Parish Summary: Downham Market

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

Downham Market is a small market town on the edge of the Fens in southwest Norfolk. The small parish is located north of Denver and south of Wimbotsham. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and the name derives from Old English for ‘village on a hill’. The market suffix may have been added later; the earliest reference to a market dates to the 11th century and many of the buildings around the market square date to the 18th or 19th century when the market was flourishing. Archaeology, however, provides evidence for earlier activity in the parish.

The earliest activity dates to the prehistoric period. A Palaeolithic flint axehead (NHER 2435) and Palaeolithic Levallois flake (NHER 18482) have been found in the parish. Later Mesolithic flints (NHER 14056) and a possible Mesolithic or Early Neolithic axehead (NHER 37558) have also been found. Two further Neolithic flint axeheads (NHER 2439 and 20243) have also been recorded. Although these worked flints aren’t evidence of occupation they do demonstrate that there was human activity in the area at this time. The presence of two possible Bronze Age ring ditches (NHER 16156 and 28054), all that is left of ploughed out Bronze Age barrows, show that humans were living in the area and building monuments to their dead here. Bronze Age finds including a Bronze Age rapier (NHER 2440), Bronze Age spearhead (NHER 4230) and a possible Bronze Age torc (NHER 2441, see below) are also evidence for human activity during this period. An Iron Age gold coin (NHER 30225) found by a metal detectorist is the only find dating to the end of the prehistoric period.

Archaeological evaluations in the parish have identified some Roman ditches (NHER 37093) and a possible Roman pit (NHER 40378). 19th century reports suggest some complete Roman pots (NHER 2441) were recovered in a brickyard in the town and fragments of Roman pottery (NHER 13951) have been found elsewhere in the parish. Metal detectorists have found Roman coins (NHER 2442, 28054 and 40783) and Roman brooches (NHER 30224 and 31110). This evidence demonstrates that there was Roman activity, but no significant concentrations of material indicating settlement have been recorded.

Evidence from the Saxon period is even sparser, but this does not necessarily indicate that there was less activity in this period. Early Saxon pottery (NHER 2443 and 2444) has been recovered from the parish and a metal detectorist has found a Late Saxon Borre style brooch (NHER 29716). The ‘Bronze Age torc’ found in the 19th century was melted down but illustrations of the object have been reinterpreted as a possible Viking bracelet (NHER 2441). The archaeological evidence may be limited, but we do know the town is recorded in the Domesday Book at the end of the period.

The earliest remaining structures in the town date to the medieval period but are not visible. Two medieval undercrofts, or cellars (NHER 12226 and 12227) appear to date to the 13th or 14th century, from their shape, but it is possible that in Downham this type of construction was used later, perhaps up until the 17th century. St Edmund’s church (NHER 2471) is mostly 15th or 16th century in date but parts of a Norman church also survive. This Norman structure was probably cruciform in shape. A medieval stone cross (NHER 2451) is recorded on old maps, but these records may not be accurate. Metal detecting has recovered many medieval finds from the parish including a medieval signet ring (NHER 15486) inscribed with a crowned W, a medieval dagger guard (NHER 12403) and a medieval silver annular brooch (NHER 30043). 

Photograph of Downham Market's famous clock tower. This cast iron octagonal clock tower has four clock faces and a pyramidal top. It was made in 1878 by W. Cunliffe in London

Downham Market's famous clock tower which stands in the market place. Eastern Daily Press.) 

There are many 18th and 19th century buildings surviving in the town including Crown Hotel (NHER 12223) and Castle Hotel (NHER 12229). A post medieval obelisk (NHER 8907) and milestone (NHER 12228) also survive. The famous clock tower (NHER 12225) was built in 1878 by W. Cunliffe in London and presented to the town by James Scott. It is still a grand centrepiece for the marketplace. Other post medieval buildings have been demolished. The Downham workhouse (NHER 12230) stood on the site of a modern old people’s home and was designed by Donthorne and built in 1836. The three windmills (NHER 14519, 14518 and 14517) in the parish have also disappeared. The churchyard and cemetery (NHER 34303), however, still contain some original planting and the court complex (NHER 40817) that was built in 1861 and designed by Charles Reeves has now been converted into housing. 

The parish also contains several modern archaeological sites. In World War Two Downham Market bomber airfield (NHER 2455) was used by pathfinder squadrons. Several pillboxes (NHER 32371 and 32372) and a spigot mortar gun emplacement (NHER 32373) provided defence for the town. The early twentieth century cinema (NHER 37502) is also recorded as an excellent example of pre Odeon architecture combining Classical, Neo Jacobean and Art Nouveau styles. The most recent site is a Cold War Royal Observer Corps site (NHER 35399) that wasn’t decommissioned until 1991. In the event of a nuclear war this site would have been used to measure fall out levels.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 31st October 2005.


Further Reading

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

Community Heritage Store Project, 2005. ‘Downham Market – Norfolk (Community Heritage Store)’. Available: Accessed 1 February 2006.

Higginbotham, P., 2005. ‘Downham Poor Law Union and Workhouse’. Available: Accessed 1 February 2006.

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

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

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