When I first moved up to Thetford in Norfolk in the early 1970’s it was a veritable hub of industry.
Up until the 1960’s that hadn’t been the case as the career choice for young Thetfordians was simply beween the “Canning Factory”, the “Pulp Mill” or local agricultural or forestry work (Burrell’s Steam Engine Factory had long closed). In the 1960’s that all changed when the town was declared an “overspill” town by the Greater London Council and large new Industrial Plants with associated housing developments were built to encourage economic activity from London’s main conurbation to the fresh fields of East Anglia. The population grew from around 7,000 to 17,000 in a very short space of time and for a while the town became the fastest growing in England. Notable businesses included Danepack (Tulip International) which ran one of the largest bacon production factories in the UK, Airscrew-Weyroc (chipboard production), Travenol Laboratories and THERMOS the eponymous flask people.
Other activities followed and the retail centre of Thetford grew. It had one small supermarket in the middle of the main street which used to do rather well. The crew of Dad’s Army used to use the Bell Hotel when they were doing their filming.
If I had been making a film about this part of Thetford’s history my soundbed of choice would be “Telegraph Road” by Dire Straits about a sleepy rural town transformed by the arrival of the Railroad.
“Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their load
And the dirty old track was the A11”
Returning to the town today to visit Lidl amongst the great expanse of hypermarkets on the periphery I was struck by how much it had changed. The major activities of “making things” had given way to “retailing things” and all this was occurring around the car-park rich edges whilst the centre clings on to its few speciality and charity shops like grim death. Since things like insurance policies and bank loans became “products” and sales meetings became “workshops” there seemed to be a wistful longing for the days when we could actually make our own stuff.
This feeling of change became more poignant when we moved on to the massive Tesco Superstore and I discovered this evidence of Thetford’s historic past on one of the shelves. Check the address.
I suppose I shouldn’t become overly sentimental about the loss of Industry – after all, it wasn’t all sweetness and came with an overhead of pollution, disease and downtrodden workers. And taking the longer view, I remembered reading how Thetford had been the 4th largest town in England at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 and went on to become the ecclesiastical centre of East Anglia. However the Dissolution in the 16th Century led to a rapid decline in the town’s fortunes and it was one of the very last towns in England to develop a mains drainage system.
At least it’s now got its conveniences.
*The title of this post relates to the old observation about Thermos Flasks. They keep hot things hot and cold things cold – but how do they know which one to do?*