William Ellis Clarke, MBE: ‘Mr Thetford.’ One of the architects who shaped the modern face of the town
09:45 09 January 2014
One of the architects of shaping the face of modern Thetford, William Ellis Clarke, has died peacefully aged 96 at his home in the town.
Growth of the town
When Thetford opened its arms to business and residents in 1958, the influx saw it grow fourfold in just over 20 years.
Driven by a need to replace the steam engine manufacturing industry which had seen the town flourish before its closure in 1929, Thetford Borough Council made a special case to London County Council to bring businesses to the town.
At that point, the town’s population had dwindled to just 4,500, little more than recorded in the Domesday Survey in 1086.
Despite the appeal to the capital, it was actually a Northampton firm which was one of the first to migrate, with engineers J.A. Clarke and Company moving in.
By 1958 there were two new factories, and in May 1959 Henry Brook, the minister of housing, came to Thetford to officially hand over the first door key to an employee of Williams Engineering who had moved to the town from London. Big names such as Danepak, Novabord and Jeyes Group soon followed.
To cope with the incoming employees, three new estates were built – Barnham Cross, Redcastle Furze and the Abbey Estate. Schools soon followed, with Queensway Infants School and Thetford Secondary Modern – later Charles Burrell High School – opening in 1961.
Further schools on the three new estates were built, as well as Raleigh First School and Admirals Middle School, and Rosemary Musker High School opened its doors in 1983.
A town centre development scheme was drawn up to match the expansion, proposing the opening up of the Riverside walks and the pedestrianisation of King Street.
By 1974, around 80 firms had moved on to the Thetford industrial estates, with household names such as Thermos, Trox and Conran settled in the town.
In all, by 1980 the town’s population had grown to 21,000, and 9,000 jobs had been created.
During his time as town clerk to the former Borough of Thetford for almost a quarter of a century, the population increased from 4,500 to more than 17,000.
It was his vision to transform the small market town by creating employment and encouraging what would now be described as massive inward investment, building on the powers of the 1952 Town Development Act.
After he retired in 1974 he was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his distinguished services to the town, particularly the expansion programme. Just months earlier, he had become the last in the town’s history to be presented with the Honorary Freedom of the Borough.
Mr Clarke had moved from St Neots at the age of 32 to take up his duties as deputy town clerk and finance officer on March 1, 1950, with the intention of staying for just four years.
When he saw a newspaper report in December 1952 that the then London County Council would fund expansion of a town in Middlesex, he suggested that Thetford should follow suit. It took five years to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles but he was supported by an energetic town council and hard-working colleagues including the late borough surveyor, William Jennings, and treasurer Gerald Bass.
The long campaign resulted in the first modest scheme of a £10m pilot to build 1,500 houses, involving 22 homes and two factories as building started in late 1958. The target was to bring in more than 5,000 Londoners, more than doubling Thetford’s population.
It was not always easy, especially when one of these new factories soon went bust. But in the early 1960s, Whitehall increased the target for house building from 1,500 to 3,000 and the borough redoubled efforts to bring more employers to the town.
Earlier moves by the council to bring new employment, linked to the nearby forestry sector, had not been a success. By 1951, there was a major shortage of work for men in the town, which only had 100 street lights – one indication of Thetford’s depressed fortunes.
It also only had two factories, Thetford Moulded Products, making safety hats for miners, and Norfolk Canneries, mainly employing women preparing vegetables.
The town had suffered severely for several decades. The opportunity for a growth strategy resulted from the 1952 Town Development Act, which aimed at moving industry and people from London to ease overcrowding. Initially, the government was reluctant to back Thetford’s case as an expansion town, which caused a two-year delay. However, Thetford tackled the major hurdles of attracting industry and getting grants to build houses with enthusiasm.
As Mr Clarke recalled: “We began negotiations in 1953 with the then London County Council and the first turf was dug in September 1958.”
What was to become one of the country’s most successful town expansions rapidly gathered pace. Fortunately, the Greater London Council supported the concept although it had initially wanted Norfolk County Council to shoulder most of the financial burden.
Another potential handicap, acquiring the land required, was overcome. As the Crown Estate was the largest single landowner, no compulsory purchase was needed.
It was a growth plan with risks but it started to attract firms and household names, including Danepak, Thermos and Jeyes. By November 1973, the 70 council-owned factories brought in rents of £176,000 a year and a penny rate was worth £20,000.
When Jeyes expressed interest in moving to Thetford, Mr Clarke went up to London. On a Sunday morning, when all the employees met in a cinema at Ilford, he gave an illustrated talk on the town’s attractions. Over the following weeks, Jeyes brought coach loads of workers and their families to see Thetford.
When he retired, aged 56, following local government reorganisation in April 1974 and the creation of Breckland District Council, Thetford’s population had increased to 17,000.
The council had built 3,000 houses and 160 firms had moved to Thetford.
The then mayor, Jack Ramm, who died two years ago, presented the architect of Thetford’s town development scheme with a scroll on vellum in an inscribed silver casket.
And when he finally retired from his second career with a local solicitor in 1992, the town’s population was more than 21,000 and it was Norfolk’s fourth biggest town.
The EDP noted at his retirement that “Thetford owes a great deal to the steadfastness of Mr Clarke”.
Known by many as “Mr Thetford,” Mr Clarke, who stood 6ft 3ins tall, became town clerk after three months in June 1950. He had moved from St Neots Urban District Council, where he started his career in local government as a junior clerk in 1933.
Born in St Neots, he went to Huntingdon Grammar School. During the Second World War he served overseas in the Army, attaining the rank of captain.
He was a tenacious campaigner for the borough, noting at a speech in 1952 that too many functions had been removed from local authorities – for example, fire service, health service functions, and town and country planning. A year earlier, Thetford had been deprived of the administration of justice, he added.
At a mayoral banquet in 1953 he made a light-hearted speech, which was to lead to a career of after-dinner speaking engagements.
A founder member of Thetford Rotary Club and its secretary in 1954, when it was chartered, he was awarded the highest honour, a Paul Harris Fellowship, in March 1992. Later that year, he retired after 18 years with solicitors Cunningham John & Co. At a surprise party at the town’s Carnegie Room, a band struck up and he was presented with a big red book to herald a “This is Your Life” evening.
An enthusiastic sportsman, he had played football and was a keen golfer.
His wife, Eileen, died in November 2011. He leaves a daughter, Patricia, and son Roger, grandchildren Tamsin, Anthony, Alice and Lily, and two great-grandsons, William Matthew.
A service of thanksgiving will be held at St Cuthbert’s Church, Thetford, on Friday, January 24 at 2.30pm.