When one thinks of Brandon one thing comes to mind - flint. The Neolithic flint mines at nearby Grimes Graves were a major industrial development several thousand years ago, exploiting a stratum of this rock for the manufacture of flint axes that were exported all over Southern England. That same stratum was to be used in more recent times for the making of gun flints. How they discovered this “floorstone”, at the depth that it is, in prehistoric times is a mystery.
There has not been much evidence uncovered, near to the town, of habitation in the Bronze Age, but some of the nearby mounds (barrows) may date to this period. There were certainly Iron Age people living and farming near the river in Brandon. When the Staunch Meadow was excavated, some Iron Age material was found and evidence of Iron Age ploughing discovered when a thick layer of peat was removed. This in turn indicates a considerable change in climate over a few hundred years. Iron Age horse equipment has been found at Santon and Elveden and, of course, the great palisaded enclosure, or temple, at Gallows Hill, Thetford, just a few miles away, must have influenced the population here.
The Iron Age tribe of this area - the Iceni - became a client Kingdom of the Romans following the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43AD. When King Prasutagus of the Iceni died, instead of his kingdom being divided equally between his family and the Roman Emperor, the Roman procurator, Catus Decianus, seized everything: the late king’s household was enslaved, his daughters raped and his queen flogged. Her name was Boadicea (Boudicca). The tribe rose in revolt behind their red-haired warrior queen, defeated part of a Roman Legion and destroyed Colchester, London and Verulamium (St. Albans). There is no doubt that many of the men of this area would have been in the Queen’s army. After their eventual defeat by Paulimus, this area was placed firmly under Roman control. All this happened about 6OAD. Over the next four centuries this area became fully “Romanised”.
Near the centre of the present town of Brandon, however, Roman remains are sparse but there has been much uncovered in Weeting, Santon Downham and Hockwold where there was a Romano-British settlement by the river.
The majority of Roman sites in this immediate area seem to be on low ground along the river valley. There are remains of Roman habitation in Santon Downham and Weeting, together with a Romano-British settlement and religious site by the river in Hockwold. Surprisingly, there have been no Roman sites found near the present built-up area of Brandon. The early, pagan Saxons of 500 - 650AD do not seem to have left much here, but cremation urns have been found on higher ground in Lakenheath and who knows what evidence might be awaiting discovery under the trees in the forest?
By about 700AD a Saxon community had been established on a sandy island (on what is now part of the Remembrance Playing Field in Brandon) with a causeway linking it to higher ground. This was a substantial settlement for its time with its own wooden church and ”industrial” area. Evidence of much building and rebuilding was unearthed during excavations in the 1980s, together with important glass fragments (the church may well have had glazed windows), pottery from Northern Europe and a surprising number of pins used to secure clothing. This was the first substantial settlement in the area of the present day Brandon and could well have been the first “Brandon” but we don’t know what it was actually called. The name “Brandon” may mean a “hill on which broom grows”, or it may refer to “Branda’s town”.
This settlement, however, appears to have been abandoned at the time of the Danish raids into East Anglia about 870AD.
When Brandon was resettled after the Danish interlude and, no doubt, now including new “Danish blood” amongst the inhabitants, the town was established in the St Peter’s Church, Church Road and Victoria Avenue area, to judge by the pottery finds. This new, late Saxon town was built on higher ground. By 970AD the place was sufficiently large for the “manor of Brandon” to be given to Ely Abbey. In fact, in 974AD the monks of Ely, having stolen the body of Withburga from Dereham, fled overland from there to Brandon, where they took to a boat and disappeared downriver.
