We all know that the history of grazing on the Sudbury Common Lands stretches back into the mists of time. There are many references to it from the late twelfth century onwards, but it is only the more recent past that the information is readily accessible.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, as is the case now, the generally accepted date for the return of the cattle to all the pastures was the 1st of May. Nowadays, there is generally one farmer who provides all the livestock that is required to graze the riverside, although the past two years have seen a period of transition from one farmer to another. For very many years now, the livestock has related exclusively to cattle but that was not always the case.
If we turn the clock back one hundred years, the Sudbury Common Lands Charity minute book for May 1922 records the following: ‘The date for Turning On cattle was fixed for 16th May and the charge per head to be £3-10-0 and to limit the number to 160 head. The King’s Marsh to be fed off first. Cows, Heifers, Working Horses and Ponies, not under three years only will be accepted’ so, in previous centuries there was quite a mix of livestock out on the riverside.
In addition to the above, the minutes further record ‘all horned stock to be tottled’. The term ‘to tottle’ may be an East Anglian or even a Sudbury one, for there seems to be no reference to it elsewhere. Tottles were sheaths or cups made either from iron or more generally wood and placed over the tips of the horns so that cattle would not gore one another. As most of them were wooden this may explain why none appear to have survived. They were necessary where communal grazing took place rather than all the animals being from one herd and used to one another’s company.
By the mid-twentieth century the grazing cattle were milking cows only, from some of the seven dairies around the town, and they would have been kept apart on separate meadows so ‘tottles’ would have been unnecessary. The last dairy cattle trod their way home from Kings Marsh to Braybrook’s dairy in Ballingdon Street in 1974.
Every five years the Sudbury Common Lands Charity celebrates the turning on of the cattle with a processional ceremony where the current mayor is led by the Freeman Macebearers over the meadows. The mayor examines the pastures and then declares them fit for the new grazing season. The grazier then unloads his cattle. This year the ceremony took place on 27th April.