The earliest written clue we have to Downham Market is the mention of a market in a charter of 1050. The market was probably established by the monks of Ramsey Abbey who held sway over the Clackhose Hundred and their manor of Wimbotsham. The town had grown up on a navigable river and close to the county's main east-west Roman road, the Fen Causeway, One opinion considers it a town central to its region possibly by the mid-Saxon period and certainly by the late Saxon period. However the market is not mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086 but then very few markets are mentioned for Norfolk and there were surely more than the great survey records.
Norfolk Heritage Explorer through a number of recorded finds, indicates human activity in the area in earlier times. There are Bronze Age finds and Roman finds but little at present other than one gold coin from the Iron Age in between those two periods. A north-south route grew up naturally linking the various settlements on the Fen edge. The town's original name was Downham Hithe, indicating its position on the river; it is not clear when the name 'Market' was adopted. Through to Victorian times writers would mention the view across the Marshland, the eastern Fens, when in Downham Market. Standing in front of the parish church today can still give an indication of how the town dominated the landscape.
Writing for his 'History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk', published in 1845, William White describes Downham as a 'neat and clean market-town'. At that time he says it is 'consisting principally of two long and well-built streets, pleasantly seated on the east acclivity of the vale of the Great Ouse'. He, as with several others writers on the town, does not pick out any great events from the Medieval and Tudor periods, other than recording ownership of the manors. He does refer to the number of manors in the area given to Ramsey Abbey and he indicates the antiquity of the market. From later times we know of a great butter market, held every Monday, though this would eventually be eclipsed by the butter market at Swaffham. The town's horse fair was also an important occasion, it was said to be one of the largest horse fairs in Europe.
The bridge itself was clearly an important feature at that time, channeling east-west traffic through the town. A wooden structure, it was leased to bridge reves who could collect the income from its use and were responsible for its upkeep. At one end of the bridge was the toll house to collect the fees and at the other, a large public house. With the river level capable of rising a full five metres at spring tides, there must often have been times of great concern for the surrounding land and occasionally the great embankments did give way. In 1833, many hundreds of acres of the marshland were flooded when one of the banks failed.
The town continued as a focus for toll roads and when the railways arrived, the north-south route again passed along the fen edge. It was the Lynn and Ely Railway that laid the track, later becoming part of the Great Eastern Railway Company. As with many small town railway stations, it would become the focus for warehousing, the loading of cattle and products and the building of railway housing. The track was electified and became single track in 1992.
The town has many 18th and 19th century buildings including the Crown Hotel and the Castle Hotel. The town itself has expanded in all directions from the original area of settlement and the road system circles passing traffic around the town. Although there has been recent regeneration work, the focal point remains the distinctive clock presented to the town by James Scott. It was built by Cunliffe in London in 1878 in wrought iron and its black and white finish is part of its unique appearance. It incorporates the crown and arrows of East Anglia's own Saint Edmund, to whom the church is dedicated, and horses which indicate the importance of the horse fair in the town's history.
As with many towns in Norfolk, Downham Market was home to an airfield for a short while. The field was developed in 1942 as a satellite for Marham but became home to the Stirling of 218 Squadron in the August of that year. 571 Suadron, with its Mosquitoes, operated in 1944 and a small squadron of experimental Lancaster IVs followed. Flying ceased in April 1946 and the short-lived airfiled would not see aircraft take off again, being sold off in 1957.
Today Downham Market is a pleasant shopping centre and focal point offering access to both the Fens and to Breckland, to heritage and natural history in these distinctive parts of East Anglia.
Click for books from Poppyland Publishing on Downham Market:
SECTLINK('Exploring the Norfolk Market Town' by Christopher Barringer^Norfolk Origins#B14893), is a history of the town from the stone age to recent times
Today's Downham is encircled by the ring road which takes traffic past the old town.
The station at Downham is of the traditional style but the line iis fully electrified. The station has fully automated facilities.
The clock donated by James Scott, seen here before the regeneration process in the town centre, is a focal point for the town.
The railway parallels the relief channel and the Great OUse as it heads north. The Wisbech Road croses by a more substantial structure than the wooden bridges of earlier times.
Downham's St Edmund's church, constructed with west Norfolk's carstone, strengthened with ashlar quoins..