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Beach at Dunwich - geograph.org.uk - 192545.jpg
Beach at Dunwich
Grid reference: TM475705
Location: 52°16’37"N, 1°37’36"E
Post town: Saxmundham
Postcode: IP17
Dialling code: 01728
Local Government
Council: East Suffolk
Suffolk Coastal

Dunwich (pronounced ˈdʌnɨtʃ) is a small village on the coast of Suffolk which was once a major town and seaport.

Dunwich was the capital of Kingdom of the East Angles 1,500 years ago and was a prosperous seaport and a centre of the wool trade during the Early Middle Ages, with a natural harbour formed by the mouths of the River Blyth and the River Dunwich. However, the harbour and most of the town has since been lost to coastal erosion.

The Domesday Book of 1086 notes that the town then had 1 carucate of land, for the sea had carried off another carucate. Dunwich nevertheless remained a busy seaport until 1286, when a sea surge hit the East Anglian coast

Over the centuries, coastal erosion has eaten away at the town until no more than today's village remains. Most of the buildings that were present in the 13th century have disappeared, including all eight churches and Dunwich is now a small coastal village, though it still claims its due status as a town.

In 2008 a project began to reveal the lost city with high-tech underwater cameras.[1]



At its height Dunwich was one of the largest ports in eastern England, with a population of around 3,000, eight churches, five houses of religious orders, three chapels and two hospitals. The main exports were wool and grain and the main imports were fish, furs and timber from the Baltic and Iceland, cloth from the Netherlands and wine from France.

Dunwich is first referred to in the 7th century when St Felix of Burgundy founded the Bishopric of East Anglia at Dommoc in 632.[2] Years later antiquarians would describe it as being the 'former capital of East Anglia',[3] perhaps a romantic creation as no documents survive from the town's heyday attesting this claim.

The Domesday Book of 1086 describes Dunwich as possessing three churches. The historian and diver Stuart Bacon, who has made several visits to the seabed in a bid to find the remains of the old town, has found evidence that it may have possessed up to 18 churches and chapels at the height of its fortune during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 1286 a large storm swept much of the town into the sea, and the River Dunwich was partly silted up. Residents fought to save the harbour but this too was destroyed by an equally fierce storm in 1328, which also swept away the entire village of Newton a few miles up the coast. Another large storm in 1347 swept some 400 houses into the sea. A quarter of the town had been lost, and most of the rest of Dunwich was lost to the sea over a period of 200–300 years through a form of coastal erosion known as "long-shore drift". Buildings on the present-day cliffs were once a mile inland.

A popular local legend says that, at certain tides, church bells can still be heard from beneath the waves.

In 1754 the antiquarian Thomas Gardner published a highly influential history of Dunwich and of the nearby towns Blythburgh and Southwold) with images of some of the lost churches.

Notwithstanding the disappearance of the town, Dunwich still held a borough charter and the right to send two members to Parliament until the Reform Act of 1832.

By the mid-19th century, the population had dwindled to 237 inhabitants and Dunwich was described as a "decayed and disfranchised borough".[4] A new church, St James, was built in 1832, after the last of the old churches, All Saints, which had been without a rector since 1755, was abandoned. All Saints' church fell into the sea between 1904 and 1919, with the last major portion of the tower succumbing on 12 November 1919.

In 1971 historian Stuart Bacon located the remains of All Saints' Church a few yards out to sea during a diving exhibition. Two years later in 1973 he also discovered the ruins of St Peter's Church which was lost to the sea during the 18th century. In 2005 Bacon located what may be the remains of the shipbuilding industry on the site.[5]

