Swaffham as a permanent settlement did not exist until Saxon times, after the Romans left this country to defend Rome from the barbarians. There is evidence, such as stone implements and tools dug up in this area to suggest that it was inhabited 300,000 years ago. Further discoveries of weapons and tools excavated which give evidence of human existence in the area during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Some of these artifacts can be seen today in Swaffham Museum.
There were Roman settlements, probably large villas or farmsteads, around Swaffham. Many coins of the period have been found, some near Peddars Way, an ancient track way, running north to South from Holme Next The Sea near Brancaster through Norfolk and Suffolk to Essex. When the Romans were driven to defend Rome by Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, the Huns and the Visigoths, Anglos and Saxons in their turn were pushed to find new land even further west. They found a land of forests and a temperate climate across the North Sea. Here they settled but having no time for the Roman way of life, its architecture and its urban settlements, they demolished the towns, villas and the farmsteads to settle in small tribal groups hams or tons.
Gradually the dark ages disappeared. Christianity was introduced and people were slowly given a veneer of civilization. The church curbed the wild, brutal behavior of many Anglo-Saxon rulers. In some areas a form of feudalism was introduced based on the three-field system of rotation of crops, leaving one field fallow, in turn each year. Where this system existed it set in motion the system of law and government at the head of which were the thanes and the king.
Norfolk was part of one of the 7 Saxon kingdoms, which was vulnerable to attacks from raiders from across the North Sea, the Vikings. These fierce explorers saw a rich, fertile land, very similar to North Germany and Denmark. Eventually they did more than raid the area; they settled here and tried to conquer the whole of Angle-land. The North and East became known as the Danelaw, while the Kings of Wessex ruled the rest of Angle-land. Eventually peace was restored; the country was united until Harold Godwin became King in 1066. This led William of Normandy to invade in order to claim the kingdom (he claimed that Harold had promised him the crown). England was now under the rule of the Normans.
All land in England now belonged to William the Conqueror. He distributed manors to his followers. His policy was to give them parcels of land in various parts of the country to dilute their power. In Swaffham, Ralph Guader had held the manor for King Harold before 1066. From that date until the 14th Century the Earls of Richmond were the Lords of the Manor. When Henry VII became King in 1485 the manor of Swaffham reverted to the Crown. During Elizabeth I reign (1558-1603), Swaffham counted as 2 manors one of which was granted to Sir Henry Bedingfield, a staunch Catholic, the other to Philip Strelley. Richard Hamond finally bought the manorial rights in 1730, where they resided in the Hamond (Harbord-Hamond) family until 1957. The estate now belongs to Messer Heygate.
Through the ages, the church dominated everyones life. Not only did it provide spiritual guidance, it was also part of the government (local & national) of this country. Swaffham has a splendid church dating back to 1454. It was built to replace one, which collapsed, but was not finished until 1510. Its most striking feature is the finely carved hammer-beam roof. It is an elegant building, full of light and atmosphere, beautifully proportioned, a real joy to the eye.
The financing of the building of the church is the stuff of legend. The story of the part played by John Chapman is well known, of how a pedlar from Swaffham had a dream that if he went and stood on London Bridge he would meet someone who would tell him where a treasure was buried. The pedlar, John Chapman, with his dog, walked to London Bridge, waited there for 3 days, was about to return home, when a man came up to him and asked him what he was doing there. John Chapman gave him a brief account of his dream without giving away where he came from. The man was astonished; he told John that he too had had a dream. It was one of finding a treasure under a pear tree in a garden of a house in Swaffham. Making hurried farewells, John walked back to his home, dug under his pear tree and found 2 pots of gold. It was this gold that was used to build at least part of the church. There is no doubt that John Chapman, almost certainly a wool merchant, donated a large amount of money to the church.
