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Modern Thetford

Thetford has undergone radical transformation and expansion since WW2. Today the town flourishes with new high tech industry and a diverse community

During the past 70 years Thetford has undergone more radical change than perhaps at any other point during its history. After the Second World War, Thetford as a town was struggling, there was little employment for the local community and some of the housing was in a very poor state. By the early 1960s the size of the town grew enormously, including development on the south bank of the river on the location of the Late Saxon town. Thetford Grammar School changed from a state secondary school to an Independent School in 1981. The turn of the 21st century saw a large migrant population from Portugal and Eastern Europe move into the town making for the diverse community it continues to be today.

Ellis Clarke

William Ellis Clarke arrived in Thetford in 1951 for his interview as the new Town Clerk. He recollected arriving in the town for his interview and finding most of the roads dug up and the centre of town in a state of disarray. Pipes were being laid in all the roads for a large scale sewerage project which connected all the properties to mains sewers, up until that point waste from outdoor toilets was collected by the honey cart.

He remained as Town Clerk until his retirement in 1974. Noting that there was a lack of employment opportunities for people in the town, primarily men, Ellis was the driving force behind the town expansion scheme. He knew that the scheme would benefit those already living in town as well as people moving in. On his retirement he was awarded an MBE by HM the Queen and was the last person to receive the Freedom of the Borough (Thetford lost it’s Borough status in 1974).

David Osborne

David Osborne was a much loved local historian who grew up in Thetford during the expansion years. Schooled at Thetford Secondary Modern, David spent many Sunday afternoons cycling around the building sites as the Barnham Cross estate was being built – the Tour De Thetford as he called it. David spent many years researching the town’s history and collecting objects, postcards and ephemera. He wrote 19 books on the town between the 1980s and his death in 2019. Shortly before his death, David became the first person in 50 years to be given the Freedom of Thetford since Ellis Clarke in recognition of his services to the town.

The Town Expansion Scheme – housing

The Newtown estate was expanded after the Second World War and in 1946 building work started on the St Mary’s Estate. However, these were small in comparison to the Town Expansion Scheme that allowed families from large cities to move into smaller country towns.  In 1953 the Borough Council, led by Town Clerk, Ellis Clarke approached London County Council to become part of the scheme. Despite initially being knocked back, Ellis Clarke continued to push for Thetford to become an overspill town having realised that significant development would also benefit the existing community as well as newcomers. In 1957 Thetford signed an agreement that would transform the town: work began on new housing estates on the southern side of the town and 5,000 Londoners moved to Thetford.

The project attracted businesses such as engineering, printing and manufacturing with the promise of housing near to the factories for the workforce and a better standard of life than in London. The first estate, Barnham Cross, included several schools including a new Secondary Modern School, a parade of shops and green spaces but no allocated parking for each house and only 523 garages for 877 homes.

In 1960 another 5,000 Londoners moved to Thetford, increasing the population to around 17,000. This phase of development first saw the building of an additional 1,500 houses by 1965. The Redcastle Furze estate was built incorporating the Radburn principles of separating traffic and pedestrians. ‘Anglia Houses’ were fabricated for St Martins Way to speed up the building process and designed to last 50 years. (The buildings still exist today) The one major drawback to the estate was the difficulty people had in finding their way around it, most notable when during an official civic opening the Mayor and GLC guests were unable to locate the house they were to have tea in, wandering around for some time.

The focus then shifted to the Abbey Farm estate to the north of the river. Construction of the Abbey Farm estate began in 1967, using a spine design with one central road (Canterbury Way) running through the centre. 1,000 houses of mixed size with 1.5 parking spaces per house, public open spaces, footpaths, a shopping precinct and school were created. The then Housing Minister, Anthony Greenwood on visiting the estate declared it exceptional. During the early 1970s there were 25,000 families on the waiting list to move to the towns expanded under the scheme, including Thetford.

The last significant scheme, the Ladies estate was started in 1974 and completed in 1979. This also used the spine principal with a main road curving gently with a mixture of houses, bungalows and flats situated in closes, surrounded by greenspaces and play areas. In 1984 a new High School opened opposite the Ladies estate on Croxton Road. Private housing estates sprang up around the centre and north side of the town. New residents to the town were welcomed with a letter from the Mayor and a welcome pack of information about the town and the area.

