North Walsham is an ancient town. Evidence suggests that was a settlement in Saxon times, and the charter of King Edward indicates that there was a church there before the Norman conquest in 1066 AD. The word Walsham indicates that it was the home of Wael or Walsa. Further evidence for the early settlement comes from the Viking period, when a Norseman named Sket gave the town and its church to the Abbey of St Benet.
The town features as Walsham in the Domesday book, consisting of 30 acres at that time. In the medieval period the whole county of Norfolk grew in importance because of the production of woollen cloth. Edward III brought flemish weavers to England, and particularly to Norfolk, in order to raise the standard of the weaving of wool. The nearby town of Worstead gave its name to Worsted, and there was also a Walsham cloth. The town and surrounding villages would have had many houses where weavers worked at producing cloth.
Henry III granted the town its market, to be held every Thursday, and this event continues to the present day. Records from 1391 mention the building of a new Wool Hall in the town, for the storing and marketing of wool. By the middle of the 14th century the great church that stands at the centre of the town today was under construction, and as in many Norfolk towns, men who had made their money from wool would be paying the bill for its construction.
1381 was the year of the Peasant's revolt. It was brought on by the restriction of wages, a Poll Tax and the poor conditions under which the peasants lived. The leader in the district of North Walsham was Geoffrey Litester. He led his band to Norwich and established rule in the city. Eventually the Bishop of Norwich began to re-establish rule on behalf of the king, and he and his army pursued the peasant army to North Walsham. The final confontation took place to the south of the town, and is commemorated by three stone crosses. Litester was captured and eventually hanged, drawn and quartered.
In the 15th century the Paston family were the important family in the district. Their story is important in the nation's history because their family letters for the period from 1420 to 1627 have survived to the present day, giving an insight into the lives of the members of a land-holding family during medieval times. William Paston, son of Clement, became a lawyer and was wealthy enough to found the Paston School in North Walsham in 1606. This was to become the principal school for north Norfolk boys through to the end of the 19th century. It eventually became a Grammar School and today is the Paston Sixth Form College.
The school was founded on land which became available after a disastrous fire in the town in 1600. The church records recall the event which destroyed ' the wholle bodye of the towne, beinge built cheefly aboute the market place'. The church survived the damage, though it did suffer two falls of part of the tower, in 1724 and 1836. Even today, the narrow shop buildings around the market place reflect their medieval origins, their frontage being multiples of the standard seven feet of medieval market stall.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the importance of the weaving trade faded. But Norfolk was a centre of innovation in farming, and North Walsham prospered in new ways. The town was a centre for the manufacture of agricultural tools, the local corn trade centred on the town and one firm based in the town specialised in reed thatching, working as far afield as the United States of America.
North Walsham remains a growing town, with active industrial development, food canning and plastic welding. Part of the old town suffered unfortunate development when a precinct was built, in that period when it was thought better to pull down old buildings rather than undertake sympathetic refurbishment. For many years in the 1970s through to the 1990s it was a centre of manufacture for heavy trailers, but 1999 saw the closure of this substantial plant. Many of the town's inhabitants travel to Norwich for work, and it also remains a base for those working in the offshore oil industry.
The distinctive silhouette of North Walsham church tower at dawn. The tower was originally 147 feet high, but parts fell down in the 18th and 19th centuries, and other parts were removed to stabilise the structure
The market cross has stood in the market place through the centuries. The original structure was built in the middle of the sixteenth century, but it was destroyed in the 1600 fire. Bishop Redman built the replacement, and the clock was brought from Worstead Hall in 1787
The annual carnival includes a procession through the market place
A photo from early in the 20th century, with the jumble of buildings in front of the church which emerged from the medieval flesh market
North Walsham has a number of individual buildings. This gabled building in King's Arms Street was built by local firm Cornish and Gaymer, and once served as the town's telephone exchange