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Victorian Thetford

From brewing to steam engines to fertiliser, Thetford-based works employ hundreds and Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab and favourite of Queen Victoria, makes his home at Elveden.

Thetford was transformed by the development of various industries in the 19th century. Companies such as Burrell’s, the Patent Pulp Manufacturing Company, Fisons and Bidwell’s employed hundreds of people and changed the face of Thetford with new industrial buildings.

Thetford has a close connection with Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, and the first person of Sikh heritage to settle in Britain, living at Elveden Hall just outside the town. Duleep Singh’s second son, Frederick, was one of Thetford’s most prominent benefactors, giving the town Ancient House as well as his personal collections. His daughter Sophia Duleep Singh was a prominent suffragette.

Maharajah Duleep Singh

Duleep Singh became the first person of Sikh heritage to settle in Britain at the age of fifteen. He became Maharajah as a child of five, last heir of the powerful Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, with his mother Jinda Kaur as Regent. Following the two Anglo Sikh wars of the 1840s, the British annexed the region in 1849 and it became part of the British Empire. The British separated the Maharajah from his mother and placed him in the care of Dr Login and his wife. Duleep Singh had to give up his sovereign rights and his property to the British, including the famous diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor, which is now part of the British Crown Jewels.

On arrival in England, the young Maharajah became a favourite of Queen Victoria and the aristocratic elite. In 1863 he bought the estate of Elveden, close to Thetford, where he pursued a life of leisure, including shooting and hunting over the 17,000 acres. The Prince of Wales attended his hunting parties at Elveden.

The house was enlarged during the 1860s, including many alterations in a palatial Moghul style. Duleep Singh lived at Elveden with his first wife, Bamba Muller, and their six children, three girls and three boys, including Prince Frederick who was born in 1868 and Princess Sophia who was born in 1876.

In the 1880s, Duleep Singh’s relations with the British government became strained over many issues including that of his pension and the way he had been treated. He left Elveden to try and return to his kingdom but the British stopped him. He went to live in Paris and tried to gain support from Russia to regain control of the Punjab region from the British, but the attempt failed. In Paris, after the death of his first wife, Duleep married his second wife, Ada.

In 1890 Duleep suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. He asked to visit Queen Victoria, and was granted a royal pardon. In 1893 he visited England for the last time, and later that year died in Paris in October 1893. Prince Frederick buried his father at Elveden, alongside his first wife and their youngest son.

A 74cm high marble bust of Duleep Singh by sculptor John Gibson sold at auction for £1.7million in 2007, having been expected to fetch around £30,000.

Prince Frederick Duleep Singh

Frederick was Duleep Singh’s second son). After his education at Eton and Cambridge he served in the army, and fought in the First World War. He was particularly interested in the history and archaeology of Norfolk, and wrote several articles on the subject.

He also collected paintings and other objects of local interest. He lived at Old Buckenham Hall, and later bought the moated manor house at Blo’Norton in south Norfolk. Frederick was one of Thetford’s most prominent benefactors. In 1921 he purchased the Ancient House in White Hart Street and gave it to the town to be turned into a museum. After his death, he left Thetford his collection of portraits, and his books relating to East Anglia.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh,god daughter of Queen Victoria, was a prominent suffragette who campaigned for women’s rights. She took part in the Black Monday demonstration in London in 1910 and reported the police brutality towards women campaigners. She was also a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in support of women’s rights.


Thetford’s Burrell engineering works thrived during the nineteenth century making steam traction engines and other products for farmers and fairground showmen. At its height Burrell’s St Nicholas Works in Minstergate employed 350 people in Thetford.

1770 – Joseph Burrell sets up a forge to make and repair farming implements near the ruins of St Nicholas’ church.

1790 – business expands into production of agricultural machinery. Under the direction of Joseph, and his brothers William and James, Burrell’s continues to grow.

1836 – Charles Burrell takes on the family business, aged 19 and adapts industrial steam engines for threshing, ploughing and strong enough to pull fairground rides.

