Edmunds' Abbeygate Street was once paved in wood





At one time it was thought criminals, whether hardened or just unfortunate victims of poverty or circumstances, would not cause problems if they served their sentences in the colonies – out of sight and out of mind.

The end of the American War of Independence in 1783 saw the newly created USA refusing to accept any more transportees, so a new strategy came into being . . . send them to Australia!

Thus, a ship, The Guardian, left for New South Wales in July 1789 carrying a ragbag cargo of miscreants to serve sentences ranging from seven years to life, those completing their allocated terms very rarely returning.

A Jarrah wood block, laid on top of the modern-day pavers in Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Martyn Taylor
A Jarrah wood block, laid on top of the modern-day pavers in Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Martyn Taylor

Bury St Edmunds Assizes probably contributed to these unwilling travellers – good riddance and all that, with the enforced oceanic crossings not finishing until 1867.

Devoid of human cargo to make the return journey to ‘Old Blighty’ safely, it was necessary to take on ballast, and so much the better if this was profitable.

This is how Jarrah wood (Eucalyptus marginata), a high-density wood from Western Australia came to be brought to Britain.

Modern-day Abbeygate Street in Bury St Edmunds
Modern-day Abbeygate Street in Bury St Edmunds

Jarrah's natural properties of being fire and water resistant led to it being used in construction work and road surfacing during the 19th century and Bury's Abbeygate Street was at one time overlaid with Jarrah wood blocks (as pictures).

The 8in x 4in x 3in tar-soaked blocks were laid on their side with the idea of muffling the noise of tradesmen's horses and carts in this the town’s principal shopping street.

Heavier modern-day traffic saw the street closed and the blocks removed in 1952 then re-surfaced with asphalt. These days, the street is surfaced with herringbone rustic-coloured brick pavers and is subject to certain closure times, in effect pedestrianised.

Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton
Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton

Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Going Underground: Bury St Edmunds, is widely available