Stowmarket lies close to the centre of Suffolk. It is just off the major A14 road, roughly halfway between Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich and is also on the main rail line between Norwich and Liverpool Street, London. It grew up where two river tributaries join to flow on to Ipswich and the sea at Felixstowe. As the name suggests, it became established as a centre where the population of the surrounding parishes could come to trade in agricultural produce, household goods and the tools of a farming economy. A market is still held twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays.
In the Middle Ages residents also participated in the woollen cloth trade which made Suffolk and Norfolk the most prosperous parts of England by Tudor times, although it was never as firmly established here as in other parts of East Anglia. It remained little more than a large village until the river was canalised between Stowmarket and Ipswich in 1793, allowing easier bulk movement of goods. Stowmarket then rapidly developed as an industrial centre, first producing malt for brewing. At one time Stowmarket was second only to Burton on Trent for malt production. Later, following the arrival of the railway in 1846, came chemical production, especially explosives and paint. An explosion in the guncotton works in 1871 caused 26 deaths and widespread destruction, but with typical Victorian determination the works were soon up and running again. The town is still a centre for malt and paint production and there is mixed industrial employment, relying on the town’s excellent communications. Residents also commute to work in Ipswich, Bury, and on towards Cambridge and London. Like similar towns in Suffolk it is under pressure to expand.
The word Stow comes from an old English name element meaning holy place or place of assembly. It is found throughout England (e.g. Stow-on-the-Wold) but especially in Suffolk (e.g. West Stow, Stowlangtoft). Stowmarket is in the hundred (a medieval unit of government made up of typically around 15 parishes) of Stow. It is not entirely clear whether the town takes its name from the hundred or vice versa. It appears the market here was at one time called Thorney Market. Thorney Green, a large area of common land, is in what is now called Stowupland and Thorney Hall once stood near the current railway station. Stowmarket was recorded as Stou in the Domesday Book (1086) and is given as Stow or Stowe on early maps (e.g. Saxton’s map of Suffolk of 1575). The name Stowmarket was also in use by 1268. Stowmarket and Stowupland together cover a large area and for centuries were a single parish unit sharing the same church. (Until 1543 there had been two churches in the same churchyard, one for each half of the parish.)
Downstream of Stowmarket in early times routine crossing of the river would have been very difficult. The first opportunity to cross the two tributary rivers was at Stowmarket and even here much of the land bordering the rivers would have been marshy, but three early fording points can be identified. These are at the present day Combs Ford, Bridge Street and Stowupland Street crossings. Stowupland became a separate parish in 1843/4. As Stowmarket has grown it has gradually absorbed parts of neighbouring parishes such as Stowupland, Combs, Creeting and Onehouse.
Stowmarket is home to the prestigious Museum of East Anglian Life. There are numerous books about its past, but no specific town museum or archive.
Stowmarket has a scattering of attractive and interesting commercial and residential buildings in its centre, especially in the Market Place and in the streets radiating from it. Many timber-framed buildings are hidden behind later frontages. The setting of the parish church has a close-like feel. Like many other towns it lost valuable buildings of character in the 1960s and 70s; they were replaced by bland structures which to the eyes of most people have little appeal. Nevertheless, around 130 buildings in Stowmarket are considered of sufficient architectural interest to be on the national list which gives them protection from alterations which significantly change their character or from demolition (see detailed list on this site). The Stowmarket Society is also in process of drawing up a local list which highlights buildings not considered of sufficient importance to make the national list but are valuable for character or setting in the locality (see Projects page on this site).
The inner relief road, Gipping Way, was considered essential in removing traffic from the centre, the narrow streets of which could not cope with current volumes, but has cut off the commercial heart of the town from the river and has carved through earlier road layouts. There are relatively self-contained mid nineteenth century suburbs of character to the north-west of the station (Regent Street area) and the area off Ipswich Road once known as California (Bridge Street area) . The former has retained pubs and some shops, the latter has not. Temple Road contains an attractive mix of styles from the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Stowmarket town centre has the usual range of banks, building societies, supermarkets, clothing and shoe shops, stationers, jewellers, hairdressers, small department stores and a mixture of other services. There is a low incidence of unwanted and underused retail premises. There is a larger supermarket on the northern boundary near the A14.
The town’s schools mostly have a good reputation. The library is situated near the parish church. There is a cinema/theatre, The Regal, run by the Town Council. This was ambitiously updated in 2020 and 2021 by the town and district councils as part of a project to make the town a cultural centre for the area. Added to this are the John Peel Centre (in part of the former Corn Hall, a venue for music and other events) and The Mix, a centre mainly intended for young people, but a valuable venue for all age-groups, containing a popular café, Cabbages and Kings. The highly respected DJ John Peel lived in the neighbouring village of Great Finborough. The well-known cookery queen and major shareholder in Norwich City FC, Delia Smith, also lives nearby.
There is a leisure centre, sports clubs and facilities, various churches and religious groups and clubs and societies to cater for a wide range of interests.
There are good footpaths in the vicinity, including the Gipping Valley route which runs as far as Ipswich. Combs Wood consists of ancient woodland and is a nature reserve.