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Warm welcome home for town's famous son

PUBLISHED: 09:25 20 January 2009 | UPDATED: 07:55 01 August 2010

A WEALTHY merchant born in the 16th century in a north Suffolk town made a long-awaited return home yesterday after nearly 400 years.

Wealthy Beccles trader Sir John Leman made his fortune trading in cheese and butter and owned property through East Anglia and London, before going on to become Lord Mayor of London.

A WEALTHY merchant born in the 16th century in a north Suffolk town made a long-awaited return home yesterday after nearly 400 years.

Wealthy Beccles trader Sir John Leman made his fortune trading in cheese and butter and owned property through East Anglia and London, before going on to become Lord Mayor of London.

Yesterday he was brought back to his home town, in picture form rather than in body, as his portrait was delivered to the Beccles & District Museum.

The painting is the showpiece of five precious items which will soon be on display as part of a special exhibition, and which have been loaned under a three-year renewable agreement by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where they had been in storage.

Experts carefully hung the full-size three-quarter-length portrait and eased the smaller items into specially made display cases, thanks to a £7,000 Awards for All lottery grant, under the watchful eye of Beccles & District Museum curator John Brodribb and long-time supporter of the museum Peter Clarke, who played the role of Sir John Leman in full costume to welcome the delivery.

Mr Brodribb said: “I think it's absolutely fabulous having them here. I think it will mean a great deal to the people of Beccles - it really is a significant piece of Beccles history that has come home to the town. There's real excitement that we've got these items.”

He added: “It seems to me the ideal place to display them as it appears Sir John Leman was not important to the Victoria & Albert, but is very important to Beccles. In a sense it feels like he is coming home.”

The portrait is accompanied by a Victorian copy of Sir John's folio, an account of the pageant held to celebrate his inauguration as Lord Mayor of London. Historians rate his mayoral procession in 1616 as grander than any that had gone before.

Also on display will be the gold signet ring which can be seen on his finger in the portrait, his silver seal, and a chain of office worn by the Baron of the Exchequer, which is similar to the one Sir John is wearing in the painting.

Mr Brodribb said it is believed that Sir John was born in 1544 in Beccles, although it cannot be confirmed as parish records were later destroyed in a fire at St Michael's Church.

But it was one of Sir John's final wishes that led to his name becoming so familiar in Suffolk. In his will he left money to provide 48 boys with free schooling in Beccles. A building in Ballygate which he owned was adapted for the purpose and renamed Leman House, until the turn of the 20th century, when it moved to its present site in Ringsfield Road and was renamed Sir John Leman High School.

Leman House is now home to the museum where the newly delivered portrait, painted by Dutch artist Levinus de Vogelaare shortly before Sir John's death in 1632, now hangs.

The museum opens for the 2009 season on March 28, although a preview day will be held on Saturday, February 21, which is also open to the public.

The museum is looking for volunteers to help with stewarding and other work. Call John Brodribb on 01502 715722 or e-mail thecurator@becclesmuseum.org.uk.

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