Downham Market probably had its origins as a Saxon settlement, sited around the elevated ground on which the Church was built, and achieved Market status by the year 1050. Downham was granted to the Abbey of Ramsey (founded AD965) as early as the reign of Edgar (959-975). Confirmation of this is recorded during the reigns of Edward the Confessor, William 1 and King John, in AD1047, 1078 and 1200 respectively.
The part of East Anglia in which it is situated is known as ‘Hereward the Wake country’, it being closely associated with the exploits of that worthy in his struggle against William the Conqueror. The terrain, known as the Fens, is a vast flat plain that stretches from Cambridge to the coast and is considerably different today, since the drainage operation to reclaim land for agriculture was finally completed in the nineteenth century, having been started in the first instance, many years before, by the Monks at Crowland Abbey.
However, it was not until the 17th century, at the hands of Cornelius Vermuyden, the celebrated Dutch engineer of the time who was employed by the Duke of Bedford, that any impact was made in this respect. Charles Kingsley described it to be similar, in the seventh century, to the forests at the mouth of the Mississippi on the swampy shores of the Carolinas.
The Town lies on the Roman Akeman Street and takes its name from a HAM (dwelling place) on a DUN or DOWN (hill). In the Doomsday book there are references to Duneham and Dunham, probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Dun or Dune meaning a hill and Downham has been called in times past, Dunharn, Donham, Douneham, Dounham, Dunarne. In a similar vein, two villages close to the Town, Hilgay and Bexwell, have been known in the past as Helgaye and Bekyswell. Thus Dounham or Douneham, roughly translated, means an estate on a hill. The Roman road is said to have traversed through Hertfordshire from Cirencester in the South, to Cambridge, Ely and thence through Downham Market to King's Lynn. Certainly from Cambridge, the Al0 trunk road seems to have followed the path of this ancient route.
On Mayday or thereabouts in 1646 (each historian has his own favourite day), Charles 1 of England (Charles Stuart), escaping across the Fens after the Battle of Naseby, stayed at the Swan Inn, disguised as a Clergyman, awaiting news from his faithful servant Hudson regarding the manner in which the Scots would receive him. The Swan still stands today and is situated in the High Street in Downham Market, but the present day construction is not the original building. He is said to have gone to Snore Hall at Fordham and remained in hiding for a few days, and also to have sought refuge at Crimplesham. Having rested there for two or three days he set off on his fateful journey to the Scots at Southwell. During his reign, the present Bridge Street was known as King Charles' Way, but was also known as Cowgate Street before taking on its present title.
In the sixth year of his reign, King John through the influence of the Abbot of Ramsey, granted Downham permission to hold an Annual Fair, and also the privilege of a gallows in the Town on which to hang criminals. (3).
Since that time fairs have been visiting the Town, originally Statute Fairs for hiring servants, which were held at Michaelmas. However, over the years they have developed into amusement only and visit the Town after having started their annual tour at nearby King's Lynn on 14th February each year. The fair then divides and part of it visits Downham Market. A small fair also visits the Town on or near the original Michaelmas date.
It is said that Paradise Lane (now Road) was so named by reason of the gallows being sited there, and that those poor souls about to suffer this fate were as close to Paradise, as they were ever likely to be, as they passed on. It is not clear when the gallows ceased to operate.
The Market for the Town was confirmed by Edward the Confessor, and was granted largely as a result of the efforts of the Abbot of Ramsey Abbey. Originally on Saturday, the present day market is now held on Fridays and Saturdays, and passed into the control of the Borough Council in 1974 after the implementation of local Government Re-organisation.
The Batchcroft Charity dates from 1660, when the Reverend Thomas Batchcroft D.D., Master of Caius College, Cambridge, left £100 to be invested in land (1), the rents from this being used for charitable purposes among the poor. At the enclosure of the Fen lands about one hundred acres, called the Hundred Acre Common (1), were vested with the Churchwardens of Downham Market, Wimbotsham and Stow Bardolph to be divided amongst the poor of the three parishes, after the expenses of drainage rates etc. had been paid.
The St. Winnold's Fayre, so named because it was held on St. Winnold's Day (3rd March), used to be a prominent feature in Downham Market and was one of the largest Horse Fairs in the country. The Fair, which originated between the villages of Boughton and Wereham, was moved into the Town early in the nineteenth century from the Manor of Winwall in Wereham. Dealing would take place in the streets as well as on the Howdale. Many thousands of horses were supplied to the Armed Forces from this source during the first World War.
The tidal river Great Ouse flows by the outskirts of the Town and a large Butter Market was held near the river every Monday in the early nineteenth century. Large quantities (3,000 firkins) of butter were transported by water to Cambridge, and thence to London as Cambridge butter. Both the Butter Market and the Fayre (the horses ranged on each side) are to be found represented in the Town Sign, situated on the West side of Church Road, opposite the junction with Howdale Road.
