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Thetford originally grew up due to its strategic location at the point where the River Thet and River Little Ouse joined and the Icknield Way crossed. In its heyday, during the 14th Century, it boasted twenty parish churches and four monasteries. It is also possible that Thetford was the site of Boudicca's Palace which may have been located at Gallows Hill - just north of the town.

Thetford Guildhall

Thetford Guidhall

The Grammar School - which can trace its origins back to AD631 - has produced a number of important writers including: Thomas Paine (see below), the Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield and the detective writers James Pattinson (see East Harling) and Christopher Bush (see Great Hockham).

Today Thetford is an industrialised town lying in the heart of the Brecklands. It is probably best known for providing many of the locations for Dad's Army - the much-loved BBC sitcom.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

It is likely that Thomas Paine was born in a room in, what is now, The Thomas Paine Hotel in White Hart Street. He was educated at Thetford Grammar School and then became an excise man. However, he was soon dismissed for seeking a pay rise.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Paine emigrated to America in 1774 and two years later published Common Sense - a demand for American independence. He returned to England in 1787 and published The Rights of Man in response to Burke's criticism of the French Revolution. In 1792 Paine fled to France - where he became a member of the Convention. He was imprisoned in 1794 and completed The Age of Reason while under threat of execution. In 1802 he returned to American but his political radicalism and atheism made him an outcast. He died in America.

Statue of Thomas Paine

Statue of Thomas Paine

Thetford Grammar School

Thetford Grammar School

In a strange twist - William Cobbett (the author of Rural Rides and an early opponent of Paine) had his bones dug up and brought back to England in order to create a proper memorial for him. However, he mislaid them and so Paine has no known resting place. Lord Byron wrote the following satirical poem about this episode.

In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,
Will Cobbett has done well;
You visit him on earth again,
He'll visit you in hell.

There is a magnificent statue to Paine in King Street - just opposite The Bell Hotel.  Michael Foot MP described Paine as 'the greatest exile that has ever left England's shores'.

The Thomas Paine Society exists to further interest in the man and his works.

Robert Bloomfield (1766-1832)

Robert Bloomfield, who was born at Honington in Suffolk and was the author of The Farmer's Boy, was familiar with Thetford. In his poem Barnham Water - he records a journey along the Black Bourn Valley and mentions the town:

To where of old rich abbeys smil'd
In all the pomp of Gothic taste
By fond tradition proudly styl'd
The mighty 'City in the East'

George Bloomfield (1757-1831)

Robert's elder brother George was also a poet and wrote the following poem about Thetford:


The poets, one and all, were wont to choose
Some fabled, fav'rite Goddess, as their muse.
But gratitude alone my mind inspires,
No other Muse my simple pen requires.
When erst in youth's gay prime and uncontrolled
O Thetford! round thy flow'ry fields I've strolled,
From Tutt-Hill's eminence and Croxton's height,
Have view'd thine ancient ruins with delight,
Thy sloping hills and wooded vallies gay,
Whose silv'ry Ouse meand'ring winds his way.
Though then, each lofty mound, each ruin'd tower,
Told but of war, and time's destructive power;
And thou, they pristine grandeur long had'st lost,
Nor more of Kings, or mighty chiefs could boast;
Yet heartfelt joys beneath they roots I found,
And peace, with all the social blessings crown'd.
to tune his reed, and sing they healing streams,
Then enter'd not the Bard's enraptur'd dreams,
But now the Muse exultingly may sing,
The well attested virtues of the Spring;
Since erudition and clear truth unite
To chase all fear, and set the judgement right.

However, it is hard to reconcile this picture of a rural idyll with the Thetford of today - which is a modern, industrialised over-spill town. However, the centre of the town still has a number of medieval and Georgian houses and the 'silv'ry Ouse' still flows peacefully through it - even if there is the odd submerged supermarket trolley.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

One of the town's more exotic visitors was the novelist and diarist Virginia Woolf. In 1906, she cycled here while staying at nearby Blo' Norton Hall and recorded the visit meticulously in her journal.

'The rivers Thet & Ouse (I think) circle Thetford; & which ever way I went, seemed to take me across low stone bridges where anglers lounged, with their rods across the broad stream. Nurse maids were sitting on the rivers banks, leaning on the elbow over a paper novel, while their charges dabbled in the water. No one was ever able to say exactly what does go on in these medieval towns set in the heart of England at about this hour on a Summer's afternoon.......Often in London I shall think of Thetford, & wonder if it is still alive; or whether it has really ceased, peaceably, to exist any longer.'


More Thetford photographs





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