By the late 1980s the population of Thetford was around 21,000 people, about 4 times the population had been before expansion started. A new development of private housing called Cloverfields was built on the North East side of the town. This enormous increase in population meant that Thetford had grown much faster than any other town in Norfolk, and indeed in the whole country.

The new estates constructed in Thetford are typical of the 1960s and 1970s. This is an area which has been relatively neglected by historians, but these estates are part of the fabric of Thetford’s historic landscape. Archaeological digs in Thetford prior to building new houses have helped reveal aspects of the town’s story, such as the discovery of kilns used to make ‘Thetford Ware’ pottery 1000 years ago, evidence of early housing and roads, and a coin die used to strike Anglo-Saxon silver pennies.

Thetford Today

The current population is estimated as 29,000. Just as in previous ages, 21st-century Thetford has seen an increase in migrants from other areas and countries. Russian, Polish, Slovak, Spanish and Portuguese families have settled in the area, drawn by the abundance of manufacturing and agricultural work. The 2011 census revealed that almost 30% of the Thetford population were of Portuguese descent. Housing development continues with the new Kingsfleet estate of 5,000 houses being built on the bank of land between the existing town and the bypass. Thetford Grammar School remains an Independent School, the two state secondary schools were amalgamated into one Academy in the mid 2000s; with large scale development on the Rosemary Musker site and the original Thetford Secondary Modern site becoming a business and community hub in 2014. In June 2015 work began on the redevelopment of the riverside area. The bus station was moved adjacent to Norwich Road. The Anchor Hotel and other buildings were demolished to make way for a cinema, retail units and hotel. This has opened up the riverside area, provided new green spaces and a permanent home for the seated statue of Captain Mainwaring from the popular Dad’s Army TV series.

In recent decades the addition of the Charles Burrell and Dad’s Army museums have provided the town with an increase in visitor numbers and Thetford is also home to the headquarters of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). More recently large scale out of town retail development on the London Road has attracted larger retail chains into the town, presenting an additional challenge to the original commercial heart of the town, in common with many high streets across the country.

Thetford’s unique mix of history, heritage and nature welcomes a large number of visitors to the town exploring all that it and the area of the Brecks has to offer.

The Town Expansion Scheme – industry

Along with the residential development, Thetford was also transformed by industrial change. As the new estates were built, many companies moved to the town, creating new jobs. Four industrial estates were created around the town, and by 1966 46 companies had established themselves in the town. Larger manufacturers included household names such as Danepak, Conran, Thermos and from the late 1960s, Jeyes. By the end of the 1960s around 9,000 new jobs had been created. Although initially the new jobs were not for the existing community before long as people settled into the town and changed jobs, vacancies appeared and were opened up to the ‘locals’ as Ellis Clark had planned all along.

The Town Expansion Scheme – amenities

Under the original Town Expansion Scheme, a new shopping area was planned for the town centre, along with new roads for enhanced access. The plans were opposed by some locals as it would have meant demolishing many of the historic buildings in Thetford town centre, so the initial plans were modified. However, many historic buildings were still lost including most of Wells Street and notable buildings in King Street. From 1965 onwards new developments were built in the town, including the Riverside shopping area and the extension to the Bell Hotel. A further shopping precinct was built between King Street and Tanner Street. In 1968 a new civic building, the Carnegie Rooms was built followed by a new library opposite in 1970. During the 1960s and 1970s this development attracted many new independent shops, including Savage’s, Adderley’s, Dubock’s, Siddall’s, Sneezums and Doran’s Corner. As well as redeveloping the town centre, the Borough Council also laid out new public open spaces and a new bus station on the south side of the river. A new ring road was created around the outskirts of the town centre running from east to west including a new bridge over the river. In 1990 a new bypass opened diverting A11 traffic from the centre of town to around the outskirts.

  • 1953
    Thetford Borough Council approaches London City Council to become part of Town Expansion Scheme
  • 1957
    Thetford joins town Expansion Scheme and work begins on new housing to the South, 5,000 Londoners move to Thetford
  • 1960
    Another 5,000 Londoners move to the town increasing Thetford’s population to approximately 17,000
  • 1967
    Construction of Abbey Farm Estate begins North of the river
  • 1974
    Work begins on the Ladies Estate
  • 1984
    Rosemary Musker High School opens on Croxton Road