Exhibition highlights Thetford's diverse history

Rebecca Gough With thousands of new homes planned for Thetford the town is set to expand on a scale not seen since the 1960s. But how much does the migration of people change and develop a community? REBECCA GOUGH reports on a new exhibition highlighting the town's diverse history.

Rebecca Gough

With thousands of new homes planned for Thetford the town is set to expand on a scale not seen since the 1960s. But how much does the migration of people change and develop a community? REBECCA GOUGH reports on a new exhibition highlighting the town's diverse history.

A new exhibition to be hosted at Thetford's Ancient House Museum will explore some of the individual stories of people who have moved to the area and made it their home.

From Neanderthal man to Britain's first black mayor, organisers of the display have researched generations of families which have contributed to the town's growth and made the town what it is today.

With the area currently a town undergoing huge changes in terms of growth and economy, funds are being ploughed into housing, education, employment and regeneration.

The exhibition, Moving Stories, will aim to recreate individual tales, in a bid to emphasise social cohesion in a time of development, and reveal the history behind what was once East Anglia's second town.

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Ancient House museum's growing communities project officer, Laura Cole Matthews, said: “We don't want to be pious but that's where we're coming from.

“A lot of people moved here in the town expansion in the 1960s and have real pride and love it here. It (the exhibition) has come from the fact they're building lots of new houses in Thetford through Moving Thetford Forward and they'll be lots of new people so we thought it'd be interesting to look through history and see who's moved here and where they've come from because it's part of what makes it all come together.”

Personal stories through the ages include tales and artefacts representing varying eras. From rare hand axes found at Lynford which are thought to date back 60,000 years, to Anglo-Saxon coins made by a Thetford moneyer between 1042 and 1066 to Dr Allan Glaiyser Minns (1858 - 1930) who lived in Thetford and was Britain's first black mayor.

There is also the tale of Robert Street, foreman at the former Charles Burrell company, Stefan Zurowski a Polish world war two settler who met his wife while dancing at Thetford's Guildhall, and who still lives in the town, American GI Howard Higgins, Ralph Mead who moved to the town in the 1960s and Portuguese Joaquim De Sousa Bento Pereira who owns a caf� on Tanner Street.

“We tried to get a mixture of ancient history, coming up to the present day,” Mrs Cole Matthews said. “I think you can more easily identify with people if you know the name.

“Some people still live here and some are descendents but it's an important part of their life. For Thetford to have such an ancient history of people coming to live here is quite unique because goes back so far. It was an important place in history because of the ford crossings and during Anglo-Saxon times it was as big as Norwich but then went into a big decline until the 1960s.”

Information has come from various censuses, online work and from the Norfolk Record Office, while the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum in Diss loaned several items relating to American GIs.

Oliver Bone, museum curator, added: “It's a great opportunity to find out more about the stories. We want people to think about all the different people in Thetford and so many different influences.”

The exhibition will run at the museum on White Hart Street from January 15 until June 5. There will also be a programme of events running alongside, including talks, a textile day and drop-in activities.

Dr Allan Glaiyser Minns (1858 - 1930) made history in 1904 when he was elected mayor of Thetford and became Britain's first black mayor.

Mr Minns was born in 1858 in the Bahamas and came to England to study medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1884. He moved to Thetford to join his brother and sister and became medical officer at the workhouse on Barnham Cross Common, and the Cottage Hospital.

Mr Minns was a popular mayor and on re-election to his post in 1905 the Thetford and Watton Times wrote: “Dr Minns presided over the meetings of the council with firmness and courtesy, has never intervened in the debate without adding something profitable to the discussion”.

Various medical items and instruments will be on display throughout Moving Stories, and will include a bell from the Thetford workhouse, a medicine bottle and ear instruments, made by Allen and Hanbury's in London.

Charles Burrell and Co Ltd was a large employer in the 1800s and Robert Street moved from Derby to Thetford in 1885 to take up a role in the company.

The company manufactured steam engines and farm machinery and was Thetford's biggest employer, providing work for 300 people by 1900.

In 1861 the Street family were living in Earls Lane and Robert Street was a foreman moulder working in one of the large shops in Minstergate (the current location of the Charles Burrell Museum).

Although Mr Street died in 1899 his descendants can still be found in Thetford today. Pictures on display at the museum will include Burrell's workshop and its 1906 workforce.

Ralph Mead came to Thetford during the town expansion scheme in the 1960s and 70s as a boy of 13 and still lives in the town.

During the time Thetford's population quadrupled as thousands of new homes were built for the new residents from London.

Mr Mead's family moved into a four-bedroom house on Sweyn Close in August, 1959 when the company his father worked for as a driver was relocated.

Mr Mead went to Norwich Road School and later Charles Burrell where he met his future wife Theresa. Mr Mead said:” We've always lived in Thetford. I'm a Londoner but Thetford's my home; that will never change.”

A number of artefacts from the Mead family will be on display including Mr Mead's father's rent book dating from 1959, Ralph Mead's school report from Thetford Secondary Modern, July, 1961, and a hair dryer belonging to Mrs Mead.