Parish Summary: Wretham

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

The parish of Wretham is situated in the south of Norfolk. It lies south of Tottington, west of Hockham, southeast of Sturston and north of Croxton and Kilverstone. The name Wretham may derive from the Old English meaning ‘homestead where crosswort (a medical plant) is grown’. The parish has a long history and was established by the time of the Norman Conquest. Its population, land ownership and productive resources were detailed in the Domesday Book of 1086. This document revealed that after the conquest Wretham was part of the holdings of Ralph of Tosny. Resources that were listed including woodland and various livestock, with a number of sheep mentioned.


Aerial photograph of an undated earthwork in East Wretham.

Aerial photograph of an undated earthwork in East Wretham.

A large number of the archaeological records for Wretham relate to the prehistoric period. Many of the sites and finds from this era owe their discovery to the STANTA Fieldwalking Survey conducted in 2000-02 and the Illington Survey of 1988-89. The earliest sites reported comprise undatable prehistoric pot boiler scatters (NHER 5989, 17413 and 19706). These exist to the south of the parish and represent the heating of water for cooking and washing purposes. Another feature of similar antiquity may be the East Harling Drove (NHER 5435), which is a possible prehistoric trackway that runs east to west across the parish with sections that were in use up to the post medieval period. The remains of this trackway are fragmentary and some of its route is now underneath modern roads.

In terms of archaeological finds, the most ancient ones to be assigned a firm date are from the Palaeolithic period. These take the form of flint handaxes (NHER 5711 and 35045) and blades (NHER 5972 and 25356), both of which are fairly common tool types. The subsequent Mesolithic period is also represented in Wretham by various flint implements including axeheads (NHER 2732), tools (NHER 5971 and 13343) and a microlith (NHER 8993). In addition, fieldwalking in 2001 recorded a burnt flint patch atop a natural knoll with several associated small depressions (NHER 5712). These features are probably trenches but they could relate to Neolithic flint extraction pits, although a number of Mesolithic flints were discovered on site in 1922.

 Drawing of Mesolithic flints found at East Wretham.

Drawing of Mesolithic flints found in East Wretham. 

The Neolithic find assemblage from Wretham comprises a wide variety of flint tool types, and these are more numerous than those from the preceding periods. Objects recovered include arrowheads (NHER 2733), chisels (NHER 2735), hammerstones (NHER 5975) and axeheads (NHER 8997). Of course, a good proportion of flint tool types have been assigned to the Neolithic/Bronze Age period, with those just mentioned being amongst the items definitively dated to the Neolithic period.

The busiest period of prehistory in the parish appears to have been the Bronze Age. What was described as a 'lake dwelling' has been recorded at Mickle Mere (NHER 9001). It was identified from a series of oak piles that were found during temporary draining of the lake in 1856. These oak piles were shaped/pointed and were laid out in a cruciform plan. Associated finds included sawn red deer antlers, other animal bones and part of a metal axehead, all of which were felt to be indicative of a Bronze Age date. A possible round barrow (NHER 2738) has also been noted in West Wretham, but sadly no further details concerning this structure are known. Documentary sources also mark two Bronze Age hearths to the east of Stonebridge village (NHER 9010 and 9011).

A diverse collection of Bronze Age artefacts has been reported for Wretham. The advent of metalworking technology is attested to by the discovery of various items, such as palstaves (NHER 2739 and 9002), a spearhead (NHER 5978), part of a sword (NHER 9003) and a chisel (NHER 5979). Of course during the early part of the Bronze Age flint tools continued to be used and the most interesting of these comprise a javelin tip (NHER 2736), various knives (NHER 36271 and 36272) and a strike-a-light (NHER 37244). Pottery sherds have also been retrieved, including some belonging to Beakers (NHER 35879).

The evidence for Iron Age Wretham is rather more uncertain. The only artefacts from this era consist of isolated pottery sherds (NHER 5980, 17896 and 24715). Whether this suggest a drop off in activity during this period or merely that many Iron Age objects have yet to be discovered is debatable.

