As with many Norfolk towns, the name can be traced back to a Saxon ancestry, with the word probably deriving from the Saxon word for wood. A clearing and a crossing place for roads on the wooded high ground of the Cromer-Holt ridge was a natural place for a settlement to grow up. The ridge itself was formed from boulder clay, deposited during the last ice age.
Holt gains a mention in King William's Domesday book of 1086. It had its own market and its own port - Cley is listed as being the port of Holt. With five water mills and twelve plough teams it can been seen as a busy settlement. Originally held by Walter Giffard, the manor passed to Hugh, Earl of Chester, who in turn left it to the De Vaux family. With a well-established market and annual fair days on April 25th and November 25th, Holt grew as the local centre of trade.
There are a few glimpses of the town in the medieval period, with De Vuaux's bailiffs being recorded as being less than honest with the townsfolk - stealing goods from stallholders, and holding some of their animals to ransom. The plague of 1348 had a devastating effect in the Holt deanery - 23 priests are recorded as dying during this period, and there must have been many more of their parishioners besides. At the time of the Peasants revolt, later in the 14th century, local leader Geoffrey Litster preached unrest in Holt market place. In 1588 the threat of invasion from the Spanish Armada led to the fortification and garrisoning of nearby Weybourne, which must have led to much activity in Holt.
There is evidence of a church in Holt for over 1000 years. Associated with the work of the church in Holt was the Guild of St Mary the Virgin. Such guilds provided relief for the por of the parish until the guilds were supressed in the time of Henry VIII.
Holt becamse victim to a devastating fire in 1708. The fire destroyed most of the town within a space of three hours. The church was badly damaged - its thatched chancel burned, lead melted from the windows and the flames spread up the steeple. Total damage was over £11,000, a massive figure for the time. Help flowed in from the towns around. The fire changed the focus of the town; the new centre arose around the open market place rather than around the church where the houses once clustered.
Moving into the 18th century, the written record for the town grows stronger. The diaries of Mary Hardy of Letheringsett cover the last two decades of the century, and record the occasion when 500 people dined in the market place on plum pudding and boiled beef, to celebrate the king's recovery from illness. In this period there was again expectation of invasion, this time from France, and local volunteers were raised across the district to defend the coastline. Mary Hardy records the parades of the local men.
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Holt was a town of 1700 people. Gresham's school, founded in 1562, had long made it an important local centre for education. Agriculture and the school were the two principal businesses of the town in Victorian times. The established church had been joined by congregations of Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists and the Society of Friends. The town was well served by coaches serving local and distant destinations, through to London.
Today Holt remains a thriving centre of local trade. Agriculture plays a significantly lesser role than in earlier centuries - particularly since the formal closing of the market in 1960. However, Holt has built itself a reputation for many specialist shops with a good range of quality products, and the character of the market place, its features and its buildings have been cared for carefully.
Click for books from Poppyland Publishing on Holt:
'Holt - Georgian Market Town' by Peter Brooks is an illustrated overview of the town's history.
The medieval parish church at Holt survived the fire in 1706, but was badly damaged. After the fire the focus of the town moved from around the church to the market place
This photograph of Obelisk Plain, the west end of Holt Market Place, dates from about 1880. The obelisk, and its panel giving distances to principal towns, still stands today, though the water pump has now gone
At the east end of the market place is the preparatory section of Gresham's School. In front stand the war memorial, and the shelter built in 1999 to mark the Millennium
J. Holmes Randall's shop in Holt late in the 19th century. He had taken the shop over from his father, William Randall. The Randall family brought both gas and electrical services to Holt, though they were primarily watch and clock makers and repairers
There are many shops in Holt town centre, where the buildings of the Georgian period, constructed after the fire, make the market place an attractive place to shop. The centre is now a conservation area, and keeps Holt a pleasant venue for the people of north Norfolk and the many visitors to the area