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Thetford lays claim to one of the oldest mayoralties in the country and celebrated 800 years of the office in 1999.
Kings James’ former palace in Thetford is now appropriately called King’s House—a large, square, solidly-built house fronting King Street. Not only is the house a former royal residence, but it enjoys the reputation of occupying the site of the medieval manor house, once belonging to the Lords of the Manor of Thetford. If this is so, it is no coincidence that adjacent stands the ancient parish church of St Peter’s.
The only indication of earlier importance left today is externally, one(possibly medieval) buttress, and a private entrance by a small pointed archway to the adjoining churchyard of St Peters Church. Previously these were internally, two panelled chambers, some remains of panelling in other rooms, and one larger and handsome room on the first floor of the house thirty-eight feet long seventeen feet wide, and eleven and a half high, oak panelled through, the wall surface broken up by handsome engaged fluted ionic pilasters. This room is now used as the Council Chamber.
The walls of the house both internally and externally are exceptionally thick and solid varying from nearly two feet to three feet in thickness. The timbers are also unusually massive and the roof consists of three parallel ridges running east to west. The present house is believed to have been built in 1763 and the handsome Georgian facade includes pieces of carved Medieval stone from monastic ruins in the area.
The King’s House (prior to 1763)
Blomfield the historian of Norfolk, whose history was published in 1739, tell that as the death of John, Earl Warrenne’s seat in Thetford was where Sir John Wodehouse’s house, commonly called “The King’s House”, then stood, and that the Earl’s barns stood against Earl’s House (now Earl’s Street). Blomfield also tells that “Thetford hath been honoured with the presence of many Kings and Queens, several of which used to reside here. These include Henry I, Henry II and several others and that when dominion came with the Dutchy of Lancaster to the Crown, the ancient seat of the Earl Warrens became a palace, and was re-built by the Crown and it is believed that in Queen Elizabeth I time it was used by her as a hunting seat, also by her successor King James I who used to hunt here almost every season.
The King’s House Today
The exterior of King’s House that we see today is basically a mid-18th century construction. Very little of earlier buildings (and I imagine there must have been several) appears to have survived. Drawings made by Thomas Martin (1696-1771) (see illustration) give us some idea of the house before rebuilding in the 18th century. They reveal a very different house, making it difficult to associate it with the present one. However, much of its long and interesting history has been uncovered by one of its former occupants, Mr Henry Fison Killick, who retired to the King’s House at the end of the last century. Although unable to discover anything of its very early past he was able to trace the ownership of the house from King James to King Charles who in 1628 granted the house to Andrew Fincairne.
By 1630, however, Sir Thomas Wodehouse was in possession of the King’s House. Members of the Wodehouse family represented Thetford in Parliament and served as Borough recorders. They continued as owners of the King’s House apart from a few years in the 1740s, until it was conveyed to Thomas Wright of Thetford in 1763. It was almost certainly during Thomas Wright’s ownership that the King’s House was rebuilt and modernised, creating much of the architecture that we are familiar with today.
After Thomas Wright’s death in 1778 the King’s House and his other substantial estate, which included the nearby manor and parish of Santon Downham , were offered for sale. The King’s House was then described as “consisting of three parlours, dining room forty feet long and seven lodging rooms, besides garrets, a spacious modern staircase and two others; study, coach house, dove house, stables for fifteen horses, dog kennel, court and other yards, gardens and six acres of old pasture adjoining, all walled and well planted.”
Two years after Thomas Wright’s death the house was conveyed to James Cole. Perhaps the upkeep of such a large house eventually became too much for James Cole’s heirs who had certainly divided it into separate dwellings by the late 1850s, and possibly from the early 1840’s when James Cole jnr, dealer in foreign wines, traded from the King’s House at the same time as the Misses Rogers were running a private school there.
Very often the owner, or owners of the King’s House have not resided there, but leased or rented the house to someone else. Of course, being such a large and valuable property, it only attracted the wealthiest and most prominent members of Society. One such tenant, who appears in the early 1850s was Henry Best, a local surgeon and general practitioner. Best resided at the King’s House with his wife and eight children, and a small retinue of domestic servants, one housemaid, a cook, two nursemaids and a groom.
In 1859 the King’s House was brought by Cornell Henry Fison the senior member of a local family of merchants, whose business interests included malting, milling and the manufacture of artificial manure. Cornell H. Fison resided there until 1886 when he moved to the more secluded Ford Place, another of Thetford’s “Big Houses”.
After Cornell H Fison’s death in 1895 the house was administered by the trustees of his will. Eventually, however it came into the possession of George Wild Staniforth, a retired Yorkshire businessman. His generosity and love for the town of Thetford was fully revealed after his death in January 1947. He had bequeathed to the town his King’s House and its spacious gardens, a valuable library and other gifts.
In 1952 the King’s House replaced the Guildhall as the Thetford Borough Council chambers and offices. From 1974 it also served as offices for Breckland District Council, but their departure to Breckland House, has made way for the Norfolk County Council Registrar’s Office – so beginning another chapter in the long history of King’s House.
The King’s House and gardens are administrated by the Staniforth Trust, a Registered Charity. The gardens are open from 9.00am to 4.00pm.
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