The most exciting Roman discovery in Wretham was made in 1760 when a hoard of six hundred coins was found (NHER 2740). The other outstanding Roman object from the parish comprises an intaglio (NHER 5982) which was retrieved in 1930. It depicts Theseus having recovered his father's sword from under a great rock and dates to the first century AD. Other more mundane objects consist of coins (e.g. NHER 9006 and 22774), pottery sherds (e.g. NHER 25369, 24712 and 35602) and a quern stone (NHER 19706). Scatters of Roman flue and roof tile (NHER 25352 and 25353) have also been noted in a field to the southeast of Stonebridge, and these fragments may suggest that Roman buildings once stood here.

The only Saxon site in the parish of Wretham is an Early Saxon cemetery (NHER 1047) near Illington village. Over the years a number of cremation urns have been found here along with an Early Saxon ring and brooch and an Early/Middle Saxon buckle. Pottery sherds from the Early (NHER 24720 and 24716), Middle (NHER 35876 and 25354) and Late Saxon (NHER 35886 and 25356) periods have been recovered. The most significant of these is a Middle Saxon sherd (NHER 35876) that may provide a foundation date for the now deserted medieval settlement of West Wretham (see NHER 2741). Other finds from this era comprise Early Saxon wrist clasps and a square-headed brooch (both NHER 17896) and a Late Saxon bridle bit (NHER 17896).

During the medieval period the parish was home to a number of settlements, namely Illington, West Wretham, East Wretham and Little Wretham. West Wretham had a church dedicated to St Lawrence and was mentioned in both the Domesday Book and the Nomina Villarum (NHER 2741). It has been suggested that the church housed a monastic cell prior to 1162 but that this was dissolved in 1414. The village had disappeared by the 18th century, with the church redundant and all the houses gone by 1793. All that now remains to attest to this settlement’s former presence are the ruins of the nave, chancel and southwest tower of the church. Similarly it is believed that Little Wretham (NHER 9012) was abandoned in the medieval period, although the exact location of this deserted village is unknown.

The settlements of East Wretham and Illington survive into modernity, and both have churches of medieval origin. St Andrew’s in Illington (NHER 5994) has Norman origins, with a demolished south aisle perhaps dating to around 1300. The remainder of the building was refashioned and the tower was rebuilt in about 1420, still very much in the Decorated style. The church was formerly derelict but was restored by the Norfolk Churches Trust in 2002. St Ethelbert’s Church (NHER 9019) was originally of 12th century date but was rebuilt in 1865. It comprises a square west tower, nave, chancel and north aisle with the roof showing signs of heightening. The windows are in the Decorated style and the font imitates a 14th century design. In 2005 a vault was discovered beneath the north aisle containing five stone coffins. These supposedly belonged to the Wryley-Birch family, with the latest date inscription reading 1874.

No medieval manorial sites have been positively identified. However, three moated sites have been noted from cropmarks and earthworks (NHER 9014, 9017 and 19705) and it is possible these may relate to medieval halls. According to documentary sources, one of these moated enclosures (NHER 19705) may relate to East Hall Manor. 

A selection of medieval objects has been recovered from Wretham. The two most intriguing finds were made during the 18th century. In 1767 a medieval shield boss made from brass was discovered (NHER 11219). At the time it was felt that this shield component was of Danish origin and had been engraved locally. In 1715 a stone coffin was ploughed up in East Wretham, but additional details are unspecified (NHER 16572).

Other medieval artefacts from the parish comprise a seal matrix (NHER 36266), boy bishop token (NHER 35881), sword scabbard chape (NHER 25354), spoon (NHER 23712) and strap fitting (NHER 24720). In addition to these, there are assorted pottery sherds (NHER 35600, 25373 and 24718) and coins (NHER 35881).

