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Developing Thetford

Gas lighting, piped water, electricity and slum clearance, and the country’s first black mayor

During the 19th and early 20th centuries Thetford developed many public services including a fire brigade, police service and local schools. In 1904 Thetford became the first town in Britain to elect a Black Mayor: Allan Glaisyer Minns, a prominent local doctor.

Dr Alan Glasier Minns

Allan Glaisyer Minns’ was born in the island of Inagua, Bahamas in 1858. John Minns, his paternal grandfather, had emigrated to the Bahamas from England in 1801 and became a planter and slaveowner.

Allan attended Nassau Grammar School for boys and then moved to study medicine at St. Guy’s Hospital, London. In 1884 he registered with the British Medical Association and a year later moved to Thetford to assist his brother Pembroke Robert Bunch Minns who was already in medical practice in the town. In 1888 he set up on his own in White Hart Street, later moved his practice to Bridge Street.

In 1903, he became the first person from the Caribbean to assume a position on Thetford town council. Just one year later, he became Britains’ first black mayor, having been unanimously voted in.

He raised his children in Thetford – Allan Noel Minns was to become one of the few black officers to serve in the British Army during the first World War as a doctor.

Dr Minns became a well-known figure in Norfolk’s political and medical establishments and in the 1890s, he was appointed Medical Officer at Thetford Workhouse and at Thetford Cottage Hospital. He served two terms as mayor from 1904 – 1906 and remained on the council for many years addressing many issues and overseeing improvements to the town’s services.

Life in the town

There was some slum clearance in the town during the late 19th century. After 1895 some properties in Pike Lane, Star Lane and St Mary’s Lane were demolished or repaired. These clearances meant families needed to be re-housed and in 1911 the Corporation purchased a site on Bury Road for 50 council houses that were built between 1912 and 1914. The Newtown estate off London Road was built between 1920 and 1923. These two estates represented the first significant expansion of Thetford in almost 1,000 years.

In 1836 a workhouse was built between Bury Road and the Little Ouse, near what is now St Barnabas’ Close. The workhouse housed 300 paupers and had a chapel dedicated to St Barnabas. The workhouse was abolished in 1929, but the buildings continued to be used as an unofficial workhouse until the 1950s, and then as a hospital until 1973 when the building was demolished.

Apart from the Grammar School and some small, privately run schools, there was no formal educational provision in Thetford until 1870, when the Education Act made infant education compulsory. In 1876 the Thetford United School Board was established, and built a new infant and junior school of Norwich Road which opened in 1879, and in the same year a Roman Catholic Church School also opened.

Governing Thetford

In 1835 the old Corporation of Thetford was abolished and a new Corporation was created. For the first time, democratically elected. The new Corporation was led by the Mayor, with four aldermen and 12 councillors.

For most of the 19th century the town MPs came from the families of either the Duke of Grafton or Lord Ashburton, and the elections were rarely contested. The Norwich Mercury reported that Thetford’s elections had become well-known for their corruption. Until 1868 Thetford had been represented by two members of Parliament but it lost its second seat to Scotland.

Navigation

From the early days of horse and cart, through stage coaches, river navigation and the development of the railways and road networks, Thetford has remained a logistically important town.

In 1669 an Act of Parliament empowered Thetford Corporation to make the river navigable. Lighters (barges) carrying coal, grain, timber, fertilisers, building materials and many other goods would have been a familiar sight.

In 1769 it took at least 30 hours to travel by stage coach Norwich to London, stopping overnight at Thetford. The Bell Inn is the last surviving of the original Thetford coaching inns, The Anchor and the White Hart being the other two.

The nature of the coaches and conditions on the main roads did not make for comfortable travel, however, the roads improved through the work of turnpike trusts. The trusts would repair and maintain their sections of the roads, financed by the collection of tolls paid by travellers. Toll gates were erected in the Elveden and Kilverstone.

