Archaeological Dig at Little Ropers Farm, Bures, Suffolk.

August 2016

In about 1990 it was brought to our attention by local historian Leigh Alston that our present Little Ropers house and buildings were not in the same position as those marked on maps prior to 1845.   This came as a great surprise to the Mead family and further research at Trinity Hall, Cambridge revealed details of a fire at the old farm in that year with a rebuild on the current site. The farm had been owned by Trinity Hall College between 1540 and 1913 and records gradually came to light in their archive which pieced together much of the story of Little Ropers between those dates. 

In a letter written the morning after the fire William Taylor, the tenant farmer, describes the devastating loss of buildings, livestock and stored grain.  Taylor lived nearby in Little Cornard and Little Ropers was one of several farms which he rented.  His bailiff or farm manager,      lived in the house with his wife.  Taylor declares that ‘had the fire been half an hour later I have no doubt but that the inhabitants would have been burned in their beds’.

It appeared that the fire had been started deliberately and 3 local men by the name of Cardy were ‘taken up on strong suspicion of being the incendiaries’.  One of  these men had been accused of stealing a sack by either Taylor or his bailiff.  The Cardys were taken to Bury Gaol but were acquitted, presumably from lack of evidence.  Taylor was under the impression that he was insured but this later proved not to be the case and he had to fund the entire rebuilding of the farm out of his own pocket.

The field where the old farm buildings were situated is still known as Pump field and a map of 1694 shows the position of the house and buildings together with a pump near the house.  Old Bill Frost who used to work the land with horses before WW2 spoke to us once of a ring of bellbind that to grew over the site of  the well and pump.  The bellbind was long gone and Pump Field had been cultivated or used as pasture since the Meads took over Little Ropers in 1950.  The memory of the old farm had vanished. 

In 2005 Colchester Young Archaeologists came to do some field work: geo phys, metal detecting etc on the site.  In preparation for this visit David And Aline Black of Colchester Archaeology Group came to do a geophysical survey of the site where the old farm had been in the hope of finding something for the youngsters to focus on.  The results of the survey showed a dark rectangular area of resistance in the approximate position of the house on the 1694 map; could this be the cellar mentioned in a report written soon after the fire?   Both Magnetometry and Resistance showed the same feature.  At the time the field was pasture and was in a scheme whereby no disturbance of the soil was allowed.  This ended in 2016 and a window of opportunity to dig the feature was identified in July/August of that year before it was ploughed up and returned to arable. 

Over the winter of 2015/16 a further Geophysical survey was carried out by Tim Dennis of CAG, using the newly developed Ground Penetrating Radar.  The  same feature emerged, together with several other smaller features in the same area.  Tim identified 4 of these as worth digging.

The ground in Pump field is extremely hard and flinty: a digger was needed to take off the topsoil over the features.  As the digger removed soil over the rectangular feature (F1) brick and tile began to emerge and a rectangular pit filled with rubble was revealed: we had found the cellar.  Just to the south east of this (F4) in situ bricks appeared only a few inches beneath the surface.  To the South of this a long narrow feature (F2)was discovered to be a rubbish dump which included a quantity of ash and burning.  A feature appearing on the Geophysics and labelled F3 was also dug but only natural was found.

At this point the digger driver declared that he knew of a dowser who could come and help find the site of the well or pump.  The dowser duly arrived and set about his business: rods crossed at a point in the middle of the field and the digger went in to investigate.  Sadly no sign of a well or anything other than very flinty natural was found. 

During the month of August several friends and members of CAG came to dig features F1, 2 and 4. F1 (the cellar) yielded iron nails,  18th/19th century pottery, glass (both window and bottle) along with a great deal of brick and tile rubble.  One corner was excavated down to a burnt layer and some in situ bricks forming a corner were found.  This was presumably the ‘footings of the cellar’ mentioned in the 1845 document.  Further work needs to be done to clear the other corners down to floor level  to see if footings  also survive there.




 F2 (the rubbish filled ditch)  This ditch was filled with an ashy burnt deposit – either evidence of the fire or of a bonfire made when the site was cleared. Large quantities of iron nails were found in the burnt layer.   Also pottery including some fine blue and white china depicting scenes of early 19th or late 18th century agricultural life and the motto ‘Speed the Plough’ on the base.  Many clay pipe fragments and a few whole pipes were found, one being the product of a Colchester pipe maker.  Most of these are thought to date from the first few decades of the 1800s.






F4 (the in situ brick feature)  The bricks formed two sides of a rectangle,  although they are not keyed in at the corner and may be from different phases of building.  A layer of natural in this area was found to have a layer of burning and 19th century finds beneath it.  Finds from this area include a horse’s tibia, most of an upright earthenware vessel perhaps used for dairying and most excitingly a clear glass armorial bottle seal. 









One of the highlights of the dig was a visit by a direct descendant of William Taylor: Russell Taylor.  Russell and his wife Christine had visited the UK from their home in Australia in 2015.  Whilst researching family history in the area they stayed at a bed and breakfast In Little Cornard at the home of my sister in law Anne Johnson.  Russell had discovered that his ancestor had once farmed Little Ropers Farm and casually asked Anne if she knew where the property was.  Anne replied that she should do as she had been brought up there!  Russell then visited us and we were able to compare notes of our findings.  He was able to tell us that tragically the aged William Taylor had committed suicide the year after the fire:  presumably the cost of rebuilding Little Ropers at his own expense added to his decision to end his own life. 

When Russell heard that we were hoping to dig the site of his ancestor’s property the following year he declared that he would come back to see it and he was as good as his word.  He was able to spend some time digging with us and to see the features exposed. 

In September F2 was completed and backfilled.  F1 and F4 have been left open for another season of digging, but a barley crop has been drilled around the features.  It is hoped to complete the excavation in 2017.

Ellie Mead

October 2016