North Walsham & District Community Archive


North Walsham Past and Present. Published 1975.


The 17th century-started with a fire in North Walsham whose consequences for a small town must have been as serious in its way as the more famous Great Fire of London was 66 years later. At that time North Walsham was largely built of timber, thatch and clay lump. The flint church was an exception. Fire could spread easily because the town was built of combustible materials and it was huddled tightly around the market, but the church was fortunately a little removed. Methods of heating were very primitive, either braziers which were easily tipped over or open hearths in the cottages. Only the rich had enclosed hearths with proper chimneys. The events of the fire are best seen in a contemporary description:

"The description of the Fire and the losses of the Towne, conteyned in my l:Bishoppes and the Justices, prest to the lordes of her ma'ty moste Ex. privvie counsell. 1600.

"There happened uppon the XXVth of June 1600 in a cheefe and verie populous market towne of this countie of Norff. called North Walsham a fyre that began as yt is said in the house of a poore and lewde p-son one Dowle of the same towne, who flyinge uppon yt ys apprehended and in the gaole and by all lyklie -hood was the author of yt.

"It beganne aboute 6 of the clocke in the forenoone and went on so fearcelse that in twoe hours the wholle bodie of the towne beeinge built cheefly rounde aboute the market place was on one flame and wch in twoe or three hours more burnt downe to the grounde. There-are destroyed and consumed at the leaste CXVIII(118) dwell-inge houses and above fyve tymes as manie barnes, stables, malthouses and other outehouses and buildings, LXX(70)shoppes and warehouses for merchants and tradesmen. The market Crosse beinge covered wth led and all the shambles and stawles belonginge to the market. Beside a greate quantitie of corne wares householde stuffe and other goodes wch by reason of the suddane violence of the fire could not bee saved. The wholle market Towne is utterlie ruined and consumed, except the Church wch not wthstandinge it is leaded and stoode farre distant from anie house was fyred in fyve places at one.instant. The wholle losse is esteemed at the leaste to amounte to Twentie thousand pounds".

Some four months later, Sir William Paston gave 20 shillings to the poor to help them in their distress, enough to feed about fifteen families for a week and a tiny fraction of the cost of the monument he was planning in the church.

The older Sir William Paston bought a plot of land in the ruined town on which to erect a school which bears the family name to this day. Meanwhile North Walsham appears to have recovered quickly from the worst effects of the fire, the trade in wool and cloth in the district continued to thrive and the building of houses was a much quicker and cheaper process than it is today, no wiring, plumbing or regulations.

Until the Civil War the town enjoyed continuing prosperity and the younger Sir William Paston adorne d Oxnead Hall, travelled to Italy and Egypt in 1638-9, feeling secure enough in his ownership and rich enough from his estate profits to do so, although he was away for many months.

The national struggle between Charles I and Parliament was starting to enter a serious shortly after his return home. He was a supporter of Charles I, a Royalist in a county that was largely for Parliament and the Puritans. When Parliament tried to involve the country gentry by having them officer the local militia against the King, Paston left Norfolk for a while in 1641, later returning in the hope that he could influence local events towards moderation.

Meanwhile, Charles I'-S wife, Henrietta Maria, was attempting to set up an invasion of Eastern England by foreign troops, in support of her husband. This was more than even a Royalist could stand, so Paston subscribed £200 towards the support of Norfolk defences. He was attempting to compromise again but by 1643 was openly Royalist and this time was first stripped of his militia command and then fled to Rotterdam to join other Royalist exiles.

Paston's lands and some of his silver plate were seized, though his wife remained in Norfolk. It seemed that he might be stripped of all they had without helping the Royal cause. Paston then returned to London, made his peace with Parliament by paying a large sum and by the end of 1644 was serving as a Parliamentary Commissioner. His eldest son, Robert Paston, later joined Charles II abroad and was ready to restore Paston fortunes when Royalty was restored in 1660, but William Pastcn stayed in Norfolk, deeply in debt. He sold Caister Castle and its estate, in family hands since the 15th century, to a Yarmouth merchant to whom he owed a great sum. A century later the family was extinct.