As with so many of our East Anglian market towns, there are glimpses of life in Attleborough before the time of written history through finds of stone, bronze and iron tools and weapons. The Roman period is also evidenced through pewter plates, bricks and pottery. It is in the Saxon period that we begin to see a town on the site is growing in influence over the surrounding territory.
The name of the town probably has its origins in that period, it being the 'burgh' or 'town' of Athla or Aetheling. There are other theories on the derivation of the name, but the most convincing argument at present is it being the place of residence of an important, possibly royal, Saxon who gave it his name. One of the other items of evidence for Saxon settlement is the rare Anglo-Saxon inscribed silver ring found in 1848 when the railway was being constructed.
The written record begins with the Domesday Book of 1086 recording the town of Atleburc and three manors for the area - Plassing, Attleborough Mortimer and Baconsthorpe - although it is not possible with certainty to place their exact boundaries. We can imagine a central village of not many more than 100 people within cleared forest, poised for growth in its position on the route between the new and developing town of Norwich and the great town of London.
The growing agricultural communities of Wymondham and Attleborough were greatly disturbed in the summer of 1549. The enclosure of part of the commons of Attleborough by Lord Wilby let to the furious common users tearing down the fences and when news of the event reached Robert Kett in Wymondham, the revolutionaries had found a leader. The government of the king however acted to enforce its rule and Despenser, the war-like Bishop of Norwich, finally crushed Kett's rebellion in a battle near North Walsham.
The geography of the town is still centered around the church. Part of the church from the Norman period remains today and it is likely that there was a Saxon church on the site before those times. Mortimer's south chapel dates from 1297 and the building we see today is substantially what we would have seen in the 16th century. The screen provided by the Ratcliffe family in the 1470s is the only one of its type in Norfolk.
We've already mentioned the significance of Attleborough's place on the main road into and out of Norfolk. The Griffen Inn was a busy coaching inn; its carriage entrance still exists and we can imagine the activity around that area as the many coaches on the A11 used it as one of their key stopping-off points. The question of the quality of the road led to he development of the Wymondham-Attleborough turnpike, one of the first such toll roads to be established in the country. The funding from the tolls could at last provide for the repair and upkeep of the road.
There had been a 'market cross' at Attleborough, like the one at Wymondham, but it has not survived. Again as in many market towns, there was a desire for a central building for local trade, and the building of the Corn Exchange was undertaken by a group of local farmers in 1863. The town supported the usual range of businesses and tradesmen through the 19th century, with farming underpinning the economy. The Angel, the Bear, the Cock, the Crown and the White Horse were the taverns which provided the meeting places for the business of the area.
The communication structure through coaches and carts had to develop to meet the challenge of the railway which arrived in 1845. Once again Attleborough was on the main route from Norwich to London. It provided new employment opportunities, both directly on the staff of the Norfolk Railway company and later the Great Eastern, and at other businesses which flourished with the help of the railways. The Gaymer's cider making plant was one such enterprise.
The rearing of turkeys was a particularly successful form of business in the Attleborough area, with the 1930 being a very busy era for this. Market day, every Thursday, would see thousands being sold. The town sign has a turkey on it, reputed to refer back to earlier times when turkeys were walked to London rather than taken by cart and train; it is said their feet were tarred to assist them in travelling such a long distance.
Attleborough had many experiences in common with the similar size towns of England during the two great wars of the 20th century, but is one of those places which has particular memories from the Second World War, not through invasion across the North Sea but across the North Atlantic. Station 142 of the American Air Force was constructed at Deopham and 144 at Old Buckenham. the bombers and crews began arriving at the end of 1942 Attleborough was of course their centre for entertainment - town hall dances and the cinema - and of course a cinema star in the form of Major James Stewart was stationed at Old Buckenham.
The bypassing of the town in 1984 has greatly relieved pressure on the town centre and gradually facilities and businesses have been able to change to benefit. The historic old town has gained a number of new estates around it. The town now operates its own tourist information office, which can supply lots more information on all there is to enjoy in town and throughout south Norfolk.
Click for books and DVDs from Poppyland Publishing on Attleborough:
'Exploring the Norfolk Market Town' by Christopher Barringer, is a history of the town from the stone age to recent times
'Attleborough - The Evolution of a Town' by Philip Bujak, is a history of the town from the stone age to recent times
The town sign includes cider making and turkeys
The medieval church of St Mary's stands in the centre of the town
The renovated tree pump in Queen's Square reminds us of times when all householders had to make their way to the communal pump for water
Attleborough Corn Hall, now home to electrical retailers
The Angel, once one of the substantial hostelries and a reminder of times when many coaches pulled in on their way to and from London or Cambridge