Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Four Men Of Thetford

I've always held an unjustifiably low opinion of the town of Thetford. "Unjustifiable" since it turns out to be a fascinating place. Not that you would guess it if you drove through, or rather round, the town; the ring road takes you past an endless succession of warehouses and light industry. And the view from the railway is not much better. But in its heart are hidden all manner of interesting secrets, accumulated ever since Queen Boudica (or Bodicea, as we knew her till recently) made this the capital of her realm.

We'll make a full tour later, but first I'd like to talk about four men who had links with this little town. And what a varied bunch they are! Three are commemorated by statues and the other......well, you'll see.

Thomas Paine  1737 - 1809

Yes, Thomas Paine was born and spent the first nineteen years of his life here in Thetford. He is commemorated by this statue which stands outside "The King's House" which was used as a hunting lodge by King James. There is a certain irony in this as Paine made his name by his writings supporting American independence, the French Revolution and denouncing the Church - none of which endeared him to the British monarchy. But here he stands nevertheless, clutching his quill pen in one hand and a copy of his book, "The Rights Of Man", in the other.

Quite why the sculptor has chosen to have him hold the book upside down is beyond me!

The Man In The Iron Mask  1876 - 1956

Some time in 1907 a story appeared in the papers that a Man In An Iron Mask was setting out to walk around the world in response to a bet. His identity was to remain a mystery, hence the mask, he was to support himself throughout this venture (by selling postcards like the one above) and he was to visit certain towns and countries on his journey and must find himself a wife on the way. He started off by travelling around Britain and then disappeared - presumably abroad.

He re-appeared at the outbreak of war in 1914 and turned out to be Harry Bensley from Thetford. He may have been a wealthy businessman with dealings in Russia before taking to the road. Or he may have been an ex-convict who made up the whole story as a bizarre way of making money, never actually venturing outside of the UK. 

You can make up your own mind by reading the official heroic story here and the rather less glamorous version here

His Highness The Maharajah Duleep Singh  1838 - 1893

On Button Island, near to Thetford's town centre, stands this magnificent life-size statue of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab. Duleep was only ten years old when the British took control of his country. They kept him on as nominal head but allowed him little contact with other Indians - not even his mother - and brought him up to be as English as possible. He was later exiled to England where he became a great favourite of Queen Victoria. In 1863 he became the owner of the Elveden estate near Thetford. 

Captain George Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe)

Much of the TV comedy series "Dad's Army" was filmed in and around Thetford (despite the fact that it was supposed to take place in a seaside town, Walmington-on-Sea). The crew and cast stayed in a hotel in the town and were apparently well-liked. So this fine statue of the gallant captain was erected close to the bus station. (Apparently the good captain has upped sticks and moved - see the comment below).

Take care.


  1. A decidedly varied quartet! My favourite statue is the Maharaja but my favourite character is Arthur Lowe. Had no idea that Dad's Army was filmed in Thetford. Looking forward to hearing more about the town.

  2. the statues are grand monuments to the town. I tried to think about the upside-down book, as to why...other than it just felt comfortable holding it by the spine! Just a little quirky sculptors idea to make you wonder for a worked! Great history lesson there John

  3. What a motley crew! Like the Thomas Paine, of course--the sculptor captured his fire. The upside down book might be a commentary on Paine's notions; he was proposing to turn society as then known upside down1

  4. Absolutely fascinating! I like to think Pain's sculptor maybe enjoyed shaking things up with a that upside-down book - though the very presence of the statue is surprising! I also had no idea Dad's Army was filmed there.

  5. If the Paine stature had held the book upright, the front cover (and presumably the title) would have been obscured by his hand and away from the viewer. This assumes, of course, that one always holds a book by the spine.

  6. Such a variety there! I'm not surprised Thomas Paine might be quite unpopular there. It is peculiar that his book is upside down.

  7. Capt Mainwaring has been moved ... but only a few feet! He is still next to the canal but no longer looks over the bus station, he has a lawn and planted footpath in front of the new Travelodge and shops =D


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).