Parish Summary: Dereham

This Parish Summary is an overview of the large amount of information held for the parish, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below. Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to

Dereham is a market town in the middle of Norfolk. It is the administrative centre of Breckland district and is presently the fifth largest town in Norfolk. Traditionally the town is thought to have been founded in AD 654 by St Withburga who built a nunnery here and built the first church.  However the first documentary evidence for the town doesn’t date until AD 798 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the town of Deorham. This may refer to modern Dereham or West Dereham. By the time of the Domesday Book the distinction between the two towns is clearer and we can identify that St Etheldreda held Dereham that was already an important market centre with three mills. The town name comes from Early English and can be translated as ‘enclosure for deer’, or ‘the home of Deor’. The town may have been founded in AD 654, or later, but there is plenty of evidence for earlier activity in the area.

The earliest evidence dates to the Palaeolithic period. Two Palaeolithic flint flakes (NHER 23453 and 25485) found in the parish demonstrate that there was human activity here from the very earliest times. There is also evidence for activity in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. A Mesolithic flint scraper (NHER 2839) and a Mesolithic retouched flint flake (NHER 2840) have been found. Finds become more abundant in the Neolithic period and include many Neolithic flint axeheads (NHER 2794, 2836 and 2846) and a Neolithic dagger (NHER 23468). There is also evidence for the manufacture of these flint tools – a Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age flint working site (NHER 18639) and another prehistoric flint working site (NHER 2875) have been identified.

As we have seen flint tools continued to be used and made in the area in the Bronze Age, but the introduction of copper alloy led to the development of tools and weapons made out of this new material. Several Bronze Age copper alloy axeheads (NHER 2849 and 2850) and palstaves (NHER 2848, 19369 and 41914) have been found. A Bronze Age sword (NHER 2851), spearhead (NHER 2852) and sickle (NHER 2847) are more unusual finds. One of the most interesting Bronze Age discoveries in the area, however, is a Late Bronze Age hoard (NHER 2853). This contained Bronze Age objects but also metal working debris and demonstrates that copper alloy objects were probably being made somewhere locally. Several Bronze Age hearths (NHER 2842, 2843 and 2844) have been identified on Neatherd Moor and two possible Bronze Age barrows (NHER 2854) were identified in the 1940s in Vicarage Park. These sites demonstrate that people were living in the area, although it is not clear where.

There is very little evidence for human activity or occupation in the Iron Age or Roman periods. A single Iron Age or Roman terret (NHER 17986), used to guide reins on chariots, a single silver Iron Age coin (NHER 25595) and a 1st century AD silver coin hoard (NHER 31450) are the only Iron Age finds. Although fragments of Roman quern (NHER 2825), pottery (NHER 19014, 2856 and 17333), coins (NHER 24879, 25794 and 40786) and brooches (NHER 25592 and 28303) are relatively common fieldwalking and metal detecting finds the absence of evidence for Roman settlement is unusual. In 2004, however, the largest Roman coin hoard (NHER 41008) found in Norfolk was recovered by metal detectorists in Dereham. Over 1000 coins were found in the remains of a large pottery vessel. The hoard was buried in the 3rd century AD. Although excavations were carried out at the findspot no clear evidence for Roman occupation was encountered.

Legend has it that Dereham was founded around AD 654. Anna, Christian King of the East Angles, was slain at the Battle of Blytheburgh by the pagan King Penda. The youngest of Anna’s sisters, Withburga, vowed after his death to become a nun and founded a nunnery at a village called Dereham. It is unclear whether Dereham already existed before the nunnery was set up or if the village sprang up around the religious centre. Equally it is not certain whether Dereham refers to Dereham or West Dereham. The second part of the story is clearer, however, as a record of it in the Liber Eliensis, a monastic chronicle written about 1169, is kept at Ely. The chronicle relates how when the church was being built food was scarce in the town. The Virgin Mary appeared to Withburga telling her to go to a nearby stream where she would find two deer waiting to be milked. The milk from the deer was plentiful and nobody starved. But the evil chief man of the town was jealous of Withburga’s popularity and tried to kill the deer. Fortunately he got his comeuppance and whilst hunting them his horse fell leaping over a fence and he broke his neck. In AD 970 the manor of Dereham was granted to the Abbot of Ely. The Abbot decided to move Withburga’s body to the abbey. In the dead of night the body was dug up only to find it hadn’t decayed at all. After the body had been moved a spring of pure water with healing properties sprang up in her grave at Dereham. The Holy well in the churchyard of St Nicholas’ church (NHER 2890) is still visible today.

Despite this convincing story, and the whole-hearted adoption of St Withburga by the historians of Dereham there is very little archaeological evidence to support the attachment of the legend to Dereham. Very few Saxon finds have been made, and only one fragment of Early Saxon pottery (NHER 19014) has been recovered from the entire parish. Despite the argument that the Middle Saxon nunnery (NHER 2890) founded by Withburga lay close to St Nicholas’ church, excavations in 1980 and 1986 at the nearby Guild House (NHER 2883) found no evidence for Middle Saxon activity. The discovery of a Middle Saxon sceatta (NHER 28969) does, however indicate some activity, and the finds of Late Saxon pottery (NHER 17333, 19306 and 37221), a Late Saxon brooch (NHER 25593) and a Late Saxon strap end (NHER 30949) are also evidence for a Later Saxon settlement, although many of these finds are located away from the modern town to the west of the parish. The Domesday Book records the parish as being 600 acres cultivated by two plough teams of the Abbey of Ely and eight plough teams belonging to the villagers. Three mills are also recorded. Whether the town was founded in the Early, Middle or Late Saxon period, by 1086 when the Domesday Book was written it was a thriving settlement.

