In the 1960s, Thetford was the fastest growing town in the country; almost two thirds of incomers came from London and a further 15 percent from the wider south-east. (1) Some even called it ‘the London Borough of Thetford’. By any standards, this was a seismic shift. The last post examined the nuts and bolts of Thetford’s transformation from moribund rural town to, in effect, modern New Town; this will examine how it all worked out.
It was, in the first instance, a strongly working-class town. Even after the social and economic shifts of the Thatcherite era, almost 62 percent of the workforce were categorised as skilled manual, semi-skilled and unskilled workers (compared to an English average of 48 percent) whilst only 38 percent belonged to the professional, managerial and administrative classes (52 percent).
And in the early years, it was difficult to persuade those new executives to live in the town; the managing director of Danepak stated rather unguardedly that, ‘with the 95 percent of council housing’ (an exaggeration), he thought the schools ‘rather oikish’. Many preferred to live in the county town surrounds of nearby Bury St Edmunds. (2)
A shared complaint was the lack of hospital facilities (the nearest were in Bury) but for many of the new population it was the lack of recreational facilities – swimming pools and dance halls, for example – that rankled. Some even preferred London’s parks to the open countryside which now surrounded them. All this was spelt out in some detail in a survey of incomers conducted by the local Rotary Club in 1963.
Mostly the picture is mixed. Locals called the incomers ‘smoggies’ apparently and some of the latter: (3)
thought that the local people were not particularly friendly towards them, whereas others said they had been received most warmly and that people had gone out of their way to make them feel at home.
Given the prevalence of young families, some missed having relatives close at hand to help with baby-sitting. If that would gladden the hearts of Wilmott and Young (who had celebrated Family and Kinship in East London in 1957), they might have been surprised to learn that many thought ‘that on the housing estate there was a much friendlier atmosphere than in London and that one got to know one’s neighbours better than in a big city’. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that many of the new settlers didn’t want to be housed – as was the practice – next to their workmates; there could be too much familiarity, it seems.)
Almost all saw benefits in the move – better housing and lower rents the most significant, alongside improved health and less time travelling to work. Surprisingly, at first glance, the overall cost of living increased for most that moved. This reflected the lower wage rates for some, the higher prices of local shops and, sometimes, new hire purchase commitments taken on to furnish new homes. What was, almost universally, a higher standard of living did not come not cost-free.
These were, of course, the pioneers and new amenities would be added as the town grew. And Thetford worked hard to encourage and welcome new arrivals. As Jeyes considered its move from east London, the Town Clerk, William Ellis Clarke, ‘gave an illustrated talk on the town’s attractions’ to a meeting of employees in an Ilford cinema. Over the following weeks, the company brought coachloads of workers and their families to see those attractions – or otherwise – for themselves. (4)
So most adapted. John Gardner (a warehouse supervisor at Jeyes), his wife Jean and their two children moved to the Abbey Farm Estate – as did most of the firm’s employees – in 1969. His new rented council home was a bargain compared to the house he had been purchasing in East Ham and the children were healthier. But, financially, they were worse off, not least because now they were running a car (in London ‘a luxury; here it is a necessity’). Jean faced giving up her weekly bingo. The same calculus of cost and quality of life played out but the longer story was clearly positive: the longest settled were happiest with Norfolk and those ‘who grew into their teens in Thetford seem contented enough’. (5)
With hindsight, these seem the problems of affluence in an era of full and generally secure employment. Roll forward, thirty years in the new deindustrialised Britain where such new jobs as existed were often insecure and poorly paid, Thetford presents a different picture. In the new jargon we’ve learnt to apply, by 2004 three out of four Thetford wards were in the top quintile of most deprived wards for multiple deprivation across the country; likewise for income deprivation and child poverty. All four wards were in the top quintile for education, skills and training deprivation. (6)
Naturally, well-meaning local initiatives emerged to tackle this downturn in the town’s fortunes. A ‘Healthy Thetford 2000’ project to improve training, education, job opportunities, housing, environment and community life in Thetford was succeeded by a ‘Thetford Partnership’ which received £2.5m of Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding to support ‘a broad and holistic scheme focusing on a range of initiatives to benefit people living in the western areas of the town in particular’. (This was, predominantly, Abbey Farm; now the poorest area of Thetford.) By 2007, under the continuing aegis of the Keystone Development Trust, some £8.5m of SRB funding had been allocated.
