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Georgian Thetford

Revolutionary, philosopher and one of the greatest radical thinkers of his age Thomas Paine is born and educated in Thetford and first uses the phrase ’United States of America’.

From the middle of the 18th century things were changing, a sustained growth in population with new industries founded and beginning to flourish resulting in wealthy merchant businessmen buying land and property. River navigation was improved, extensive heaths and commons were enclosed and sold. New architectural styles changed the physical appearance of the town and there was an attempt to turn Thetford into a fashionable spa for tourists.

Thomas Paine was one of democracy’s greatest champions whose work was hugely influential in both American and French Revolutions. He earned a reputation as the greatest political figure of his day and the author of the eighteenth century’s three best-selling books.

Henry Cable and Susannah Homes, having received the death penalty in Thetford are transported to Australia and become founders of modern Australia.

The Corporation abandoned the economic regulations and trading restrictions that it had previously applied becoming less effective and ever more corrupt.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) 

‘History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine’ – John Adams, 1819

‘I consider Paine our greatest political thinker’ – Thomas Alva Edison, 1925

Thomas Paine was born in White Hart Street, Thetford in 1737 and educated at Thetford Grammar School until the age of 12. It is highly probable that his early experience of Thetford life, such as the grim system of justice and unfair voting systems, shaped his views in later years.

He became an apprentice to his father as a stay maker (stays being the support garments worn under clothing to give an exaggerated shape) in 1753. Following his apprenticeship he enlisted and briefly served as a privateer before establishing himself as a master stay-maker at Sandwich in Kent in 1759 and married Mary Lambert, sadly Mary died in childbirth a year later, the child also died. Thomas comes home and begins studying to join the excise service, in 1762 he moves to Grantham to become an exciseman. In 1764 he is transferred to Alford and then a year later he is sacked for ‘claiming to have inspected goods he did not expect.’ He requests reinstatement and whilst waiting for a vacancy over the next two years works as a stay-maker in Diss and later as a servant in Kensington. He also applies to become an ordained minister.

In 1768, following a short time as a school teacher in London, Thomas regains a job as an excise officer in Lewes in East Sussex, living above the tobacco and snuff shop of Samuel and Ester Ollive, who he married three years later having set up a tobacco business with her following her father’s death.

In 1772, Thomas writes his first publication, The Case of the Officers of Excise, a 21 page article asking parliament for better pay and working conditions. Two years later he is fired for being absent from his post without permission, after distributing his pamphlet in London. His tobacco business also failed and he has to sell his household possessions to pay his debts. Thomas formally separates from Elizabeth, and moves to London. He is introduced to Benjamin Franklin who was impressed by his writings and suggests emigration to British Colonial America but he barely survives the voyage across the Atlantic and on arrival at Philadelphia, he is so sick he has to be carried off ship and takes six weeks to recover.

The American Revolution begins in 1775. Thomas gets a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and the following year he publishes the Common Sense pamphlet, which presents the American colonists with a powerful argument for independence from British rule. It is widely read (still the all-time best selling American title). In February 1776 he writes the pamphlet of the Free and Independent States of America, later to become the United States of America and confers with Jefferson concerning the form of the Declaration of Independence. He enlists in the Continental Army. American Declaration of Independence is made on 4th July 1776. In December the first of his Crisis Papers are hurriedly printed and distributed and read to soldiers, low in spirits after many defeats, inspiring them to victory days later.

In 1777 second, third and fourth Crisis Papers are published (the fifth, sixth and seventh being published a year later) and Thomas Paine becomes secretary of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs but is expelled in 1779, after he alluded to secret negotiations with France in his writings. Eighth and ninth Crisis Papers and the Crisis Extraordinary are published in 1780. In 1781 Thomas Paine and John Laurens land in France to seek assistance for the war. They return with a loan of 10 million. Thomas also organises the Bank of North America to raise money to feed and clothe the army. The tenth, eleventh and twelfth Crisis Papers are published in 1782 with the final published the following year. In November 1783 as the last of the British troops in New York depart from Manhattan, Washington marches his troops, including Thomas Paine, down Broadway in celebration.

The Treaty of Paris is signed on 3rd September 1783, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War. Thomas buys a house in New Jersey, which he lives in from time to time, until his death. In 1785 Acknowledging that much of Paine’s service to the new US government had been at his own expense, Congress awards him $3000 and New York State gives him a confiscated Royalist farm in New Rochelle.