The Norman Conquest did not initially affect the local population until the effect of a much harsher regime was felt. By the time Hereward the Wake was able to organise his guerrilla warfare in the Fens, against the invaders, it was all too late. He might well have used Brandon as one of his “jumping-off points”. There has been much speculation as to when and where the first Brandon bridge was built, but it is evident that Brandon was the first place that you could cross beyond the Fens. The presence of a Norman castle at Weeting castle seems to indicate that the bridge was near to its present position and that the castle was built to control it. The manor of Brandon remained in the hands of Ely’s abbot (and later, bishop). The abbot’s steward lived in a house next to the church. This house existed until 1970 when it was pulled down in order to build the present day “Manor House Close”. The outline of the manor “pound”, where straying animals were kept until their owners paid an appropriate fine, can be seen in the pronounced bend in Church Road near the site of the manor house. Up to the thirteenth century, the main income was derived from sheep. The earliest surviving stonework in the church dates from this period. By the next century, however, the “conies” - rabbits introduced into England by the Normans - made such inroads into the arable and grazing land that the rector of Brandon complained about his loss of tithes. Possibly to alleviate this problem, but certainly in order to maximise the income from rabbits going to the lord of the manor, large warrens enclosed by a bank and ditch were established. Warreners were employed to harvest rabbits and to deter poachers. Semi-fortified warren lodges were built for the warreners. Brandon warren lodge site lies somewhere under the forest but Thetford Warren Lodge exists just off the Thetford road and is well worth a visit.
Income was coming to Brandon at this time from pilgrims travelling to Walsingham, the second most important shrine in England. Brandon and Weeting lay on the recognised route that skirted the Fens and gave the first river crossing. As mentioned before, there has been much speculation as to where the first bridge was, but what is known is that by late medieval times, inns for travellers were well established in the present High Street area. The medieval bridge (so sadly pulled down in the 1950s) was the key to this growth. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the population of Brandon moved away from the area of St Peter’s Church both east and west. By the sixteenth century two almost separate communities; Brandon Ferry Street at the bridge end and Brandon Town Street at the west end, were in existence. The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII cut off the pilgrim income from Brandon, but the rise of Lynn as a major port created a new source of travellers in need of overnight accommodation in Brandon. In 1542, Brandon was granted a charter for a weekly market. (This was quite separate from the Bromehill hiring fairs across the river in Weeting Parish).
It is quite possible that the original bridge had been constructed and maintained under the patronage of the religious houses in Thetford, because ownership of the bridge tolls passed to the crown at the Dissolution. Edward VI granted the right of collecting tolls to Sir Richard Fulmerston in 1550 for £4 per annum. In 1573, this right was granted to the town of Thetford, together with the obligation to “repair, sustain and amend” the bridge.
During the next century, an idea of the relative prosperity in Brandon may be judged by the Ship Moneyreturns, which lists 69 landowners liable for the tax. This tax was one of the precursors of the Civil War. Brandon was at the heart of the Parliamentary part of England away from any battles, although there is a legend associated with this time. In the 1650s the lack of official small change meant that local merchants and traders issued their own token money. William Brewster and Henry Everard both issued farthings in the 1660s with “Brandon” on them.
In the 1660s, the Great Sand Blow occurred. This was probably due to destruction of vegetation by rabbits, coupled with stronger than usual south-west winds. The sand from Lakenheath built up into a large creeping dune which circled the south of Brandon and practically engulfed Santon Downham. The village and the river navigation were badly affected, in spite of the efforts of Thomas Wright Esq. In Brandon, however, the “great blow” left a sea of sand dunes between the town and Barton Mills which travellers feared to cross because of the desert conditions at midday and highwaymen at night. Over the next century or more, the inns of Brandon did well on the fears of travellers.
In 1673, a meeting was called at The Ram to decide on the building of a workhouse for the relief of the poor. This building of chalk blocks (‘clunch’) with the master’s house of brick, adjoining, still stands near the church and has its later use as the “Victoria School” inscribed over the door.
In 1754, it was decided to erect a building for the manual fire pump. This site, with a replacement fire pump building, still exists on the London Road. No doubt the pump was used in the “Great Fire of Brandon” when several cottages etc. were burnt down at the bottom of the High Street.
Ever since the 1570s when the German gunsmiths refined the “snaphaunce” into the “flintlock” for firing guns, Brandon, along with other “flinty” areas of Europe, produced gunflints. These were wedge-shaped flints with one firing edge. About 1780, the French invention of a double-edged gunflint reached the town. The Brandon and Santon Downham “floorstone” flint - the same as is found at Grimes Graves - could be knapped to produce long double edge flakes which, in turn, could be cut into four or five reversible gunflints. Philip Hayward received the first large army order for 100,000 musket flints in 1790. In 1793, he moved into “Flint Hall” (next to the present Forest Primary School). Brandon flintknappers prospered. Just before the Battle of Waterloo (1815) all the gunflints for the British Army were ordered from Brandon. The next year the order was nil. The subsequent unemployment led to many knappers being “on the parish”.
