North Walsham is probably one of the most conveniently situated market towns in Norfolk. This is a quotation from an old guide book to the town and it is still true. The town stands on comparatively high ground between the River Ant on the east and the River Bure on the west, five miles from the coast, within easy reach of the Norfolk Broads and sixteen miles from Norwich, the county town. Traces of Roman occupation were found in 1844 when Roman coins, urns and bronze figures were discovered to the west of the town on Felmingham Heath. Many of these objects are now in the British Museum.
North Walsham began as a Saxon settlement, the home of Wael or Walsa, and developed as a trading centre of the surrounding countryside. That the Vikings also had a settlement here is proved by the fact that a Norseman named Sket gave the town and its church to the Cluniac Abbey of St. Benet about seven miles away.
Mention is made in Domesday Book of a church at Walsam, as it was then called, with thirty acres of land belonging to it. When Edward III brought Flemish weavers to England in the twelfth century to improve the standard of English weaving, some of them settled at Worstead, three miles south-east of North Walsham, and the place eventually gave its name to a woollen material now known as 'Worsted'. North Walsham and the surrounding villages were all occupied in the production of woollen cloth in their homes and a new Wool Hall for the storing and marketing of the material in the town is mentioned in a record of 1391. There was a fabric known as Walsham Cloth.
In the thirteenth century, the town was granted a charter to hold a market every Thursday by Henry III when he passed through on one of his visits to Bacton to venerate the Holy Rood of Bromholm which was reputed to be a portion of the cross on which Christ died and to have miraculous powers of healing and for which Bromholm Priory was celebrated. A market is still held every Thursday in the Market Place in the centre of the town.
The Black Death of 134849 resulted in a shortage of labour, skilled and unskilled, and probably affected the building of the church which was under construction at that time. The labour shortage, the Statute of Labourers of 1351 which restricted the wages of many workers to what they had been before the Black Death, the Poll Taxes and the feudal conditions under which the peasants lived were all factors leading to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The local peasants rebelled under the leadership of Geoffrey Litester, a dyer of Felmingham, and marched to Norwich, where Litester assumed the title of 'King of the Commons' and forced important citizens to act as his servants. Pursued by Henry Despenser, the 'warlike' Bishop of Norwich, and his army, the rebels fled to North Walsham and erected barricades on the heath to the south of the town. They were defeated in a bitter struggle and after summary trial by the Bishop, Litester was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The fifteenth century saw the rise of the Paston family who lived in the village of Paston, five miles north-east of North Walsham. Clement Paston, a small landholder, borrowed money to send his son, William, to school. William profited by his education, became a lawyer and was made one of the justices of the Court of Common Pleas. His descendants were made Earls of Yarmouth in the seventeenth century. The Pastons are famous for their family letters of which over a thousand survive from about 1420 until 1627, providing an interesting insight into people's lives in those times. It was a member of this family, another William, who founded a Free School for Boys, later to be known as The Paston School, in 1606, in the centre of the town on a site which became available for the building after the disastrous fire of 1600.
The Churchwardens' Books contain a description of the event and the great damage it did, burning fiercely for two hours and destroying 'the wholle bodye of the towne, beinge built cheefly aboute the market place'. The church was fired in five places, but was not seriously damaged. The loss to the town was estimated at twenty thousand pounds and an appeal was made to the Queen's Council for wood for rebuilding 'because this part of the country is barren of timber'.
It was mainly the woollen industry which accounted for the growth and prosperity of North Walsham and its neighbourhood during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and for the building of its large parish church. The woollen industry continued to prosper until the eighteenth century and the Industrial Revolution, when Yorkshire with its mineral resources and water power took over the manufacture of woollen cloth.
When the nation was preparing to meet the threat of invasion by the Spaniards and their Armada, the churchwardens recorded the delivery of six hundred steel corselets for the Town Armour.
The nearness of North Walsham to the coast enabled some of its inhabitants to participate in smuggling in the eighteenth century, and, on one occasion, in July 1736, Customs Officers seized fourteen gallons of brandy and ninety pounds of tea in the town.
Situated as it is in an agricultural area, agriculture, and its accompanying occupations, has played a large part in the employment of the inhabitants. One firm in the town manufactured agricultural implements, such as ploughs, while others were engaged in the corn business, and one firm, which can trace its history back through many centuries, were reed thatchers, working as far afield as the United States of America. Another family founded a firm which made furniture which was supplied to London businesses and made the claim that no wood that had not been seasoned for sixteen years was used in their products. Between the World Wars, North Walsham developed industrially, and, in more recent times, heavy engineering, the welding of plastics, the growing and canning of fruit and vegetables have provided employment. During the Second World War, a great amount of produce was canned in the town for shipment to the Forces serving in the most important battle areas in the world.
Many of the postcards used to illustrate this book were the work of photographers who lived in North Walsham. Herbert S. Church is mentioned in a directory for 1908 as a photographer with a business in King's Arms Street and at Overstrand, a coastal village about eight miles north-east of the town. Presumably, his stay in North Walsham was short as the 1912 directory shows him at Overstrand only. The name of Ralph Michael Ling appears on many postcards and he is mentioned in directories from 1908-1937 (the last Kelly's Directory), usually as a chemist, but on two occasions (1908 and 1925) as an optician and dealer in photographic materials.
George McLean is first mentioned in Harrod's Directory for 1877 as a photographer and proprietor of a fancy goods repository. In 1883, the photography business was continued by James McLean, in 1890 by Mrs. Jane McLean and in 1896 by the Misses Blanche and Mildred McLean. In 1900, Lawrence George McLean had a studio on the corner of King's Arms Street and Park Lane. From 1933 he appears only as a mineral water manufacturer.
The photographer, Francis Edward Long, is first mentioned in the North Walsham directories in 1922 as a tobacconist and his shop was on the corner of the Market Place and Church Street.