DISCLOSURE: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning when you click the links and make a purchase, we may receive a commission.
UK Genealogy Archives logo


THETFORD, a borough and market-town, having exclusive jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of Shropham, W. division, of Norfolk, and the hundred of Lackford, W. division of Suffolk, 79 miles (N. N. E.) from London; containing 3934 inhabitants. This ancient place, called Theodford by the Saxons, evidently derives its name from the river Thet, which here unites its stream with the Lesser Ousc; the latter river then passes through the town, separates the two counties, and is navigable hence to Lynn. The majority of antiquaries consider Thetford to be the site of the celebrated Sitomagus of the Romans, who possessed it in 435, and it is known to have been the metropolis of East Anglia; on which account, and from its proximity to the North Sea, it was during the heptarchy frequently desolated by the Danes, who, having retained possession of the town for fifty years, totally destroyed it by fire in the ninth century. In 1004, it sustained a similar calamity from their king, Sweyn, who had invaded East Anglia; and in 1010 it became, for the third time, the scene of plunder and conflagration by these marauders, into whose hands it again fell, after a signal victory which they had obtained over the Saxons. In the reign of Canute, Thetford began to recover from the effects of these repeated calamities, and in that of Edward the Confessor had nearly regained its former prosperity, containing not less than 944 burgesses, who enjoyed various privileges. In the time of the Conqueror (in 1070), the see of North Elmham was transferred hither, but the episcopal chair was removed to Norwich by Herbert de Lozinga, in the year 1094: Henry VIII. made the town the seat of a bishop suffragan to Norwich, which it continued during his reign. From the time of Athelstan to that of King John here was a mint, in which coins of Edmund and Canute were struck; and the ancient extent and importance of the town may be gathered from the fact that, in the reign of Edward III., it comprised twentyfour principal streets, five market-places, twenty churches, six hospitals, eight monasteries, and other religious and charitable foundations, of which there are but few remains. Thetford has been honoured with the presence and temporary residence of several sovereigns, particularly Henry I. and II., and Elizabeth, the last of whom rebuilt the ancient mansion of the earls of Warren, on its lapse to the crown, and occasionally resided in it, as did also James I. for the purpose of hunting: the house is still called the King's House.

The town has of late been much improved. It comprises five principal streets, partly paved; and the main portion is conuected with the few remaining houses on the Suffolk side by a handsome iron bridge over the Ouse, erected in 1829: the modern buildings are plain and neat, and the inhabitants are supplied with water from wells and springs. At the east end of the town is a chalybeate spring; the waters are similar to those at Tonbridge-Wells. Races took place here at an early period, but from the tumults they occasioned in the former part of the 17th century, the sports were suppressed by order of the privy council; they were revived a few years since, and held in June, upon the common, on the Suffolk side of the borough, but have been again discontinued. Assemblies occasionally take place, and a subscription library is supported. In addition to a very large paper-mill, there are an iron-foundry, two agricultural-machine factories, some good breweries, several malting establishments, a flour-mill, and a tanyard; and the navigation of the river, in its course to Lynn, having been improved between this place and Brandon, a brisk business is carried on in corn, wool, coal, and other articles. The Norwich and Brandon railway has a station here, 31 miles from the Norwich station. The market is on Saturday; the market-house has been taken down, and neat shambles erected, covered with cast iron, with a portico, and palisades in front. Fairs are held on May 14th and August 2nd and 16th, for sheep, and on September 25th, for cattle; there is a wool-fair in July.

