Diss stands on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. The river Waveney, which forms the boundary between the counties, never seems to have formed a substantial barrier; Diss exemplifies this with at the time of the Domesday book the hundred being north of the river but the town listed as in Suffolk. The town may derive its name from the Saxon term for a 'lake' or 'ditch'; another possibility is that it is a Viking word meaning 'village of the dancing horse'. It would be less than charitable to describe the Mere beside which Diss lies as a 'ditch' but if the Saxon word meant 'lake', then that seems appropriate. The Mere is a substantial area of nearly two and a half hectares, six metres deep at its centre, formed at the end of the last Ice Age.
Diss has a number of finds which indicate people in the area from pre-historic times, including stone age and bronze age implements, but no specific settlement is known. Again, Roman pottery, metalwork and jewellery has been found but with no known town. Saxon brooches indicate settlement in that period, and by the time of the Domesday book in 1088, a small but valuable settlement is recorded.
The formal granting of a market or charter was always important for the growth of a town in medieval times. A Royal Charter was granted for a fair in 1185; an area is still known as Fair Green, though an Act of Parliament in 1872 closed both Diss's and many other fairs in the interest of public order.
Thus Diss grew as a prosperous market town in the medieval period, operating as a market for cloth and linen thread. This thread was spun and woven from flax grown locally; investigation of the Mere in the 1990s was able to illustrate from pollen analysis that the retting of hemp was just one of the agricultural processes undertaken there. Hemp and linen fibres were treated in much the same way - through relatively disagreeable processes involving very smelly partial decomposing through soaking. It does mark Diss out as having such a specialist facility in the Mere which many of the other market towns of the East Anglian boulder claylands did not have. Whilst it is from the Medieval period that we can begin to find supporting evidence for hemp and linen working, the pollen research does suggest that this activity goes back for at least 1500 years
The prosperity of the town was sufficient to build the present parish church of St Mary the Virgin in the 14th century, probably on the site of a previous Saxon church. The tower is dated to about 1300 whilst the nave in its current form from a century later. The poet John Skelton, probably a Yorkshireman, had become rector of Diss by 1504 and retained the living until his death in 1529. He does not appear to have relished his time as a country parson, and wrote a number of satires on local issues whilst in Diss; he may well have be back in London by 1512, dying at Westminster.
The market area at Diss became colonised with other buildings over the years, with a chapel and a Guildhall at one end. Late medieval timber framed houses with jettied first floors are still to be seen. As with many of East Anglia's towns, one particular great fire affected the town, in 1640.The weaving of worsted and knitting of hosiery were added to the production of hemp and linen, though these declined in the 19th century as such work moved north in the Industrial Revolution. The last hand-woven linen made in Norfolk was made in the villages of Lopham, near Diss, the company making it staying in business until 1925.
The 1820s through to the 1840s were a period of rioting across the county for several reasons - the tithe enclosures, machine breaking because agricultural machinery was regarded as responsible for job losses and in particular for the Diss area, disturbances against poor agricultural wages. Instances of damage and incendiarism, such as the firing of Mr Kent stacks at Darwood in 1882, indicate the general unrest that could be experienced. The Times of 9th March 1822 refers to Attleborough and Diss as being the main areas of disturbance in Norfolk and two days later it is recording the damage caused by "a strong party of insurgents" and "large parties assembling at Diss" on a market day, which led to the local cavalry being called out. Two months later 150 local land owners met in the town to prepare to petition Parliament about the general agricultural distress.
The coming of the railway when the Eastern Union opened the first station for passenger and freight usage in 1849 was important for the town. Malting was one of the industries which prospered because of the railway. Diss ceased being a freight centre in 1985 but its position on the busy Norwich-Ipswich-London line, and its long platforms to handle the main-line trains has ensured its growth in importance over recent years, being now for many a commuter station for London. The station is located nearly a mile outside the main town, and former railway land now houses an industrial area.
In respect of road transport, the ancient Roman road, the Pye Road, ran nearby through Scole; the importance of the Mere lead to the settlement growing in that location rather than on the main road. Today the A140 between Ipswich and Norwich still follows the line of the ancient road, so Diss continues to require a slight diversion from the main route.
Diss is also well worth visiting - a view supported by former poet laureate John Betjeman - not only because of the range of late medieval buildings but for the later Georgian and Victorian buildings. It houses a working corn hall with imposing classical portico, built in 1854 to a design by George Adams. The town has a good range of shops, information leaflets for the visitor and a town museum which allows further study of the town's history
Click for books from Poppyland Publishing on Diss:
'Exploring the Norfolk Market Town' by Christopher Barringer, is a history of the town from the stone age to recent times
Looking towards the centre of Diss from across the Mere, the probable reason for the settlement that grew into the town we know today. The Mere is believed to have been formed by a collapse in the underlying chalk layer towards the end of the last ice age.
The entrance columns of Diss Corn Hall, still an important centre for the town. Picture taken on the day that the East Anglian Blood Donor's service called. The building to the right, partly in view, is the Greyhound, which remains essentially as it looked when built it the 17th century.
Carved timbers from an earlier age on a town building in Diss.
A Norwich-London train pulls into the station at Diss.
The timber-framed former inn, the Dolphin, now a restaurant. Close by is Diss Museum, your first port of call if visiting to find out more about the history of the town.