Ancient House Museum

There has been mining in the surrounding areas of Thetford since around 2000 BC. A settlement was established by the Iceni Celtic Tribe between the first century BC and first century AD, foundations of which can be seen today. The tribe of the legendary British Queen Boudica established Thetford over a thousand years ago and since then the town has cultivated a deep history that can be found in the Ancient House Museum, which is itself over five hundred years old.  

The museum’s original building was first built around 1490, by what is believed to be a wealthy merchant due to the size of the building, the size of the land and main road that the building was built on. The building has gone through major changes and expansions over the years, all outlined inside the museum itself. The expansion has allowed for the museum to exhibit a wide range of permanent exhibitions while also keeping space for a regular changing exhibit, giving the museum a consistent way of refreshing the museum experience. One major difference to the museum’s site is that the garden is no longer what it used to be, as it once stretched from the rear of the old part of the house to the Thetford Priory. The Priory was destroyed by Henry VIII back during the Reformation, the ruins of which is another historical landmark that can be found only ten minutes away from the museum. Despite the now small size of the garden, it is well kept and beautifully cared for. During the excavation of the land to construct the new section of the building, many interesting discoveries were made which the museum covers in detail.

Despite the interesting and beautiful architecture of the building, there are some structural downsides due to it being over five hundred years old. The entrance to the Ancient House Museum is fitted with a ram to allow for wheelchair accessibility on the ground floor only, with a tight squeeze into the accessible rooms. However, the Ancient House staff has produced an entire folder including images and annotations of all the displays held on the second floor which partially makes up for the lack of accessibility. The staff are also happy to answer any questions or elaborate on the information on display. Besides the accessibility of the second floor and the small size of the museum, it is well worth a visit to the Ancient House Museum for the range of local history.

As mentioned previously, Thetford is located close to Breckland, an area of flint mining of around four thousand years ago which became a major settlement for the Iceni tribe even during Roman occupation. The exhibits go as far back as the early flint mining, and the Norfolk Treasure: a collection of Roman gold and precious material found in a Celtic burial site. The museum continues through the conflicts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings which often happened around Thetford. Iron Age Castle Hill, Thetford Priory, and the Ancient House were all built between the Medieval Period and the Tudors, with the museum’s collection examining this alongside collections through the Early Modern Period. As stated above, the House was expanded throughout the past and the museum outlines these changes alongside the changes to Thetford up to the modern day. Despite the size of the museum, it has one of the most extensive overviews of any English settlement and its surrounding areas that I have experienced, even after travelling to several other countries and all over the United Kingdom.

Statue of Thomas Paine
PHOTOGRAPH BY Henry Ewart Palmer

I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the individuals on display at the museum who demonstrate the wide range of history covered by Ancient House and how one town in Norfolk can have such a vast impact on the world. The first name I would like to mention is Thomas Paine, born 1736 in Thetford becoming the son of a tenant farmer and stay-maker. Paine would try to become a privateer, helping to convince the American Colonies to go independent by sitting on the revolutionary government in France, all on top of his own revolutionary writing including the Rights of Man (1791). From humble beginnings to spreading political ideas more fitting to 2020 than to almost 300 years ago, Thomas Paine is an individual that makes visiting the Ancient House a worthwhile visit. Following this, the next person that I will be mentioning came from far less humble origins yet has an equal impact on many people today. The Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last king of the Punjab and son of the legendary Lion of the Punjab would find his family home and final resting place in Elveden, a settlement just outside of Thetford. Dragged away from his kingdom at ten years old in 1849, Duleep Singh has become an important figure to the Sikh community both in Britain and India. His children were also important figures in Britain, his daughter Sophia became a prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom, and one of his sons was directly involved in the creation of the Ancient House Museum. The last person I would like to mention is a relatively forgotten figure, yet embodies an important milestone for Britain, Allan Glaisyer Minns. Minns was born in the Bahamas in 1858 and would eventually become Britain’s first black mayor in 1904 to the white dominated town of Thetford. The Ancient House Museum holds collections and exhibitions for all of these men and many more people of Thetford, which can be seen by anyone who makes the journey to the town.

Statue of the Maharajah Duleep Singh
PHOTOGRAPH BY Henry Ewart Palmer

The Ancient House Museum also holds many events and historical talks throughout the year, as well as a series of clubs that let visitors become more engaged with history and support to the community. The clubs start with the ‘Mini Museum Club’ for under 5’s, the ‘History Club’ for under 12’s, and a ‘Teenage History Club’, making a place for children of all ages. For adults, there are the historical talks of different subjects of Thetford and there is always a talk to go along with the new exhibition for the regularly changing exhibition space. There are also clubs for adults such as ‘Knit & Knatter’ and ‘Mardle & Make’, both are creative groups where adults can socialise while the children attend their clubs. Museum Trails and Heritage Day activities keep interactivity between the museum and visiting communities active all year round. In addition, with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting access to the museum, Ancient House has regularly posted activities and information online so that they can continue to deliver a high level of service despite the museum being closed.

I will keep my final remarks short as I have already left so much out about the Ancient House experience which is why I urge you to attend the museum, as so much of the experience comes from seeing, feeling, and hearing what is there when making your visit. There is a small admissions price to enter the museum, which is well worth the money in my opinion, but there are ways of entering the museum for less or free. All this information, as well as what is on and venue hiring, can be viewed on the website which will also allow you to plan your visit ahead of time: If you are planning a visit to the UK and are looking for somewhere historical to visit outside of busy London, or live in the UK and are wanting to visit a new historical place, then I highly recommend the Ancient House Museum for your next venture. Thetford offers so much to experience, from libraries, to pubs, to historical places and more, so a visit to the town is well worth a visit in itself with the Ancient House being the cherry on the top.

*    *    *

Henry Ewart Palmer

Henry is a master’s degree graduate looking for work in museums and other historical collections, while working as a Library Assistant at the Norfolk Heritage Centre. Henry’s main focus is on social, cultural and military history and how these intertwine. His main interest is the use of personal accounts and oral history in the exploration of the past. Currently located just outside Norwich City in Norfolk, a county he has lived in since he was six years old. He has been interested in history since his first high-school trip to the Norwich Castle Museum to learn about Roman and Celtic conflict in the area.