The designation `Town Reeve' is the term by which modern times have known the important office, steeped in history since its inception in Anglo-Saxon times, of 'tun-gerefa'. Possibly more than a thousand years ago this would have been the man appointed by his contemporaries, as a kind of magistrate, to administer and control a `tun' or small township. Other forms of 'gerefa' have survived into modern times, such as Port Reeves, Fen Reeves and Shire Reeves (the `sheriffs' of today’s parlance), but, despite repeated claims from other places where admittedly similar titles survive, the town of Bungay, nestling in a loop of the River Waveney on the Suffolk side of the border with Norfolk, remains proud in the belief that it is the only place in England to boast a Town Reeve as such.

Nowadays, the Town Reeve presides over the Bungay Town Trust, a benevolent and charitable institution dating possibly from the sixteenth century. This survives as a body of 'Feoffees', appointed as trustees of various lands and properties conveyed to the town and people of Bungay over the years. The Town Reeve would almost certainly have become associated with the Town Trust, being referred to in some documents as the `Primer Feoffee'.

The earliest known Deed of Feoffment is dated 1639; new deeds have periodically been prepared, allowing for the appointment of twenty-four Feoffees until very recent years, since when, by order of the Charity Commissioners, the number has been increased to thirty-four, ten of whom are elected by the Town Council. Being traditionally a self-perpetuating body, the Trust has the power to appoint in the place of members who die, or occasionally resign, other prominent, influential and suitable citizens. It does seem, however, that appointments to vacancies on the Town Trust have not always been made as assiduously as is the case today. Researches have indicated, in fact, that in the early nineteenth century its numbers were reduced to two, who served alternately as Town Reeve for some years - and that on the death of his fellow Feoffee, John Cooper (Senior) ran the town's affairs single-handed until 1809, when he appointed as many as forty-two others to assist him! Not all of these were to serve as Town Reeve.

The first Town Reeve known by name is William Brooke, mentioned in St. Mary's Churchwardens' Book in 1536, and it is a matter for reasonable conjecture that the names of Throckmorton, Popeson, Wingfield, and others famed in the chronicles of Bungay, would have figured among those serving the office in earlier centuries. A series of Town Reeves' Books is known to have been kept since 1548; however, the first has sadly disappeared without trace, so that a full and consecutive list is only available from the second volume, beginning in 1725. In earlier times, the comparatively few Feoffees would serve as Town Reeve on numerous occasions, usually in strict rotation; the tradition of the incumbent's right to choose his or her own successor, to be revealed only on the evening of the Annual Town Meeting, seems to have evolved in the early years of the 20th Century.

The said Annual Town Meeting is held on the evening of the first Tuesday in December, formerly at the King's Head, then at the Centenary Rooms, and nowadays at the Chaucer Institute, following some years at the Community Centre. Following brief reports and presentation of Town Trust accounts, the Town Reeve reviews the year of office now closing, and proceeds to the main business - and highlight - of the evening, the naming of his or her successor. Bungay's new chief citizen, in accepting office, and having been duly invested with the gown and chain of office, outlines his or her programme, theme or intentions for the year ahead, and at the close of the meeting, in accordance with ancient tradition, those present are invited to sign the massive book containing the town accounts. Also traditionally, the new Town Reeve's first duty has been to proceed to one of the town's hostelries to offer liquid refreshment to the bellringers who have been busy in the church tower ringing in the new appointment. In former days, the Town Band would play in the streets and outside the new Town Reeve's home!

Tradition further demands that during the first month in office the Town Reeve on Christmas Day visits the occupants of the town's two groups of almshouses, and the patients at All Hallows Hospital, Ditchingham, in which the Town Trust has long had an interest. Usually in January, the first of some four meetings during the year is held, with the Town Reeve and Feoffees planning the expenditure of the now somewhat diminished income of the town purse. The upkeep and repair of the Butter Cross and the future of the Castle have been perennially on the agenda; matters for attention in former years included care of the poor, education of the young, water, fire and street-lighting services, watchmen, scavenging, and bellringing.

Among the more glamorous engagements of the Town Reeve are the annual Harvest Festival Service at Bury St. Edmunds for all the civic dignitaries of Suffolk, and the annual Remembrance Sunday Service, when a wreath is laid at the War Memorial. A Town Reeve's Ball and varying kinds of concert are among the other events which have been organized, the proceeds generally going to the Town Trust for its charitable works. Some of the town's organizations invite the Reeve to be their Honorary President for the duration of the term of office, and fetes, etc., are opened, commemorative plaques unveiled, centenarians visited, with the Town Reeve attending, in official capacity, any major event held in Bungay. It has fallen to the lot of the Town Reeve to read the Proclamation of the Accession of each new Sovereign, and loyal greetings have been addressed at times of Royal celebration and on other occasions of national moment.

The glorious culmination of the year of office comes with the Town Dinner. This major event, known to have been held from 1725, and possibly even earlier, at the annual `reckoning', or audit of the town accounts, was originally a period of merriment and cheer lasting from 3 p.m. onwards! Having been allowed to lapse in 1873, it was sixty years later revived, and is now held on the Friday evening preceeding the Town Meeting, its various homes having been the King's Head Hotel, the Secondary Modern School, and latterly the Community Centre and Bungay High School. The Town Reeve presides over an elegant company, and will have been responsible for the choice of principal guest speakers, who traditionally have been folk connected with his or her own calling or profession. Loyal and other toasts are drunk, there is dancing, and eagerly awaited annually is the singing, with additional topical verses, of the song `Old Bungay', originally sung at Bungay theatre in 1816. One could, in fact, do far worse, before proceeding to list and account for those who have held the office of Town Reeve of Bungay, than to conclude this general summary of the historic office itself by reiterating that song's famous chorus, being words in praise of the town of which, by common consent datimg back into the mists of time, the Town Reeve is the civic and social head:

'Of all the fam'd towns this famed Island can boast,
Where's the like of old Bungay? Search through the whole host!
Then of all places, this is the place of renown:
Oh! What a place is Old Bungay!
Old Bungay's a wonderful Town!'

From 'The Town Reeves of Bungay' by John Harris (Roseland Publishing).