Throughout 2024, Suffolk Chamber of Commerce will acknowledge and where appropriate celebrate its 140th anniversary. Established initially in Ipswich in 1884, the Chamber has developed into a countywide membership organisation working to support and represent member interests and provide a significant depth and breadth of direct services to members and the wider Suffolk community.

140 years is a long time for any organisation. Over those years the economic and social base of Suffolk has changed significantly. New technologies and business practices have revolutionised how we work and the sectors we work in. Lifestyles and community expectations have changed. We have endured world wars and pandemics, and experienced economic downturns and years when some believed we “have never had it so good”. Throughout the period Suffolk Chamber has played its role acting as the ‘voice of business’, delivering focused support services and advocating policy change and commercial innovation.

The 140th anniversary provides an ideal opportunity to stand back and reflect on what has been achieved and how this can inform future work and priorities. This thinking has informed the design and delivery of Chamber140 (C140) a systematically planned collection of activities, events and other outputs designed to reveal the hidden heritage of the Suffolk Chamber and the impact of wider business and commercial activity on the social fabric and economic wellbeing of Suffolk.

We all have some interest in the past. However, as the opening lines of L.P. Hartley’s classic novel The Go-between remind us: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Understanding the past can be difficult and interpretations of past actions can be contested.

To get a better understanding of the Chamber’s own history and heritage, an in-depth investigation of past policy and practice was undertaken using the Chambers extensive paper archive currently housed with the Suffolk Record Office and a wider range of sources from across the county and beyond. This work was undertaken by Chamber staff and a small group of dedicated volunteers, with key elements of the work generously supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund. This research unearthed fascinating stories of continuity and change which will be shared throughout 2024, and many can be found on the dedicated timeline area of this website.

C140 was formally launched at a professionally curated and mounted exhibition held at the Hold in Ipswich in April. The exhibition used a series of themes and a comprehensive timeline to tell the story of developmental change in Suffolk and the contribution of the Chamber and its members to this in new and accessible ways. The exhibition, elements of which will tour various locations across Suffolk during 2024, used photographic and archival material to unearth stories from the past that have impact and relevance for the future.

An associated animated timeline video has also been produced offering an entertaining summary of the exhibition, which can be viewed below.

By ‘looking back to look forward’, C140 has also offered an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the diversity of the Suffolk economy and the importance of innovation and inclusivity. Through its themes and examples, the exhibition demonstrates the resilience of people and organisations during periods of extreme local and global turbulence. It also suggests the importance of collaboration and cooperation, between local communities and the public, private and third sectors of the economy.

The past does not predict the future, but it can inform it. By unlocking and revealing its past to new and diverse audiences, the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce will be better equipped to continue to support its members and the wider Suffolk community address the economic, social and environmental challenges of the future.

Written by Dr Peter Funnell, Director of Oakmere Solutions Ltd and Chair of Suffolk Chamber in Central Suffolk.