North Walsham at the beginning of the 19th century, was a small, but not insignificant market town with a population of just under 2,000. Situated some 16 miles north of Norwich and a few miles inland from the East Norfolk coast, it served the needs of the agricultural community within a fairly wide radius and small fishing villages on the coast. Economic and social developments which took place during the century brought a radical alteration in the landscape of the town and its neighbourhood as well as a gradual change in the way of life for many of the inhabitants. Some of these developments are discussed in the following chapters.
According to the Census Return of 1801 there were 1,959 people living in North Walsham at that date. By 1851 the number had increased to a figure of 2,911 but in the following two decades the population declined. The Census Return of 1871 shows 2,842 inhabitants, 69 fewer than in 1851. The precise reasons for this fall cannot be explained without more detailed research into the economy of the town in that period but it is most likely that some families had left as employment and higher wages were more attractive in industrial areas. After 1871 the town grew swiftly until the end of the century. Between 1871 and 1901 the number of inhabitants increased by over 1,100 to a figure of 3981 in 1901, thus the population had just about doubled since 1801. The railway, which reached the area in the 1870's was, no doubt, instrumental in bringing about this growth in the last three decades of the century as it stimulated new industries and business and, therefore, employment in the town.
The supply of houses more than doubled during the century as new homes were provided to accommodate the growing population. In 1801 there were 425 houses in the town, 640 in 1851 and by 1901 the number had increased to 910. Where space permitted development took place close to the town centre and it was here that a number of older, poorly built cottages were demolished and replaced. Terraced houses, semi-detached homes and attractive villas spread along the roads leading out of the town such as those on the Mundesley Road. Piecemeal development gradually grew about the Commons following enclosure, particularly about Spa and White Horse Commons. Nevertheless, despite the growth of houses, there was still a substantial number of families living in over-crowded and insanitary conditions at the end of the century.
As North Walsham grew more shops, services and other facilities were provided. Improvements were made by re-paving the streets in the town centre in 1837 and in the following year a gas works was built which provided gas lighting in this area. Soon after the Market Cross was restored from money raised by the town's inhabitants. The Corn Hall, built in 1848, must have enhanced the town's image, although by the end of the century it was used as a meeting hall as it no longer served the purpose for which it was originally built. Marked changes were brought to the commons following enclosure, which took place after the Award of 1814. A marked impact was also made upon the landscape by the North Walsham and Dilham Canal which opened in 1826, but unfortunately, it never became an economic asset as anticipated.
Chapter 1 shows the vitality of North Walsham in the middle of the century, its shops, trades and occupations. It also shows that agriculture was of fundamental importance to the economy of the town. That there were, at this time, five banks and a range of professional services suggests much business activity and prosperity in the town and its surrounding area.
Although not a distinguished social centre like some larger market towns in the county North Walsham held regular social events such as assemblies, dinners and balls attended by the elite of the area. That the town was on the Fisher Players' circuit and that they built a theatre there (the subject of chapter 8) suggests there was a fairly large group of gentry and landowners as well as professional families in the vicinity to support such an enterprise.
For many there was little money to spend and little time for social activities. Poverty was a persistent problem and a number of poor families sought support from the parish overseers; for some there was only the workhouse. The decline of the long-established textile industry in the earlier part of the century, enclosure, under-employment and low wages brought much hardship which eventually led to the protests and outbreaks of violence described in chapter 6.
It is seen from Chapter 10 that church or chapel seems to have played an integral role in the lives of many of the town's inhabitants in the 19th century. The parish church was well supported and as nonconformist groups grew in number new places of worship were established in, or close to, the town; some of these buildings were later enlarged or re-built, as membership increased.
Other developments which took place are also discussed in the following pages. The depression in agriculture, for example, which hurt the agricultural community in the neighbourhood in the later part of the century and led to changes in farming. Many labourers left the land and it is found from chapter 6 that amongst those who stayed a number turned to trade unions to improve wages and working conditions. Chapter 11 shows that, at the beginning of the 19th century, education was generally for children of 'better-off' parents. Only gradually did elementary education reach poorer children in North Walsham and it was not until late in the century that adequate provision was made for them.
It is realised that it has not been possible to give a complete picture of the town in any one period and that there are many omissions. Although much has been discovered about North Walsham and its people it is but a small part of its history in the 19th century. As already mentioned, there is much more to be discovered.