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The Age of Reason

Thomas Paine was born in Thetford and was the first champion of the Rights of Man.


There was an attempt to turn Thetford into a fashionable spa for tourists, the common land around Thetford was enclosed and Thomas Paine, the greatest thinker of his age, was born and educated in Thetford.

Key Events

Thetford spa

In 1819 there was an attempt to turn Thetford into a fashionable spa town for tourists, similar to Bath, Cheltenham and Harrogate. The meadows between the Thet and Little Ouse, close to Nuns Bridges, contained a spring of mineral rich water. A pump room was constructed over the spring and the ‘Thetford Mineral Spring Company’ was formed. The mayor paid for a new gravel path to be laid out along the bank of the river, known as the Spring Walk. The popularity of Thetford’s spa was short lived and by 1838 the pump room had closed, though Spring House and the Spring Walk survive today.

Parliamentary Enclosure

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries many areas of open common heathland in Breckland were enclosed and privatised by an Act of Parliament. This led to the closure of numerous roads and footpaths. The heaths were divided up between 1806 and 1809, bringing an end to public access and rights of commoners to graze their animals. Several small heathland commons did survive though including Barnham Cross and Melford Bridge commons.

Other key dates and events

1786 – The last remaining traders at the old market site, to the south of the Castle, were given permission to relocate to the Guildhall yard.

1789 – St Peter’s Church was restored.

1798 – Admiral Nelson was granted the freedom of the borough.

1824 – Three men were hanged for sheep stealing, the last executions to take place in Thetford.

1833 – The Lent Assizes were moved from Thetford to Norwich.


“History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine” – John Adams 1819

“I consider Paine our greatest political thinker” – Thomas Alva Edison 1925

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine had a key influence on the American and French Revolutions and a gold statue was erected outside King’s House in 1964 (Bonaparte said that a gold statue of Paine should be erected in every city in the universe).

Views of Paine have varied since his death. In 1964, some opposed the erection of his statue outside King’s House, a gift from the Thomas Paine Foundation in the USA. The controversy led to the foundation of a UK based Thomas Paine Society to promote a better understanding of the man and his work.

Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin was born at St Mary’s Free School house in Thetford in 1697 and educated at the same free school, where for long periods he was the only pupil. From an early age he took a keen interest in the history of Thetford, and at the age of 13 was recommended to the President of the Society of Antiquaries as the most knowledgeable guide to the town’s historic sites.

Martin collected lots of material relating to Thetford, some of which is now in the Norfolk Record Office. Martin did not publish any work during his lifetime but made important contributions to numerous works, including Francis Blomefield’s History of Norfolk. His History of the Town of Thetford was published in 1779, eight years after his death.


Thomas Paine Hotel

Thomas Paine Statue

Thetford Grammar School

Spring House

Spring Walk

King’s House

River Ouse


  • 1737 - Thomas Paine was born on White Hart Street, now occupied by the Thomas Paine Hotel.

    He was pupil at Thetford Grammar School until the age of

  • 1772 - Paine wrote his first political pamphlet.

  • 1774 - Paine boarded a ship for Philadelphia.

    Carrying a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin.

  • 1776 - Paine wrote a pamphlet arguing the case for American independence.

    The pamphlet was widely distributed before the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.  Paine is believed to be the first person to have used the term ‘the United States of America’.

  • 1787 - Paine travelled to France, a country on the brink of its own revolution.

  • 1791 - Paine traveled between France and England.

    Continuing to promote the benefits of the American and French revolutions.

  • 1792 - Paine given honorary French citizenship.

  • 1793 - Paine arrested after coming into conflict with the National Convention.

    He was released after 11 months without facing trial.  Before his arrest Paine had been writing The Age of Reason, followed in 1796 by Agrarian Justice. A year later Paine is believed to have met with Napoleon Bonaparte to discuss a potential invasion of England.

  • 1802 - Paine returned to America at the invitation of President Thomas Jefferson.

  • 1809 - Paine died in Greenwich Village, New York.

    His obituary in the New York Citizen stated ‘He had lived long, done some good and much harm’. Paine was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, though his bones were later dug up and brought to England by William Cobbett (they subsequently disappeared).

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