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The Age of Municipal Democracy

Thetford became the first town in Britain to elect a black Mayor.


During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Thetford developed many public services including a fire brigade, police service and local schools. In 1904 Thetford became the first town in Britain to elect a black Mayor; Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns a prominent local doctor.

Key Events

Governing Thetford

In 1835 the old Corporation of Thetford was abolished, and a new Corporation was created and for the first time, democratically elected. The new Corporation was led by the Mayor, with four aldermen and twelve councillors.

For most of the nineteenth century the town MPs were from the families of either the Duke of Grafton or Lord Ashburton, and the elections were rarely contested. The Norwich Mercury reported that Thetford’s elections had become well known for their corruption. Until 1868 Thetford had been represented by two members of Parliament, but it lost its second seat to Scotland.

In 1904 Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns became Mayor, the first black mayor in Britain. Minns was a doctor, and had been the medical officer at Thetford Workhouse, and at the Cottage Hospital.

Local Services

Police and Fire Brigade

  • 1836 – Thetford Borough Police Force established, with six volunteer constables and one paid chief constable.
  • 1857 – Thetford’s tiny police force joined the County Constabulary.
  • 1880 – Thetford Fire Brigade was founded, with 20 volunteers and a new manual engine.
  • 1905 – a steam engine was purchased for the Brigade, an event which was celebrated on Castle Meadow with a demonstration and a concert. This engine remained in use until the Second World War.

Gas, electricity and water

  • 1838 – Thetford Gas Company was founded but collapsed a year later.
  • 1845 – Thetford Gasworks opened on Bury Road. In 1848 the Company provided gas street lighting to the town.
  • 1877 – piped water supply became available, after several epidemics in the 1850s and 1860s prompted calls for a clean water supply. The new reservoir on Gallows Hill used a steam engine to pump fresh water into the town.
  • 1916 – Burrells began to run a private generator to provide a limited electricity supply.
  • 1929 – the Anglian Electricity Supply Company undertook to supply the majority of the town with electricity, the same year that Burrell’s closed and their generator ceased to work.
  • 1933 – Thetford’s electricity supply became available.

Public Health

  • 1847 – local surgeon, Henry Best, complained of the overcrowded state of some of the town churchyards.
  • 1855 – Thetford Burial Board laid out a new cemetery called St Margaret’s, and the churchyards were closed to new burials.
  • 1866 – the Corporation established the Thetford Local Board of Health but little was done to improve public health.
  • 1868 – Chief Medical Officer, Henry Stevens, investigated accusations that the Corporation were failing the inhabitants of the town. His report was damning and listed the epidemics which had ravaged Thetford during the 1860s. He calculated the mortality rate in Thetford was higher than the slums of Whitechapel in London.
  • 1870 – A survey for a new drainage and sewage system was rejected as being too expensive, and in 1873 another typhoid epidemic claimed more lives.
  • 1877 – a new water supply was established from a reservoir on Gallows Hill driven by a steam engine. Clean water resulted in mortality rates dropping significantly.
  • 1890 – In the 1890s the mortality rate rose again, with epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria.
  • 1909 – a proposal for a sewage system was rejected by the Corporation as too expensive. It was not until 1949 that a sewage system was installed in the town, and most properties were connected by 1952.


There was some slum clearance in the town in the late nineteenth century. After 1895 a number of properties in Pike Lane, Star Lane and St Mary’s Lane were demolished or repaired. These clearances meant families needed to be re-housed and in 1911 the Corporation purchased a site on Bury Road for 50 council houses which were built between 1912 and 1914. The Newtown estate off London Road was built between 1920 and 1923. These two estates represented the first significant expansion of Thetford in almost one thousand years.


In 1836 a workhouse was built between Bury Road and the Little Ouse, near what is now St Barnabas’ Close. The workhouse housed 300 paupers and had a chapel dedicated to St Barnabas. The workhouse was abolished in 1929, but the buildings continued to be used as an unofficial workhouse until the 1950s, and then as a hospital until 1973 when the building was demolished.


Apart from the Grammar School and some small, privately run schools, there was no formal educational provision in Thetford until 1870, when the Education Act made infant education compulsory. In 1876 the Thetford United School Board was established and built a new infant and junior school of Norwich Road which opened on 1879, and in the same year a Roman Catholic Church School also opened.


King’s House

Now the offices of Thetford Borough Council.

Thetford Grammar School

The School House on Bridge Street was built in 1880 in flint and red brick.

Croxton Road Almshouses

A terrace of four red brick almshouses built in 1885 by George and Sarah Tyrell.

Baptist Chapel, Kings Street

Built in 1859 with an impressive brick façade.

The Guildhall

Built in 1901 on the site of the earlier guildhall.

Shambles Shopping Arcade, Market Place

A cast iron and brick structure of about 1900 which is now subdivided and enclosed into four shops.

Thetford Mechanics Institute, Market Place

Built as a mechanics institute in 1887, and later converted into a public library.

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