The evidence for the early settlement of Fakenham is not great, but its sheltered position on the river Wensum suggests that it would have been a good place for people to settle. Flint made tools and weapons have been found on Fakenham Heath, suggesting inhabitation in Neolithic times. From Roman times there is evidence of settlement on Beacon Hill, the other side of the river from the current location of Fakenham. The town itself takes its name from the Saxon period, probably meaning 'Fair Place, but possibly 'Place on the Fair River'. Artefacts from the Saxon period have been discovered within the boundaries of the town.
By the time of King William's Domesday Book in 1086, the town had a population of 150. The manor was held by the king. Stones in the cormer of the parish church indicate that there was such a building at the time of Domesday, though the principal parts of the current building date from the 14th century, with the tower being added early in the next century. The name of an early Rector, Wymerus, is known from 1226. The parish of Hempton, across the river, was often in dispute with Fakenham. Hempton had a Priory which could offer lodging to pilgrims on the way to Walsingham - and of course they then weren't spending their money in Fakenham. The Priory was closed at the time of the dissolution, and Fakenham was then clearly the primary centre.
The main town grew up around what are now Tunn Street and Swan Street. The oldest complete house in the town is at the junction of the two streets and dates from the 17th century. Between this area and Oak Street is the Market Place. The market was granted in 1250. As with many of the market towns of Norfolk, the market and church were close together. The small buildings around the church may well be built on the plots on which market stalls once stood - the stalls gradually becoming more permanent structures. The original patterning may well have been affected by the fires of 1660, 1718 and 1738. This may be the explanation for the 'islands' of buildings we see today.
The principal industries of the town through the centuries were agricultural. Domesday records that there were three mills, the river providing the power. The market place itself was the centre of commerce for the district. Wind power operated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then came gas and electricity, the gas works being built in 1846 just across the road from the water mill. Fakenham's gas museum recalls this source of energy, which once lit the whole town.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Fakenham developed another major industry - the printing of books. Thomas Miller built up a substantial business from 1862, which grew from a local operation to a concern supplying titles to major London publishers. In spite of a major fire in 1914, the business of Miller, Son and Co. continued to flourish, and became part of other publishing business concerns.
Fakenham today is a town which has been busy rebuilding itself after suffering several set-backs with the closure of local industries, in particular the major printing operation. It has been supported by being in an area receiving special support from European funds. Light industry and retail developments spread outside the town, and the main traffic flows have been moved away from the town centre. Fortunately many of the smaller buildings in the town centre can still be seen, and whilst there are some anachronisms, there is plenty to be appreciated. The arch through to the church, the narrow line of shops, the cottages and yards behind the main buildings on the other side of the market place, the alms houses, all help tell the story of the town in times gone by.
The market place at Fakenham has some isolated buildings, such as this bank. One suggestion is that fires in the market place left thesen 'islands' of buildings
A lithograph of the market place, by George Stewardson, dated 1880
A photograph from the Market Place, with Bridge Street off on the right and Norwich Street on the left. In the centre of the picture the building retains the Dutch gable style, a style which can be found in a number of the market towns of Norfolk. These commercial buildings date from the growth of the town in the 18th and 19th century, as the town extended itself beyond the original market place
As with many other Norfolk towns and villages, the substantial church building and tall tower speaks of a wealthy settlement in medieval times