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    The Age of Industrial Innovation

    The founders of traction engines and agro crop science were from Victorian Thetford.


    Thetford was transformed by the development of various industries in the 19th century. Companies such as Burrells, Fisons and Bidwells employed hundreds of people and changed the face of Thetford with new industrial buildings.



    At its height Burrell’s St Nicholas Works in Minstergate employed 350 people in Thetford.

    • 1770 – Joseph Burrell set up a forge to make and repair farming implements near the ruins of St Nicholas’ church.
    • 1790 – business expanded into production of agricultural machinery. Under the direction of Joseph, and his brothers William and James, Burrell’s continued to grow.
    • 1836 – Charles Burrell took on the family business, aged 19 and adapted industrial steam engines for threshing and ploughing.
    • 1850 – Burrell’s was at the forefront of the development of traction engines and manufactured over 4,000 engines in Thetford.
    • 1890 – production diversified to include steam driven fairground rides, marine engines, trams and small steamboats.
    • 1914 – In the First World War Burrell’s produced shells and gun mountings.
    • 1920 – Steam engines were no longer at the cutting edge of industry and Burrell’s went into sharp decline.
    • 1928 – Burrell’s closed the Thetford works in June 1928 resulting in almost one quarter of Thetford’s male workforce becoming unemployed.


    In the 19th century Bidwell’s was one of the most important breweries in East Anglia. Members of the Bidwell family held numerous important civic positions in Thetford. Their wealth and success is reflected in the impressive mid-19th century flint and brick brewery on Old Market Street.

    In 1868 Bidwell’s owned several malthouses and public houses in Thetford (as well as the brewery) and had 20 other pubs in Norfolk, two in Suffolk and four in Cambridgeshire. The estate was valued at £30,000 in 1868, but by 1889 this had risen to £68,000 (equivalent to around £5 million today).

    Eustace Cuthbert Quilter bought the company in 1905, eventually selling it to Bullards of Norwich in 1924.

    There is a large amount of material relating to the Bidwell family in Thetford in the Norfolk Record Office.


    James Fison started a malting and corn trading business in 1789, expanding into Stowmarket and Thetford. In 1809 Fison established a new business in Thetford to export wool, corn and seeds and import cattle cake and oil seed. He also began dealing in manure, which led to the foundation of a successful fertilizer business. The Fisons were the richest family in Thetford.

    In the 1840s the company began to produce new chemical fertilizers, and the headquarters moved to Ipswich. Thetford chemical works was at Two Mile Bottom, between the river and the railway. In the 20th century Fisons was a leading British producer of pharmaceuticals, scientific instruments and horticultural chemicals.

    Patent Pulp works

    In 1879 the Patent Pulp Manufacturing Company was founded at Bishop’s Mill (also known as St Audrey’s Mill). It became a significant local industry and exported products around the world. Between 1873 and 1879 the mill had housed a hat felting business, and prior to that had been a paper mill. The mill burnt down in 1897 but was rebuilt and continued to produce pulp ware until the 1950s.

    Bidwell’s Brewery on Old Market Street

    Burrell's former paint shop now the Burrell's Museum

    Burrell's St Nicholas Works

    Ford Place

    Home to the Fison family in the 19th century

    Thetford railway station

    Bishop’s Mill

    Iron Bridge

    River Ouse

    Bridge Station site


    • 1801 - Thetford’s population was 2,246

    • 1836 - Workhouse erected on Weaver’s Close at a cost of £5,000

    • 1837 - Browne’s map of Thetford published.

    • 1845 - A railway line from Norwich to Bishops Stortford via Thetford was opened, completing the first rail link between Norwich and London.

    • 1845 - Large fire at the Bell Hotel.

    • 1845 - Gas works established on Bury Road.

    • 1891 - Thetford’s population was 4,247

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