How Thetford’s most famous son became a forgotten figure
He has been described as “the most influential writer in modern human history” and the father of the American revolution.
Yet despite being born in Thetford, those committed to keeping alive the memory of Thomas Paine fear the town may have forgotten its most famous son.
Now, as his modern-day supporters mark the 50th anniversary of a Paine statue installed in Thetford town centre, residents are being urged to find out more about one of history’s leading political theorists.
“People in Thetford have got to have more knowledge about him,” said Stuart Wright, Thetford’s mayor and a member of the Thomas Paine Society set up in the writer’s memory.
“He is Thetford’s most famous son, yet I don’t think we do enough for him really.
“His life story is fantastic. There are lots of people who live in the town who pay no attention to the story behind the man.
“Whether you agree with his writings or not, people need to learn a little more about him.”
Mr Wright believes that historically, that lack of recognition might have something to do with Paine’s revolutionary nature.
Paine rose to fame after meeting publishing a short pamphlet entitled ‘Common Sense’, which made the case for American independence from British rule.
That should have earned him the elite status as one of the country’s founding fathers – but when back in England in 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution and a call for democracy.
Given that Britain was fighting Napoleon’s France at the time, his views did not go down well. He had to flee for his life and his reputation was left in tatters, with the plan to put the statue in Thetford attracting much opposition in 1964.
However, his standing has since recovered, with current US President Barack Obama quoting Paine in his 2009 inauguration speech.
However, Mr Wright believes there are other more practical reasons why Paine might have been forgotten.
“If you look back 50 years, you didn’t have access to the internet and you actually had to go down to the library and get a book out to find out about him,” Mr Wright said.
“Being more than 100 years old, his work was still quite heavy going. Today, there is greater access to people’s stories.”
Mr Wright hopes events like the Thomas Paine Lecture at the University of East Anglia later this year will help to raise awareness.
Gez Chetal, the owner of the Thomas Paine Hotel – Paine’s birthplace – also organised an event attended by 40 people to celebrate the historic writer’s birthday.
Mr Chetal plans to make it an annual occasion.
“People come from as far as America to see Thomas Paine’s birthplace yet if you ask children at local colleges, no-one has heard of him,” he said. “We’ve got memorabilia all around the hotel and I’m going to promote Thomas Paine as much as I can.
“There is so much history on our doorstep which we don’t realise.”
What do you think about the plans to keep Thomas Paine’s memory alive? Post your comment below.