Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

On the Thomas Paine Trail in Thetford, Norfolk

Thomas Paine on the official sign of Thetford - not many places in Britain honour revolutionaries on their town signs. As an Ipswich Town fan, I rarely venture into Norfolk if I can help it, but recently I made an exception to visit Thetford (a town on the Norfolk-Suffolk border) to undertake the 'Thomas Paine Trail'. Thomas Paine - as readers of Histomat will recall - was one of the greatest revolutionaries during the age of bourgeois-democratic revolution from 1775-1848, was born in this little East Anglian town in 1737 (see this piece by Peter Linebaugh for more about Thetford's historic significance). I like to see Paine - who once gave a toast 'to the world revolution' - as one of the finest people to ever come out of East Anglia (rather than say, let him be claimed by Norfolk alone), but I am basically just happy that the good people of Thetford - as well as others - have honoured Paine over the years - as this post will hopefully go some way to show. Statue of Thomas Paine, erected in 1964 in Thetford town centre and designed by Sir Charles Wheeler. Words from Paine's The Rights of Man, on the front of the plinth - 'My country is the world, my religion is to do good'. Paine's statue has him holding The Rights of Man, though the book is upside down - apparently intentionally in order to get local people talking about Paine and the book. There is lots of writing around the plinth of the statue - mostly quotes from Paine's The Age of Reason. Sadly if perhaps inevitably, most of Paine's most radical stances for his time - against slavery and for women's liberation for example - are not recorded on the stature - and there was a distinct lack of really radical quotes - for example Paine's thoughts on the monarchy (eg. 'Monarchy would not have continued so many ages in the world, had it not been for the abuses it protects. It is the master-fraud, which shelters all others.' or perhaps this: 'Monarchy is a silly stupid thing. A play thing for the rich and a menace for the poor'. Quotes like this would really I think get the local people of Thetford talking... This avenue is not that far from the house where Thomas Paine was born... This nice little plaque marks the birthplace of Thomas Paine (the original home has long gone, so instead it can be found on the wall of what is now the Thomas Paine Hotel. This plaque - also on the side of the building that is now the Thomas Paine Hotel - was put into place in 1943. The inscription reads: "Journalist, Patriot and Champion of the common man. Thomas Paine, son of a humble Thetford staymaker, was born near this house. From his talented pen came the voice of democratic aspiration of the American Republic, though such splendid writings as 'Common Sense', 'Crisis' and 'The Age of Reason'. Buried in New York, this simple son of England lives on through the Ideals and Principles of the democratic world for which we fight today. In tribute to his memory and to the everlasting love of freedom embodied in his works, this Plaque is gratefully dedicated through the voluntary contributions of Soldiers of an American Airforce Group." The plaque was then placed here as a tribute from the American aircrew of a B17 named "Thomas Paine", based at nearby Knettishall during the Second World War. The aircraft bore the legend ”Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered”, - a quote from the first of Paine’s American Crisis papers, which maintained American morale during the War of Independence. The aforementioned Thomas Paine Hotel in White Hart Street - start of the official 'Thomas Paine trail' (though disappointingly the pub hardly advertises this fact). The Ancient House Museum - just a little bit down White Hart Street - is a decent little museum and an essential place to visit on the 'Thomas Paine trail' - with a room dedicated to Paine, where you can watch a little introductory film about his life, see a few artefacts (including his 'deathmask') and buy a nice little postcard with a portrait of Paine. Paine died in 1809 - twenty years after his death in 1829 an iron bridge was built in Thetford - this is only relevant because Paine himself liked iron bridges and was a designer of them. But it is a nice old bridge. Thetford Grammar School (still in existence) - really quite close to where Thomas Paine was born and where young Thomas went to school. Thomas’s father, Joseph Paine, a master stay or corset maker, was a freeman of the Borough of Thetford which entitled him to have his son educated at the Grammar School, at reduced fees. Thomas later wrote, "my parents were not able to give me a shilling beyond what they gave me in education, and to do this they distressed themselves." He probably attended the school between the ages of eight to thirteen years. On leaving school, he was then apprenticed to his father - so Thomas was definitely something of an autodidact... There were other things to see on the Thomas Paine trail, but to be honest I think I have covered the main things - others I leave to who make the time to visit to see for themselves. I should mention two other things about Thetford that are apparent from a brief strole through the town. There is a statue up here to Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire before colonisation by the British East India Company in the 1840s - and who ended up living just outside Thetford for a large part of the nineteenth century. It is also impossible to miss the fact that a lot of 'Dad's Army' was filmed around Thetford - and so there is a 'Dad's Army trail' running parallel to the Thomas Paine trail. A couple of photos below by way of evidence of this in case any fans of the show read Histomat (the statue is of Captain Mainwaring): In conclusion, sad to say, I guess far more British people who visit Thetford today as tourists do so in order to visit 'The Dad's Army Museum' and go on the 'Dad's Army trail' than go like me in order to pay homage to Thomas Paine - but if just a fraction of those who go to Thetford for 'Dad's Army' leave Thetford wanting to learn a bit more about Thomas Paine - a heroic revolutionary figure and democratic thinker who has never recieved the attention he warrants in Britain itself - then that in itself is surely cause for cheer.

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