During the post medieval period a number of fine buildings were constructed in Wretham. Watermill Cottage (NHER 46157) has been converted from a late 18th century mill into a residential property and features a 20th century gabled timber porch. The local public house, the Dog and Partridge Inn (NHER 46289), also dates to the late 18th century and is part of a range of buildings which includes the Post Office. There are four chimneys on the roof ridge reflecting the original division of properties. Manor Farmhouse (NHER 46526) is a more traditional 18th century rural property. It is notable for it’s wide brick stringcourse at first floor level which continues through the one-storey extensions at either side of the main façade. Wretham Lodge (NHER 46156) is a later construction, having been built in the early 19th century. The building has a symmetrical facade of three bays and a round arched doorway of finely cut gauged brick. To the north of the main block is a kitchen or service bay leading by a continuous flint wall to a small courtyard closed by a stable block.

Sadly, Wretham Hall (NHER 9018) no longer survives. The latest hall on this site was the one designed in 1912 by Sir Reginald Blomfield, with a thirteen bay façade and a linked, recessed service wing. It was demolished in 1951 and some of the materials from the house were dumped on the south side of the churchyard. An associated icehouse (NHER 9015) has been recorded to the northeast of the Hall. This structure is still extant but the wide chamber has started to sag and the entrance tunnel is damaged.

The post medieval period also saw the delineation of various boundaries, many of which were recorded by the STANTA Survey. These include the bank between Wretham and Croxton (NHER 37041) and Wretham and Tottington (NHER 37032). Boundaries relating to Wretham Warren have also been detailed (NHER 37049 and 37034) and these obviously relate to the practice of rabbit husbandry. 

The archaeological records for Wretham attest to several trades and industries that were in operation during the post medieval period. A windmill (NHER 9016) and a watermill, known as the Stonebridge Watermill (NHER 15257) were functioning and providing goods for the parishioners to trade. A brick kiln (NHER 13917) and a lime kiln (NHER 16368) are also documented and would have also produced valuable commodities for trade, industry and building. The advent of the Thetford, Watton and Swaffham Railway (NHER 13601) in the 19th century would have helped the transport of trade goods and individuals from Wretham. Wretham had its own station, which was in use until the closure of the line in 1964-65.    

Brief mention of the post medieval small finds should be made. All these relate to everyday objects, with few exceptional artefacts being recorded. Nevertheless, these finds are still of interest and include tile fragments (NHER 5993), a seal matrix (NHER 9008), a horse brass (NHER 23712), a knife (NHER 24720), a hooked tag (NHER 25354) and a jetton (NHER 35881).

The most recent records in Wretham concern World War Two defences. East Wretham airfield (NHER 5742) was one of many constructed and rushed into service during the early months of 1940, and was initially a satellite station for Honington in Suffolk. The station was first home to a Czech squadron flying Wellington bombers on raids over Europe. In 1942 it became a satellite of Mildenhall, still with Wellingtons, though these were replaced by Lancaster bombers in 1943. From October 1943 until the end of the war, the station was the base of the 359th USAAF Fighter Group, who flew P-47D Thunderbolts, and later P-51 Mustangs on escort, dive bombing and strafing missions, eventually providing air support for the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge. After the war the station became a Polish resettlement camp. Much of the land was sold off in the 1950s and returned to agriculture, but some of the original huts, the most complete set of World War Two prefabricated buildings in the country, are still used by troops on exercise in the nearby Stanford Battle Area.

Nine pillboxes have been also been recorded and these include a very rare type 2/206 pillbox with two loopholes for heavy machine guns (NHER 32690). Eight of them exist inside the perimeter of the airbase in two groups of four, one to the east (NHER 35826, 35827, 35828 and 35829) and the other to the west (NHER 32690, 32691, 37038 and 37386). Such defensive pillbox rings represent a rare survival, and make the airfield of particular interest.

Thomas Sunley (NLA) 5 October 2007.


Further Reading

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. The Domesday Book (Chichester, Phillimore & Co.)

Davison, A., and Cushion, B. 2005. An archaeological survey of the Stanford Training Area, 2000-2. Norfolk Archaeology, volume XLIV, part IV (Hunstanton, Witley Press Limited)

Pevsner, N. and Wilson, B. 1999. The Buildings of England, Norfolk 2: North-West and South (London, Penguin)

Rye, J., 1991. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place Names (Dereham: The Larks Press)


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