It’s not helpful, it might even seem a little snide, to point out that all this tinkers with fundamentally changed economic realities. Thermos closed its Thetford factory in 2000 and moved to China. The Tulip meat processing works (formerly Danepak) laid off 170 full-time employees in 2003. They were: (7)
replaced immediately with agency staff, most of them migrants on poorer terms – lower rates of pay, mostly just the minimum wage, less overtime money, less holiday, more antisocial shift patterns, uncertain hours. The full-time employees had no pay rise for three years and watched as their incomes were eroded by inflation.
It closed completely in 2007. The furniture manufacturers Multiyork closed just before Christmas 2017.
All this makes Thetford seem less like the new Britain once envisaged and more like the ‘left behind’ country with which we are all now familiar. The local authorities have ‘washed their hands of us’, one local woman told an academic researcher in 2009. The same research, unsurprisingly perhaps, identified other resentments directed towards outsiders. But: (8)
In Thetford … it was the Polish and Portuguese migrants disliked by white British people, who identified black and Asian people on their estate as part of the ‘we’.
Officially, according to the 2011 Census, Thetford’s population stood at around 21,000. Few locally believed this figure; the data of local GPs and the Fire Service suggested a figure approaching 29,000 which seemed to accord more closely with local perceptions (including some in the migrant community itself). (9)
We’re on tricky territory here and sometimes things can get ugly. There was certainly less contentment. After England’s defeat against Portugal in the 2004 Euros, there was an attack on a Portuguese-owned pub and its predominantly Portuguese clientele. It is also the case – and I am not eliding the two phenomena here – that Breckland (the local authority area of which Thetford is now a part) voted by 64 percent to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum.
Against these stark headlines, closer analysis presents more complex realities: a Portuguese resident critical of eastern European migration; people in all communities wanting better integration; even, in a strange cameo of the new multiculturalism, a Polish and Lithuanian food store owned by an Iraqi Kurd. In any case, some of the migrants are leaving already. (10)
All this paints a bleak picture and maybe one that will be unrecognisable or distasteful to local people who know the town better and experience it very differently. The aim is not to portray dystopia but to draw a contrast – between the expansive ambitions of an earlier era and a state and economy working for ordinary people and our country today where so many feel abandoned and exploited. As a famous son of Thetford, Thomas Paine, once said in a different context. ‘these are the times that try men’s souls’.
Meanwhile, life goes on and Thetford seeks to adapt to a new economy. Thetford was awarded Growth Point status by central government in 2006. The latest Thetford Area Action Plan, adopted in 2012, projects 5000 new homes and 5000 new jobs by 2026. A new enterprise park, first mooted thirty years ago, is perhaps finally getting off the ground. (11)
And in the new, old Britain, there’s heritage to be celebrated – a lot of genuine history as well as the invented tradition of Dad’s Army, filmed locally and marked by an unlikely statue of Captain Mainwaring in the town centre and a small museum. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Dad’s Army, its cast of characters and its bumbling patriotism but personally (and this might mark me out) I’d put statues up to the politicians and planners who sought to create a modern country and a healthier, better housed and more affluent population. They didn’t get everything right but we might use some of that will and action in our present beleaguered times.
(1) Greater London Council, Department of Architecture and Civic Design, ‘Thetford: Case Study in Town Development’ (March 1970); DG/TD/2/96, London Metropolitan Archives
(2) John Gretton, ‘Out of London’, New Society, 15 April 1971
(3) Rotary Club of Thetford Norfolk, ‘Thetford Town Expansion: Report on Social Survey’ (March 1964); DG/TD/2/95, London Metropolitan Archives
(4) Michael Pollitt, ‘William Ellis Clarke, MBE: “Mr Thetford”: one of the architects who shaped the modern face of the town’, Eastern Daily Press, 9 January 2014
(5) Gretton, ‘Out of London’
(6) Keystone Development Trust, A Profile of Thetford (August 2004)
(7) Felicity Lawrence, ‘Poor Pay, No Rights: UK’s New Workforce’, The Guardian, 24 September 2007
(8) Garner, S., Cowles, J., Lung, B. and Stott, M. (2009) ‘Sources of resentment, and perceptions of ethnic minorities among poor white people in England’, National Community Forum/Department for Communities and Local Government quoted in Joseph Rowntree Foundation, White Working-Class Neighbourhoods: Common Themes and Policy Suggestions (November 2011)
(9) Ian Jack, ‘How many migrants does it take to change a Norfolk town?’, The Guardian, 29 September 2007
(10) Stephanie Baker, ‘This English Town Backed Brexit. Now the Poles Are Leaving’, Bloomberg, December 13, 2017
(11) Breckland District Council, Thetford Area Action Plan (2012) and Andrew Fitchett, ‘Hopes to resurrect troubled Thetford Enterprise Park as council look to kickstart £6m infrastructure scheme’, Eastern Daily Press, 4 January 2016