In April 1787 Thomas turns his attention to his other great love – practical science and leaves America for Paris to look for sponsors for a single-span iron bridge he has designed. His bridge is endorsed by the French Academy of Sciences. In September Thomas visits his 91-year-old mother in Thetford (father Joseph having died the previous November), and arranges for her to receive a pension. His bridge design receives an English patent and an exhibition opens to the public, although unsuccessful this time the design will be used later for the Sunderland Bridge.

The French Revolution breaks out in the summer 1789. In November Edmund Burke publishes his attack on the Revolution Reflexions on the Revolution in France. Thomas writes a reply supporting the revolution, written partly in London and finished at Versailles. In March Thomas publishes The Rights of Man, a radical work, calling for representative democracy, and proposing Republican government. Thomas sees the French Royal family’s flight, founds La Société des Republicains and writes a manifesto (which is plastered on city walls). Thomas witnesses the return of the arrested king. In the summer Thomas returns to England.

In Febuary 1792 Thomas Paine issues The Rights of Man, Part 2 proposes helping the poor through a system of income tax. It is widely read. Also published Address to the Addressers. In May Thomas’s London publisher pleads guilty after being ordered to appear before the Court after The Rights of Man causes a furore in England. A week later the British Government issues a writ against Thomas for wicked and seditious writings. In August Thomas becomes an honorary French citizen and is elected to the National Convention. He flees to France in the September and is tried and convicted in his absence in December.

France declares war on Britain1793. King Louis XVI is executed and as Thomas Paine had strongly argued against this, recommending instead exile to the United States, he upsets the revolutionary leaders, especially Robespierre. In October Thomas is denounced in the National Convention as a traitor to the Revolution. The Tribunal criminel-révolutionnaire begins. Its actions would become known as the Reign of Terror. In December Thomas is arrested for being a supporter of the former king and is imprisoned in Luxembourg prison in Paris, under threat of execution. In June 1794 France passes the Law of the 22nd Prairial, granting the Tribunal absolute power and allowing its judges two verdicts: acquittal or death. A frenzy of executions followed and Thomas finishes writing Age of Reason while in prison. On 24th July his name appears on the execution list and his cell door is marked accordingly, but the door left open because he is very ill. When the door is later shut, the mark cannot be seen and Thomas escapes death.

On July 28th Robespierre is executed after his own trial and attempts suicide, ending the ‘Reign of Terror’. In five weeks 1,376 citizens were executed. In November Thomas Paine is released from prison and he resumes his seat in the French Convention.

In 1795 Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason is published. The attack on organised religion brings him many enemies.

Convinced that Washington had personally betrayed him by acquiescing to his imprisonment, Thomas Paine writes him an abusive letter in 1796, attacking his military reputation and his presidential policy. This attack alienates him from many of his friends.

Agrarian Justice is published in 1797 and develops the idea that land ownership separates most people from their rightful, natural inheritance, and means of independent survival. Thomas goes to stay with Nicolas de Bonneville and his family.

Thomas believes that America, under John Adams, has betrayed the revolution in France and so, in September 1798, he writes an article for Le Bien Informé, advising the French government on how best to conquer America. In 1802 increasingly disgusted with Napoleon’s dictatorial rule, Thomas returns to America at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson. Mme de Bonneville, and her children, travel with him. He finds himself widely condemned for his anti-religious views.

Thomas is instrumental in America buying the territory of Louisiana in 1803 arguably guaranteeing USA as a world power in the 19th and 20th century.

In 1808 Thomas moves to stay at the house of Cornelius Ryder, and his family in the village of Greenwich. His health is deteriorating. Needing more care, he is moved to a farmhouse in Greenwich in 1809 and cared for by Mme de Bonneville. On June 8th Thomas Paine dies, aged 72. Mme De Bonneville, her two sons, and some New Rochelle neighbours are the only attendants at his funeral. He is buried in the grounds of his farm in New Rochelle, New York. His obituary in the New York Citizen states: ‘He had lived long, done some good and much harm.

His remains were returned to England by William Cobbett in 1819 but were subsequently lost, so ironically the first great ‘Citizen of the World’ has no known final resting place.

A gold statue of Thomas Paine was erected outside Thetford’s King’s House in 1964, a gift from the Thomas Paine Foundation in the USA. A foundation of a UK-based Thomas Paine Society promotes a better understanding of the man and his work.