The remains of the town Green is still evident at this end of the Town in Railway Road where the road has a double bend, near the builders’ merchants. Cattle were allowed to be tethered there when brought up for selling or in times of flood on their pasture. Iron gates spanned the road and were closed to prevent the cattle wandering into the Town. On the opposite side of the road to the Green, stands the Old Maltings, now a garden centre. The malthouse building, which was late seventeenth century, produced the malt from the barley coming from the Fens, which would be sent to King's Lynn for export. Maltster's House, now Dial House, joins the Maltings and the chimney-like ventilator is still evident at the end of the building. Dial House became a Quaker school in the year 1811, and the Quaker burial ground extends into the garden of the former library (now Salvation Army).
Bird’s Mill (now Heygates) was built with a view to making use of the railway, which came to Downham in 1847. This method of transport was used extensively for getting sugar beet to the beet processing factory at Wissington, for moving goods to London and to the port at King's Lynn.
The Town Hall is mid-Victorian and was erected as a memento of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. It is a building of white and moulded brick, relieved by brown carstone panels in the Renaissance style, and designed by a firm of London architects for the Town Hall Company, who raised the capital (£1,700) to cover the cost of construction by public subscription, and came from people in all walks of life.
Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, Downham Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the Union Workhouse was erected at a cost of £5,000, to a design by WJ Donthorne in the Tudor style, and constructed in white brick and carstone. Although it was later re-named the Howdale Home, the stigma and shame of needing relief never disappeared and not many people regretted its destruction in 1968. It was replaced by a residential Care Home called High Haven, which stands on the main site of the old Union Workhouse. Other buildings do remain - the Workhouse School, the Gate Houses, and the Union Terrace (staff housing).
The County Court House, (3) more recently a Magistrates’ Court, is situated on London Road between the junctions of Howdale Road and Ryston End. It was erected in 1849 and financed jointly by the parish and the Court Treasury. The reorganisation of the Courts in the area has led to the local Magistrates sitting in King's Lynn and the building now has an alternative use.
Adjacent to the Court House, at the junction of London Road and Ryston End, is Salamanca House. This fine building was saved from demolition by the Amenity Society. It is thought to have been named after the racehorse that provided the finance for the building!
The Town Clock was presented to the town by local businessman Mr. James Scott in 1878, and stands at the junction of High Street and Bridge Street on the corner of the Town Square (formerly Market Place). Built by William Cunliffe of London at a cost of £450, the clock is of Gothic design where the main construction of the base and the column above is octagonal. This supports a rectangular clock chamber having four dials. The roof is relieved by tracery and attempts have been made in recent years to prevent the elements gaining ingress through the gaps and playing havoc with the mechanism, which unfortunately is not original and was replaced several decades ago by a synchronous electric motor. In 2004, the clock received a major refurbishment by Smiths of Derby.
The Church dates from the 13th Century. The earlier construction was probably of wood, but the material used in the present building came from the carstone quarry on the Howdale, whilst the corner stones and window surrounds came from Barnack, near Peterborough. There is a small shaft set in the outside wall of the north chapel which is probably a reminder of the original Norman construction. On the South side, by the priest's door, is an embedded crucifixion, perhaps the remainder of a churchyard Cross. The Crown and Arrows, symbol of St. Edmund, will also be found inscribed on the Town Sign, referred to earlier.
Sounding Alley, which connects Church Road to the High Street is so called because of the one time presence of the old Thetford bell casting foundry. This was revived in 1750 by Thomas Osborn (3) and continued casting until 1833. St. Peter's Church at Wisbech is the only Church with a complete set of ten Osborn bells. They were cast in 1823 and are said to be the fourth oldest complete ring of ten in the world, to be cast by one foundry.
It is said that Lord Nelson attended his first school in Downham Market, but the sites of the school he attended vary between authors. The Eastern Electricity building in Bridge Street is favoured by some, the site of the old stables at Trafalgar House by others. The Bank House in Bridge Street is another choice, as well as the Furniture shop next door, known as Nelson House.
This latter has also been suggested as the Nelson family residence (5) for a short period, as well as being a school. One common factor has persisted however, that of the schoolmaster's name, a Mr. Noakes (who has also been known as Mr. Nook and Mr. Nooke). It is said that this gentleman lived at Bank House and had at one time taught at Nelson's birthplace.
Mee (4) states categorically that Horatio Nelson attended school in the Town before going on to Norwich, but nothing that Nelson himself wrote has yet been uncovered that corroborates this.
Another famous person connected with the town also makes reference to Lord Nelson. This was Captain George Manby, the inventor of the famous rocket lifeline method of saving shipwrecked mariners, who was born in Denver. He says he remembers Lord Nelson from his schooldays in Downham Market, and that the young Nelson used to make paper boats and sail them down the gully that carried the waste water down the centre of the street from the Town pump. It is worth noting that it is because of letters Manby wrote to The Norfolk Archaeological Society, relating a friendship with Nelson that resulted in the belief that Nelson went to school here in Downham Market. Nelson was seven years older than Manby and joined the Navy as soon as he reached the age of twelve.