Churches and other notable structures

  • St Bartholemew's: one of two 'Domesday' churches, St Bartholemew's is thought to have been lost in the storm of 1328.
  • St Michael's: the other Domesday church situated in the east of the town. It was lost to the sea in the storm of 1328.
  • The Benedictine Cell: the cell was attached to Ely Cathedral and was lost during the storm of 1328.
  • St Anthony's Chapel: lost around 1330.
  • St Leonard's: situated in the north of the town, St Leonard's is thought to have been abandoned soon after the Black Death in 1349 and was probably lost to the sea soon afterwards.
  • St Nicholas: this was a cruciform building which lay to the south of the city. Lost to the sea soon after the Black Death.
  • St Martin's: built before 1175, it was lost to the sea between 1335 and 1408.
  • St Francis Chapel: standing beside the Dunwich River, the chapel was lost in the 16th century.
  • St Katherine's Chapel: situated in the parish of St John, this was lost in the 16th century.
  • Preceptory of the Knights Templar: the preceptory is thought to have been founded around 1189 and was a circular building not dissimilar to the famous Temple Church in London. When the sheriff of Suffolk and Norfolk took an inventory in 1308 he found the sum of £111 contained in three pouches - a vast sum. In 1322, on the orders of Edward II, all the Templars' land passed to the Knights Hospitallers. Following the dissolution of the Hospitallers in 1562 the Temple was demolished and the foundations washed away during the reign of Charles I.
  • St Peter's: similar in length to the church at nearby Blythburgh, St Peter's was stripped of anything of value as the cliff edge drew nearer. The east gable fell in 1688 and the rest of the building followed in 1697. The parish register survives and is now in the British Library.
  • Blackfriars: Dominican priory situated in the south east of the city. It was founded during the time of Henry III by Roger Holish. By 1385 preparations were made for the Dominicans to move to nearby Blythburgh as the sea front drew nearer, although these were certainly premature as the priory remained active and above sea level until at least the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII .The last building is recorded as having fallen to the sea in 1717.
  • St John the Baptist: situated beside the market place in the centre of the city, St John's was Dunwich's leading church throughout the Middle Ages. It was a cruciform structure which also contained a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. In 1510 a pier was erected in an attempt to act as a breakwater from the sea and in 1542 further funds were raised in a bid to save the building, but to no avail and the building was largely demolished before it went over the cliffs. During the demolition the 18th century historian Thomas Gardiner records that a stone was uncovered to reveal the remains of a man on whose breast stood 'two chalices of course metal'. It is possible that the remains may have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Dunwich and that therefore St John's may have been built on the site of the original cathedral.
The ruins of All Saints' Church in Dunwich, here in a postcard of 1904
  • All Saints' Church: last of Dunwich's ancient churches to be lost to the sea, All Saints' was abandoned in the 1750s after it was decided the parishioners could no longer afford the upkeep, although burials occurred in the churchyard until the 1820s. All Saints' reached the cliff's edge in 1904 with the tower falling in 1922[6]. One of the tower buttresses was salvaged, however and now stands in the current Victorian-era St James' Church. The last remaining gravestone, dedicated to John Brinkley Easey[7], fell over the cliff in the early 1990s.
  • Greyfriars: Franciscan priory founded by Richard FitzJohn between 1228 and 1230 but abandoned due to the advancing sea in 1328. It was rebuilt further inland (outside the original city limits) and the ruins survive to this day, the only building from the town's glory days to do so, although the encroaching cliffs are now but a few feet away.

RAF Dunwich

During the Second World War an RAF radar station was located at Dunwich. By the start of the war Britain had a very effective radar system called Chain Home (CH). The nearest CH station to Dunwich was at RAF High Street near Darsham. The CH system was supplemented with Chain Home Low (CHL) stations which, though having a shorter range, could detect much lower flying aircraft. Two CHL installations were situated on the cliffs at Dunwich Heath (now National Trust land). One site has been lost due to cliff erosion, but the other was further inland and will probably not be lost till early next century (at current rate of erosion). There is, however, very little left on the site. An outline of concrete post holes mark the boundary fence and the concrete base of the guard room are all that appear to survive. The foundations of the masts are believed to have been broken up for hard-core in the 1950s.

Further to the north an American centimetric radar station was established. This site is now a private caravan park.

Dunwich today

Dunwich Beach today

The town lies between Walberswick and Southwold to the north and Sizewell to the south and near the birdwatching areas of Dunwich Heath and Minsmere.

Dunwich is the destination of the annual semi-organised bicycle ride, the Dunwich Dynamo, which leaves Hackney in Middlesex on the Saturday night closest to the full moon in July and arrives in Dunwich on the Sunday morning.


  1. "Underwater city could be revealed". BBC News. 14 January 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7187239.stm. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  2. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Bede
  3. Mee, Arthur. The King's England: Suffolk. pp. 124–128. 
  4. Leader, R. (1844). William White History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Suffolk. Sheffield. 
  5. "Low Tide Reveals Lost City Find". BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation). 10 October 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/suffolk/4328172.stm. 
  6. Comfort: The Lost City of Dunwich: Churches and Chapels, pp 99–102
  7. Thomas Hinde: 'The Domesday book: England's heritage, then and now'

Further reading

  • Ancient Dunwich: Suffolk's Lost City, Jean Carter and Stuart Bacon. (Segment, 1975)
  • The Lost City of Dunwich, Nicholas Comfort (Terence Dalton, 1994), ISBN 0-86138-086-X
  • Men of Dunwich, Rowland Parker (Alastair Press, 1978), ISBN 1-870567-85-4
  • A Suffolk Coast Garland, Ernest Read Cooper (London: Heath Cranton Ltd, 1928).
  • Memories of Bygone Dunwich, Ernest Read Cooper (Southwold: F. Jenkins, 1948).
  • The little freemen of Dunwich, Ormonde Pickard
  • "By the North Sea" and Tristram of Lyonesse, Algernon Charles Swinburne, in Major Poems and Selected Prose, Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 189-202, 206-312.
  • Dunwich: A Tale of the Splendid City, James Bird, 1828.
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Saxon Chronicles, Book 5 - The Burning Land

Outside links