The granting of a charter for a market in 1215 was very important for the people of Swaffham and the surrounding parishes. The large triangular area in the centre of the town lent itself to fairs and a market. They all brought prosperity to the place, especially the large fairs 3 a year, on 12th May, 21st July and 3rd November, for the sale of sheep, cattle and other livestock. These were such important dates in the year that school children were given half-day holidays during fair days in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The Buttercross, built in 1783 by the Earl of Orford to hold a butter mart, was no longer used for that purpose after 1836. In the 20th century it was sometimes called the Bandstand. Swaffham Town Band performed there until the band was disbanded in the 1960s. It stands in the Market Place as a graceful reminder of Swaffham's past when it was a Spa Town. Swaffham acquired a reputation for healthy living and longevity so in the 18th century, leaders of society and local gentry bought houses in Swaffham in order to spend the season here, taking part in all manner of blood sports, including hare coursing. The Earl of Orford and his friends in the Greyhound Public House thought up this sport in 1776.
The most common occupation throughout the centuries, until the middle of the 20th Century was farming, or businesses related to farming. Most of the male inhabitants would have been labourers of some kind or other. Their wages were low, their homes very basic and often unhealthy. Their livelihood would have been at the mercy of political upheavals, economics swings and sudden changes in the weather. However the size of the population remained reasonably steady until the middle of the nineteenth century when it dropped from 3858 in 1851 to just over 2600 in 1931. There were several reasons for this: - there was a drift to the towns as people looked for work after the depression in farming in the 1870s, people emigrated to the Dominions in search of a better life, mechanisation meant fewer jobs on the farms, a serious of disastrous harvests in the 1870s and the importation of cheap wheat also led to the loss of thousands of jobs.
Swaffham benefited from what was arguably the greater invention of the 19th century, the railway. This example of mans ingenuity and inventiveness changed the world forever. The Industrial Revolution, still in its infancy in 1830, took off with a bang with the spread of the railways. Swaffham tagged along in 1849 when a line was built between Kings Lynn and East Dereham, a branch line from Swaffham to Thetford was built several years later. Most of the rail traffic was goods traffic, but passengers could travel to Norwich, Kings Lynn, Fakenham, and Great Yarmouth easily enough, catching connections to more distant towns and cities. Trains did not run every 15 minutes, or every hour but they provided a means of getting to the coast and back in a day, or a trip to Norwich rare treats for most people. Sadly the railway stopped functioning in most of rural Norfolk in the 1960s as a result of the Beeching Plan. In Swaffham the Railway Tavern was closed as a public house. The only reminders are Station Street and the Station Masters house with a few of the railway buildings still standing. It is possible to walk along parts of the old embankments and cuttings.
The health of the town improved dramatically after 1865 when a waterworks company was set up to supply clean water. Until then people had relied on private wells, public wells and ponds for their water with the result that there were frequent epidemics of typhoid fever and cholera.
The 20th Century was as much as a turbulent period for Swaffham as for any small town. It escaped the destruction suffered by the cities particularly during the Second World War, but it could not escape the restrictions, hardships and shortages caused by the two World Wars. Out of a population of 3000 or so in 1914, 90 Swaffham men were killed in World War I, leaving grieving families and fatherless children.
Agriculture suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Swaffham jobs were scarce and benefits were few. There was no welfare state to cushion the effects of economic and political disasters. When World War II broke out in 1939, the demand for home produced food gave new life to the farming industry. Swaffham found itself in the middle of airfields, army camps, and dummy airfields and later on prisoner of war camps and a USAAF Air Base at North Pickenham. In the early part of the war, the siren sounded many times, warning of enemy aircraft approaching. Swaffham itself was hit once in January 1941. The railway station was damaged and a few soldiers were killed. Liberators filled the sky after 1942. They were based at North Pickenham, and from there they bombed targets in Germany and occupied Europe.
During the last 50 years Swaffham has grown both in size and in number. Its population is just over 6000 at present and still growing. Not too much damage was done to the buildings during the 1960s and 1970s. The town looks almost the same as it did in the 19th Century the roads have been metalled, cars are parked in the Market Place, the Assembly Rooms, and the Town Hall & Museum. The railway and the cinema have gone, much to most peoples regret, but we have a new skateboard park and we hope to have a swimming pool in the near future.
Swaffham is a lively, bustling place with a tempered way of life. It has embraced people from all over the world, but it is still a reminder of rural life in Norfolk when life was less hurried and the season dictated events.