1850 – Burrell’s is at the forefront of the development of traction engines and manufactures more than 4,000 engines in Thetford.

1851 – Exhibited at the Great Exhibition and won a medal for a hurdle making machine

1890 – production diversifies to include steam driven fairground rides, marine engines, trams and small steamboats.

1914 – During the First World War, Burrell’s produces shells and gun mountings.

1920 – Steam engines re no longer at the cutting edge of industry and Burrell’s goes into sharp decline.

1928 – Burrell’s closes the Thetford works in June 1928, resulting in almost one quarter of Thetford’s male workforce becoming unemployed.


In the 19th century Bidwell’s was one of the most important breweries in East Anglia. Members of the Bidwell family held many important civic positions in Thetford. Their wealth and success is reflected in the impressive mid-19th century flint and brick brewery on Old Market Street.

In 1868 Bidwell’s owned several malthouses and public houses in Thetford (as well as the brewery) and had 20 other pubs in Norfolk, two in Suffolk and four in Cambridgeshire. The estate was valued at £30,000 in 1868, but by 1889 this had risen to £68,000 (equivalent to around £5 million today).

Eustace Cuthbert Quilter bought the company in 1905, eventually selling it to Bullards of Norwich in 1924.

There is a large amount of material relating to the Bidwell family in Thetford in the Norfolk Record Office.


James Fison started a malting and corn trading business in 1789, expanding into Stowmarket and Thetford. In 1809 Fison established a new business in Thetford to export wool, corn and seeds and import cattle cake and oil seed. He also began dealing in manure, which led to the foundation of a successful fertiliser business. The Fisons were the richest family in Thetford.

In the 1840s the company began to produce new chemical fertilisers and the headquarters moved to Ipswich. Thetford chemical works was at Two Mile Bottom, between the river and the railway. In the 20th century Fisons was a leading British producer of pharmaceuticals, scientific instruments and horticultural chemicals.

Patent Pulp Works

In 1879 the Patent Pulp Manufacturing Company was founded at Bishop’s Mill (also known as St Audrey’s Mill). It became a significant local industry and exported products made from pulp ware, similar to papier mache, around the world, including trays, helmets, bowls and baby baths. Between 1873 and 1879 the mill had housed a hat felting business, and prior to that had been a paper mill. The mill burnt down in 1897, but was rebuilt and continued to produce pulp ware until the 1950s when production shifted to oil-based plastics. During the Second World War, secret documents were brought under armed guard to Thetford to be converted into pulp ware. The company is in existence today as Centurion Safety Products Ltd.

Significant sites

Elveden Churchyard – Final resting place of Maharajah Duleep Singh, Maharani Bamba and their youngest son Edward Albert.

Butten Island, Thetford –  Life size bronze statue of Maharajah Duleep Singhunveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1999

Ancient House Museum, Thetford – donated to the town by Prince Frederick

The Guildhall

Thetford Warren Lodge

Bidwell’s Brewery on Old Market Street Burrell’s former paint shop, now the Burrells Museum

Burrell’s St Nicholas Works

Ford Place – home to the Fison family during the 19th century

Thetford railway station

Bishop’s Mill

Iron Bridge

River Ouse

Bridge Station site

  • 1801
    Thetford’s population is 2,246
  • 1836
    Workhouse erected on Weaver’s Close at a cost of £5,000
  • 1837
    Browne’s map of Thetford published
  • 1845
    A railway line from Norwich to Bishops Stortford via Thetford is opened, completing the first rail link between Norwich and London
  • 1845
    Large fire at the Bell Hotel
  • 1845
    Gas works established on Bury Road
  • 1854
    The 15 year old Maharajah Duleep Singh arrives in Britain
  • 1891
    Thetford’s population is 4,247
  • 1893
    Elveden Hall purchased by Irish philanthropist and businessman, Edward Cecil Guinness (later to become Earl of Iveagh and Viscount of Elveden).