Thomas Martin (1697 – 1771)

Thomas Martin was born at St Mary’s Free School house in Thetford in 1697 and educated at the same free school, where for long periods he was the only pupil. From an early age he took a keen interest in the history of Thetford, and at the age of 13 was recommended to the President of the Society of Antiquaries as the most knowledgeable guide to the town’s historic sites. His sketch map of Thetford from about 1750 at the Ancient House Museum is the earliest known of the town.

Martin collected lots of material relating to Thetford, some of which is now in the Norfolk Record Office. He did not publish any work during his lifetime but made important contributions to numerous works, including Francis Blomefield’s History of Norfolk. His History of the Town of Thetford was published in 1779, eight years after his death.

Henry Cable (1763 – 1846)

In 1783, Henry Cable senior, Henry Cable junior (age 19) and Abraham Carman were convicted of burglary at Thetford Lent Assizes and sentenced to death by hanging. The judge wrote to the Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department to recommend clemency for Henry junior and he was returned to Norwich Castle Gaol.

A year later and unrelated Susannah Homes was tried and convicted of stealing from her employer and was also sentenced to hang. Again the judge recommended clemency because she too was 19 years old and she was also held in Norwich Castle Gaol.

Both recommendations were successful with both sentences were commuted to transportation, however, the American revolution meant that prisoners were no longer being sent to the Colonies so an alternative needed to be sought. Meanwhile in Norwich Gaol, Susannah had met and fallen in love with Henry and had a son, also called Henry, in 1786. They submitted several petitions to be allowed to marry, but all were refused.

By now, Australia had been selected as the penal colony to replace America. Initially Susannah was selected, Henry was not. Worse was to come as the holding ship refused to allow baby Henry on board. Luckily gaoler John Simpson took the baby into his care, conveyed Susannah to Plymouth and managed by chance to gain access to Lord Sydney, the Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department. He told of Susannah’s heartbreak at being separated from her baby, of Henry being left in Norwich and the refusals to allow them to marry. Touched by their plight, Lord Sydney immediately ordered that baby Henry be re-united with Susannah and allowed to accompany her to Botany Bay. He also ordered that Henry be taken from Norwich to Plymouth and put aboard the same ship as Susannah, and that they be allowed to marry once they arrived.

On the 11th of March 1787 Henry, Susannah and the baby boarded the ship Friendship. The fleet of 11 ships containing some 800 convicts finally set sail on the 13th of May and arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th of January 1788, after a gruelling 8 months at sea. The following Sunday, the 10th of February 1788, Henry and Susannah, along with 4 other couples, were married, the first marriages in Australia. They went on to have 11 children.

Henry and Susannah were one married couple amongst approximately 1,500 participants in the Founding of Modern Australia in 1788. Notably, theirs was the only marriage to produce children who survived to adulthood.

©Ancient House Museum

18th Century Kings House

©Maria Schepers

21st Century Kings House

King’s House

The King’s House was originally a late medieval house, which was rebuilt during the reign of Elizabeth I and was used as a hunting lodge by James I who later granted to Sir Philip Wodehouse. The Wodehouse arms were placed over the gate at the King’s House and were later incorporated into the wall of the building when it was rebuilt during the 18th century.

Thetford spa

In 1819 there was an attempt to turn Thetford into a fashionable spa town for tourists, similar to Bath, Cheltenham and Harrogate. The meadows between the Thet and Little Ouse, close to Nuns Bridges, contained a spring of mineral rich water. A pump room was constructed over the spring and the ‘Thetford Mineral Spring Company’ was formed. The mayor paid for a new gravel path to be laid out along the bank of the river, known as the Spring Walk. The popularity of Thetford’s spa was short-lived and by 1838 the pump room had closed, though Spring House and the Spring Walk survive today.

Local governance

The political divide between the Whigs and the Tories continued into the 1720s and by the early 18th century the Corporation was pre-occupied with political infighting. Thetford had become well known across the country for electoral votes being bought and sold for vast sums. The Duke of Grafton’s son Lord Charles Fitzroy, was returned in 1733. This was to be the last contested election for 70 years and a Fitzroy was nominated in over 50% of elections until 1806. Thetford had become a pocket borough and, despite challenges from Lord Petre, remained so for a further 40 years with the Baring family (the Lords Ashburton of Buckenham Hall) and the Fitzroys effectively sharing the electoral spoils between them.

