Often in London I shall think of Thetford and wonder if it is still alive … No one would notice if the whole town forgot to wake up one morning.
That, from Virginia Woolf in 1906, might have been a little unfair but it testifies powerfully to the town’s sad decline. (1) In Saxon times, Thetford had been the capital of East Anglia. At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, with a population of around 4500, it was reckoned the sixth biggest town in the realm. The same population, more or less, eight centuries later made it apparently one of the sleepiest.
Thetford had fallen on hard times. In 1868, Henry Stevens, the borough’s new Medical Officer of Health, having ‘carefully inspected every part of the Town’, stated that he had found ‘scarcely any of the conditions necessary to the health and well-being of an urban population’: (2)
the soil is saturated with sewage and excrementitious matter. I found this contaminated soil pierced in every direction by wells … from which alone the inhabitants could obtain water.
Unsurprisingly, Thetford suffered a series of major epidemics – measles, dysentery, diphtheria and cholera – in the same decade and its mortality rate, at 30 per 1000, stood a little higher than that of Whitechapel in London’s benighted East End.
Stevens’ pleas secured an improved water supply but no sewerage system and a further outbreak of typhoid occured in 1873 and another, alongside smallpox and diphtheria, in the 1890s.
In 1909, the survey of a later Medical Officer of Health reported 731 ‘privy vaults’ in Thetford, ‘practically none of them watertight, most of them merely holes in the ground’. The Council, however, still rejected a sewerage scheme as too expensive; a decision backed by 478 votes to 26 in the public meeting which followed, dominated, one presumes, by middle-class rate-payers rather than those most in need. It’s all a salutary corrective to the temptation to romanticise working-class life in small town and village England.
And yet, in other ways, Thetford would surprise. Allan Glaisyer Minns, born in the Bahamas, a doctor at the local workhouse and cottage hospital, was elected to the council in 1903. In 1904, he became the first black man to be elected mayor anywhere in the UK.
The Council was also one of the very few to build council housing before the First World War and, in St Mary’s Crescent, it built one of the most remarkable of early schemes.
Plans were first mooted in 1911 when the Town Council’s Housing Committee (itself an innovative step for a small borough council) recommended the appointment of a Norwich architect, SJ Wearing, to oversee the scheme. Tenders for ‘the erection of 50 workmen’s dwellings on Bury Road’ were issued the following year. By 1914, the scheme was near fully occupied and, despite an overall cost of around £6666, said to be self-supporting. (3)
Not only had Wearing created an economical scheme, he had created an attractive one, dubbed later by locals as the White City for obvious reasons. As such, the estate garnered considerable regional interest, including a deputation of councillors from Ely: (4)
In each dwelling, there was one good living room and scullery and three bedrooms upstairs … All the dwellings had been passed by the Local Government Board who said it was the best scheme of dwellings they had seen.
With rents set at between 3s and 4s 6d (15-23p) a week – the amount varied according to the size of garden – the homes were affordable to the less well-off working-class; the average wages of the male heads of household were said to be around £1 and £1.20.
For all that this housing progress went some way in alleviating working-class conditions – a full sewerage system for the town wasn’t provided till 1952 incidentally – it could no nothing to address Thetford’s underlying economic malaise. The local economy deteriorated as traditional rural industry contracted and the Council instituted unemployment relief works in the post-war recession in 1921.
Disaster struck, however, in 1928 when the major employer, the agricultural machinery and steam engine works of Charles Burrell closed. It had employed over 600 at peak. The 1931 census recorded 800 people leaving the town in the preceding decade and its population fell below 4000. Outward migration continued until the end of the decade when new military bases were established nearby in preparation for impending world war. (5)
The first world war had, in the meantime, provided means and motive for a further expansion of the town’s council housing. The 1919 Housing Act required local authorities not only to survey housing needs but to build to address them. In housing at least, Thetford was progressive and it acted promptly. A special meeting of the Town Council in October unanimously agreed an application to the Ministry of Health for a £1000 loan and the purchase of land in military use on London Road for housing purposes. SJ Wearing was again appointed architect. (6)
The land duly purchased, the 72 houses of the Newtown Estate were complete by 1924. The mayor praised the achievement – ‘he did not think there was a borough in the Kingdom as small as Thetford that had done more’ – but it’s an interesting sign of heightened expectations that the scheme was criticised by some for not addressing the requirements of those in greatest need.
Councillor Isaac Aspland, politically unaffiliated but as manager of Thetford’s Labour Exchange, someone in close contact with the poorest of the borough, praised it as: (7)
a splendid scheme and very well carried through but he did not think it relieved very much the pressure on housing of the poorer inhabitants … to a large extent the houses built at Thetford were not for the poorer classes because that class could not afford to pay the high rents.
He referred to eight cases of overcrowding before him including a married couple with seven children living in one bedroom and a box-room and another where a family of 11 had only two bedrooms. Given their relatively high rents, estimated as between 6s and 7s 6d (30-38p), the ‘Newtown houses were, he contended, middle-class dwellings’.
The new politics – the new expectation that council housing should directly address the needs of the poorest – was seen in national legislation in the 1930s: the 1930 Housing Act tackling slum clearance and the 1935 Act attacking overcrowding.
There could be no ‘Clearance Areas’ as permitted by the 1930 Act, in small town Thetford but a survey showed almost 39 percent of its housing as in some way defective under the terms of legislation. In 1938, 18 families were found in need of rehousing under the terms of the 1935 Act. (8)
The St Mary’s Estate of some 22 three- and four-bed non-parlour homes was built in consequence in the closing years of the decade. The plaque at the entrance to the estate marks SJ Wearing as architect once more; the estate he has designed some 26 years earlier lies a few metres beyond.
In total, Thetford had built 144 council homes by 1939 and they formed around 11 percent of its housing stock. Council homes formed 85 percent of the new homes built in the town between the wars. The figures are surprising but they capture a creative tension in the town’s character. Virginia Woolf may have seen it as a sleepy rural backwater but it was a long-established borough with urban pretensions and ambitions.
Those ambitions were to be fully explored in the next dramatic phase of the town’s history and development which began in 1957. We’ll explore that in a future post.
(1) Quoted in Frank Meeres, Thetford and Breckland through Time (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2010)
(2) Quoted in Alan Crosby, A History of Thetford (Phillimore, 1986)
(3) ‘Thetford Town Council’, Norfolk News, 15 July 1911, ‘Borough of Thetford. Erection of Workmen’s Dwellings’, Bury Free Press, 13 April 1912 and ‘Councillor Oldman on Yarmouth Health and Housing’, Yarmouth Independent, 14 March 1914
(4) ‘Ely Urban Council’, Cambridge Independent Press, 1 August 1913
(5) Alan Crosby, A History of Thetford (Phillimore, 1986)
(6) ‘Thetford: The Housing Scheme’, Bury Free Press, 25 October 1919 and ‘Thetford Housing Problem’, Bury Free Press, 31 January 1920
(7) ‘Thetford Housing’, Bury Free Press, 6 December 1924
(8) ‘Thetford Housing’, Bury Free Press, 13 June 1931 and ‘Mayor Making at Thetford’, Bury Free Press, 14 November 1936