The formation of the Brandon Gunflint Company maintained some output for more than 150 years, in spite of the invention of the percussion cap and the later breech-loading cartridge.
In 1816, riots occurred in Brandon. The Riot Act was read and Dragoons sent from Thetford. The disturbances, in common with others in East Anglia, were due to the high price of meat and bread, but maybe more keenly felt in Brandon because of the loss of the flint industry. Eventually, the butcher’s house and shop was destroyed and some eight people arrested.
The decline in the gunflint industry was counterbalanced by a rise in the rabbit fur trade. Originally a cottage industry, it now became organised into factories, W Rought’s being established in 1790. The fur, having been removed and processed, was sent elsewhere in Britain to be made into felt hats. The fur felt trade was a major industry in Brandon for well over a century.
In 1845, a railway being built from London via Ely joined up with a railway being built from Norwich at Brandon. The original station buildings with their Norfolk-style flintwork are still extant. The Eastern Counties, later Great Eastern Railway, built considerable sidings here and these were well used for freight up until the 1980s. The railway affected the barge traffic on the river considerably but some continued up to the 1930s. The Town Lode from the river still exists at the bottom of Lode Street.
During the nineteenth century, the poorer sand soil led to the setting up of large estates rather than small farms. These estates were primarily devoted to the rearing and shooting of game. Large houses were built at Elveden, Weeting, Santon Downham and Brandon Park. Hedges of Scots pine were planted and the curious-shaped pines that line some of the roads are the remains of these hedges. By the middle 1800s the population of Brandon had doubled. There was only one small grammar school for boys and in the 1840s the old workhouse by the church was converted into the Victoria School, which offered elementary education to both sexes. The 1870 Education Act meant that there had to be a new school and, in 1873, the all-age “Board” school on the market hill was built incorporating the old grammar school. This school with its fine clock is now the Forest Primary School and Town Council offices. The Victoria School continued in use until 1913 and its building still stands.
The 1914-1918 War affected the district, not just because of the loss of so many young men, but because of the many training camps set up in the vicinity.
After the war, the post-war depression countrywide led to the setting up, by central government, of training camps for the unemployed. Men were sent from all parts of the country to this area for skill-training. They had no choice - you went to the labour camp or lost your dole money.
In the 1920s, the Forestry Commission was set up. Land from some of the old shooting estates was purchased and Scots pine plantations were set out. The “Forestry” became an important employer in Brandon for the next sixty or more years, with its depot at Santon Downham, and a large industrial site adjacent to Brandon railway station. The forest still affects the lives of all in the area.
During the 1939-45 war, the whole area was covered with Army Camps. Tank workshops were constructed in Weeting, and Brandon railway sidings became a bomb-distribution point. Luckily, only one stick of enemy bombs fell on Brandon - total casualties: one dog!
After the war, the camps were used as accommodation for Poles who did not wish to return to Russian-dominated Poland. Some of them, and many of their descendants, still live in the district.
In the late 1950s, men and schoolgirls stopped wearing hats. This, rather than the myxamotosis that killed off the local rabbits at this time, caused the decline and eventual end of the fur felt industry in Brandon by 1970.
In 1953, Brandon’s medieval bridge - a tourist attraction featured in all guide books - was pulled down, together with the old maltings alongside, and the present bridge constructed on a new road alignment.
The 1960s and 70s marked the beginning of the “bungalow boom” in developments, together with an “overspill” estate constructed by the Greater London Council. Unfortunately, it also saw the destruction of many flint-faced cottages, especially in Town Street, which changed out of all recognition, and the pulling down of the old Manor House near the church.
Breckland Secondary (now Middle) School was built in the early 60s and Glade Primary a decade later. The population is now well over 10,000.
Grateful thanks to David Pocock for this article.