The arrogantly undemocratic and corrupt Corporation in Thetford, as elsewhere in the country, was a source of frustration and contempt. James Fison and Henry Bailey were wealthy radicals and represented the newly successful section of the community that felt strongly that they were being prevented from representation in the administration of the town. National pressure for reform of municipal and parliamentary government encouraged them to challenge the old establishment. Although they were unsuccessful, the 1831 election was to be the last in which the 31 Corporation members were the only people able to vote.

The new Whig government began to implement reforms immediately, however the 1832 Reform Act left boundaries unchanged locally and, although amongst the smaller boroughs, also retained both its seats in parliament.

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act abolished all the old borough authorities, no matter their previous state, and replaced them with a uniform system of municipal boroughs to be elected on democratic principles. Property and wealth qualifications meant limitations but in 1836 the electorate numbered 259, more than eight times prior to the reforms, totalling just 30% of the adult male population.  The 30% were responsible for the election of 12  Councillors out of the 17 members that made up the new council, also known as the Corporation.

Parliamentary enclosure

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries many areas of open common heathland in Breckland were enclosed and privatised by an Act of Parliament, leading to the closure of some roads and footpaths. The heaths were divided up between 1806 and 1809, bringing an end to public access and the rights of commoners to graze their animals. Several small heathland commons did survive though, including Barnham Cross and Melford Bridge commons.

Crime and punishment

The Lent Assizes were held in Thetford from as early as the thirteenth century. Criminals (men and women) awaiting justice were transported from across the county and held, manacled and chained, in miserable conditions in the Gaol. Justices appointed by the King also travelled to the town and Judgement was given over both civil and criminal proceedings, such as murder, robbery, arson and forgery. The court room would often be packed with members of the public, the Assizes were an important local event drawing many visitors and trade to the town.

For centuries public executions had been carried out in the town and would often attract great crowds. For much of the 18th century and early 19th century well over 200 capital crimes were punishable by death, however justice was not consistent, one man might hang for stealing a rabbit, while another would receive a much lesser sentence. A gallows was sited to the north of the town, just off the Mundford Road between the 16th and 19th centuries, still known today as Gallows Hill. The last executions carried out in Thetford took place in April 1824.

Not everyone sentenced to death at the Thetford Lent Assize were executed in the town. Some were taken to Norwich for public execution in the Castle Yard. During the 18th century an increasing number escaped death by being transported instead to places far away, initially the American colonies but after the American War of Independence, Australia.

Despite many efforts to keep the lucrative Assizes in the town, including a complete rebuild of the Guildhall between 1798 – 1800, strong petitioning for it to be moved to Norwich meant that the Lent Assize was last held in Thetford in 1832.


  • 1737
    Thomas Paine is born on White Hart Street, Thetford on 29th January
  • 1772
    Thomas Paine writes his first political pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise
  • 1776
    Thomas Paine writes Common Sense and Free and Independent States of America
  • 1776
    Amercian Declaration of Independence is made on July 4th
  • 1777
    Thomas Paine becomes secretary of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs
  • 1779
    Thomas Martin’s History of the Town of Thetford is published
  • 1781
    Thomas Paine and John Laurens land in France to seek assistance for the war in America
  • 1783
    Treaty of Paris signed ending American Revolutionary War
  • 1786
    The last remaining traders at the old market site, to the south of the Castle, are given permission to relocate to the Guildhall yard
  • 1787
    Henry Cabel, Susannah Homes and baby set sail on the First Fleet
  • 1787
    Thomas Paine leaves America for Paris to look for sponsors for his bridge
  • 1787
    Thomas Paine visits his mother in Thetford
  • 1789
    St Peter’s Church is restored
  • 1789
    The French Revolution breaks out
  • 1789
    Thomas Paine’s The Right’s of Man is published
  • 1792
    Thomas Paine is convicted and tried in England of wicked and seditious writings
  • 1792
    Thomas Paine’s The Right’s of Man Part 2 is published
  • 1792
    Thomas Paine given honorary French citizenship
  • 1793
    France declares war on Britain and King Louis XVI is executed
  • 1793
    Thomas Paine is arrested in France for being a supporter of the king
  • 1795
    Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason is published
  • 1797
    Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice is published
  • 1798
    Admiral Nelson is granted the freedom of the borough.
  • 1802
    Thomas Paine returns to America at the invitation of President Thomas Jefferson
  • 1803
    Thomas Paine is instrumental in the United States buying the territory of Louisiana1809 – Thomas Paine dies in, New York.
  • 1824
    Three men are hanged for sheep stealing, the last executions to take place in Thetford
  • 1833
    The Lent Assizes are moved from Thetford to Norwich