A charter of incorporation, granted by Elizabeth in 1573, was surrendered to the crown in the 34th of Charles II., and a very imperfect one obtained in its stead, which in 1692 was annulled,and the original restored, by a decree in chancery. The corporation now consists of a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors, under the act 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76; the mayor, late mayor, and recorder are justices of the peace, and the total number of magistrates is nine. The borough sends two members to parliament: the right of election was extended in 1832, to the £10 householders of a new district: the mayor is returning officer. There has been a re-grant of the court of quarter-sessions for the borough, and petty-sessions are held by the corporation every Monday. The powers of the county debt-court of Thetford, established in 1847, extend over the registrationdistrict of Thetford. The county assizes, which had been held here, in Lent, ever since 1176, were removed a few years since. The guildhall is a fine building, erected at the expense of Sir Joseph Williamson, Knt., secretary of state to Charles II.; the gaol is a plain edifice of flint and white brick, commodiously arranged: on these buildings many thousand pounds have been expended by the inhabitants.

Thetford comprises the parishes of St. Cuthbert, containing 1543; St. Peter, 1184; and St. Mary the Less, 1207 inhabitants; the livings of all which are in the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk. St. Cuthbert's is a discharged perpetual curacy, with the rectory of the Holy Trinity united; net income, £50. The church contains a nave, chancel, and south aisle, with an embattled tower. The living of St. Peter's is a discharged rectory, with that of St. Nicholas' united, valued in the king's books at £5. 1. 5½.; net income, £55. The church, commonly called "the Black church," being constructed chiefly of flint, comprises a nave, chancel, and north aisle, with an embattled tower, which, with part of the body of the edifice, was rebuilt in 1789. The living of the parish of St. Mary the Less is a perpetual curacy, valued in the king's books at £1. 13. 6½.; net income, £83; impropriators, the Duke of Norfolk and others. The church, which stands in Suffolk, consists of a nave and chancel, with a square tower. There are places of worship for the Society of Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, and Roman Catholics. A preachership in St. Mary's church, a grammar school, and an hospital for two men and two women were founded and endowed in 1610, under the will of Sir Richard Fulmerston, Knt., who died in 1566: the income now amounts to £555 per annum. Some boys and girls are apprenticed from a fund of £2000 vested in an estate producing £290 per annum, left by Sir J. Williamson in 1701. In 1818, Mr. P. Sterne bequeathed £1000 for the benefit of the poor; and about £70, derived from the inclosure of the common, are yearly distributed with several minor benefactions. The union of Thetford comprises 34 parishes or places, of which 19 are in Norfolk, and 15 in Suffolk; and contains a population of 17,542.

The relics of antiquity consist chiefly of the fragments of a nunnery established in the reign of Canute, by Urius, the first abbot of Bury St. Edmund's; some of the walls, buttresses, and windows, with a fine arch and cell, are still visible, the conventual church having been converted into a barn, and a farmhouse built with the other ruinous portions. Of a priory founded on the brink of the river in 1104, by Roger Bigot, for Cluniac monks, and which at the Dissolution was valued at £418. 16. 3., the gateway, constructed with freestone and black flint, and parts of the church, which was cruciform, alone remain. Of the monastery of St. Sepulchre, instituted in 1109, by the Earl of Warren, and further endowed by Henry II., the church has been converted into a barn. The site of St. Augustine's friary, founded in 1387, by John of Gaunt, for mendicants of that order, still bears the name of Friars' Close. At the eastern extremity of the town are remains of a Danish fortification, which consisted of a large keep and double rampart, erected on an artificial mount called Castle Hill, of which the height is 100 feet, the circumference of the summit 81 feet, and of the base 984: the remains of the ramparts are 20 feet high, and the surrounding fosse 70 feet wide. It is somewhat singular that no trace is visible of any steps, or path, by which military stores could be conveyed up the very steep ascent to the fortress. The mineral spring was discovered about 80 years since, by Matthew Manning, Esq., M.D., and at that time was much resorted to; it was afterwards shut up for many years, but in 1819 was re-opened, and the waters having been analysed, were found to be very effectual in strengthening the stomach. A handsome pump-room was erected, to which hot and cold baths were attached, situated near the river side, and approached by pleasant sheltered walks; but for want of sufficient patronage the establishment has been closed. Thomas Martin, F.A.S., and author of the History of Thetford, was born here in 1696, and educated at the free school, of which his father was master. The notorious Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man, was also born here, and educated at the school.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.