The first railway to open in Norfolk in May 1844 was between Norwich and Great Yarmouth at a time when more and more railways were being built throughout the country. Thetford’s railway opened just one year later in 1845 resulting in the immediate withdrawal of nearly all the coach services that had generated much trade and employment. Bearing in mind the journey time to London was now less than four hours.

Unlike the turnpikes, river navigation continued to flourish, recording 1845 as its most successful year in terms of toll income and tonnage carried. Although there was a dramatic reduction between 1845 and 1849, trade stabilised and remained steady for the next 30 years allowing the river’s working navigation to survive into the late 19th century when it was in desperate need of expensive renovation work. Due to a change in the law, Thetford Corporation could no longer subsidise through rates which resulted in the staunches falling into decay and navigation rights ceasing in 1929. Despite a desire to see the river’s navigation restored by many for pleasure and tourism, it remains expensive and elusive.

Although in its early years the railway suffered frequent accidents and loss of life and had a profound effect on many local businesses, it did bring many economic and social advantages and over time many products were dispatched and received by rail. It also opened new travel opportunites for many people of different social backgrounds. A day trip to see new and distant places had become a reality.

Significant sites

King’s House – base of Thetford Town Council from 1952 until 2019.

Old Croxton Road almshouses – a terrace of four red-brick houses built in 1885 by George and Sarah Tyrell.

Baptist Chapel, King Street – built in 1859 with a Thetford grey brick façade.

The Guildhall – opened in 1902. Believed to have been a Guildhall on this site from the 14th century, rebuilt at least twice. The basement was used as the former fire station and now the home of Dad’s Army museum

Shambles, Market Place – originally erected in 1837 and replaced by a cast iron and brick structure in the 1890s, now subdivided and enclosed into four shops.

Thetford Mechanics Institute, Market Place – built as a mechanics’ institute in 1887 and later converted into a public library. It is now the local branch of the Royal British legion.

Police and Fire Brigade

  • 1836
    Thetford Borough Police Force established, with six volunteer constables and one paid chief constable.
  • 1857
    Thetford’s tiny police force joins the County Constabulary.
  • 1880
    Thetford Fire Brigade is founded, with 20 volunteers and a new manual engine.
  • 1905
    A steam engine is purchased for the Brigade, an event celebrated on Castle Meadow with a demonstration and a concert. This engine remains in use until the Second World War.

Gas, electricity and water

  • 1838
    Thetford Gas Company is founded but collapses a year later.
  • 1845
    Thetford Gasworks opens on Bury Road; in 1848 the company provides gas street lighting to the town.
  • 1877
    Piped water supply becomes available, after several epidemics during the 1850s and 1860s prompt calls for a clean water supply. The new reservoir on Gallows Hill uses a steam engine to pump fresh water into the town.
  • 1916
    Burrell’s begins to run a private generator to provide a limited electricity supply.
  • 1929
    The Anglian Electricity Supply Company undertakes to supply the majority of the town with electricity, the same year that Burrell’s closes and its generator ceases to work.
  • 1933
    Thetford’s electricity supply becomes available.

Public health

  • 1847
    Local surgeon Henry Best complains about the overcrowded state of some of the town churchyards
  • 1855
    Thetford Burial Board lays out a new cemetery called St Margaret’s, and the churchyards are closed to new burials
  • 1866
    The Corporation establishes the Thetford Local Board of Health but little is done to improve public health.
  • 1868
    Chief Medical Officer Henry Stevens investigates accusations that the Corporation is failing the inhabitants of the town. His report is damning; he calculates that the mortality rate in Thetford is higher than the slums of Whitechapel in London.
  • 1870
    A survey for a new drainage and sewage system is rejected as being too expensive, and in 1873 another typhoid epidemic claims more lives.
  • 1877
    A new water supply is established from a reservoir on Gallows Hill driven by a steam engine. Clean water results in mortality rates dropping significantly.
  • 1890
    During the 1890s the mortality rate rises again, with epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria.
  • 1909
    A proposal for a sewage system is rejected by the Corporation as being too expensive. It is not until 1949 that a sewage system is installed in the town – most properties are connected by 1952.