The development of this Saxon settlement into a medieval market town seems centred around the church. St Nicholas’ (NHER 2890) is a Norman church but was significantly added to and altered during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Bishop Bonner’s Cottage (NHER 2859), possibly the oldest surviving house in Dereham built in 1502 is just south of the church. The oldest parts of the nearby Guild Hall (NHER 2883) also date from around 1500, although these are now disguised by more recent alterations. Many other medieval buildings were destroyed in two fires that ravaged the town in 1581 and 1679. These two fires burnt down over 500 timber framed and thatched buildings and led to the development of the Market Place (NHER 2889) away from the older centre around the church. The fires also explain the mainly Georgian aspect of the town today.

View of the Jolly Butchers with 18th century brick facade and thatched roof.

The Jolly Farmers in Dereham is a late 17th century timber framed house that was later converted into a pub. (© NCC)

They did not destroy all evidence of the medieval town however. Excavations on the High Street in 2003 revealed that by the medieval period the town had expanded and the remains of a 13th and 14th century street front (NHER 39688), probably destroyed by the 1581 fire, were recorded here before development of a new shopping arcade. The recovery of several medieval pottery wasters, produced during the manufacture of pottery, suggests that medieval Dereham may have been a centre for pottery production. The earthworks and cropmarks of medieval moats (NHER 2856, 3080 and 19013) can be seen in several places in the parish and the location of a possibly 13th century windmill (NHER 15162) is recorded on an old map. The presence of a medieval deer park (NHER 25469) at Park Farm, northeast of the town is recorded in a survey carried out by the Bishops of Ely in 1251. Neatherd Moor is also known to have been common land during the medieval period and remains the property of the Town Council who now retain it as a public park. It was formerly known as Gallow Tree Moor, suggesting this was the site of the town gallows, before a new gallows was built in the post medieval Market Place (NHER 2889) on the site of the later Assembly Rooms.

Many post medieval buildings remain in the town centre and on the outskirts. Most were built after the two fires and date to the 17th century. Quebec Hall (NHER 2888), now a nursing home, was built shortly after 1759 and once had extensive parkland (NHER 33468) around it. Humbletoft (NHER 13812) is a large 17th century building that may stand on the site of an earlier medieval manor belonging to Ralph Homyltoft. Many of the pubs are also 17th century in origin including the Old Jolly Farmers (NHER 34739) in Toftwood and The Cock Inn (NHER 32074) on Norwich Road. Two post medieval coach houses also remain – the George Hotel (NHER 2889) and the Kings Head. Several maltings (NHER 12002, 13793 and 13794) developed in the post medieval period to supply these establishments but also to export further afield. During the Napoleonic Wars the church bell tower was used as a prison and a gravestone in the churchyard commemorates the death of a prisoner who was shot when trying to escape. The three post medieval windmills (NHER 12003, 15162 and 15920) were in use until the beginning of the 20th century. Fendick’s mill (NHER 12003), just off Norwich Road, is now restored. Factories also began to develop in the post medieval period including brickworks (NHER 12696, 12697 and 13442), Skinner’s leather factory (NHER 13795), Hobbies fretwork workshop and Gill’s iron foundry (NHER 39608). The town became a centre for migration from the surrounding villages and more amenities were gradually developed – the Corn Hall (NHER 2889) and Theatre Royal were both built in the 19th century. 

The two water towers in Dereham.

The 19th century water tower stands next to the modern water tower in Dereham. (© NCC)

During the 20th century the town had to adapt to wartime. A zeppelin hit the Guild Hall (NHER 2883) during World War One. Several defensive structures were erected during World War Two including pillboxes (NHER 13792, 24475 and 28693), spigot mortar gun emplacements (NHER 32431 and 32432) and air raid shelters (NHER 40371). One possible World War Two local command bunker (NHER 40370) was found under a garage. Italian prisoners of war were kept at a camp (NHER 42775) at Etling Green. One of them painted the interior of Walnut Tree Farm (NHER 42773) in imitation 17th century style in 1945. A Cold War nuclear bunker (NHER 2883) was discovered in the car park of the Guild Hall.

Although the origins of Dereham remain shrouded in mystery until further archaeological research is carried out, the records can help us to understand its complex growth and development.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 8 November 2005.


Further Reading

Boston, N. and Puddy, E., 1952. Dereham The Biography of a Country Town (Dereham, Arthur Coleby).

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk, Part I and Part II (Chichester, Philimore)

Mills, A.D., 1998. Dictionary of English Place Names (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Norfolk – Norwich, 2005. ‘Dereham Norfolk’. Available: Accessed 1 February 2006.

Rye, J., 2000. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names (Dereham,The Larks Press)




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