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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Thetford’s best-known son has had a mixed reputation in his home town.
These days Thomas Paines reputation is riding high. Praised as a democratic hero and a man ahead of his time on both sides of the Atlantic, it is a far cry from 200 years ago when he was considered a traitor in this country. Even in the second half of the last century the suggestion he should be honoured in with a statue in Thetford caused uproar; he is still greater esteemed in America than in Britain.
Paine lived in interesting times. Born in Thetford in 1737, in modest circumstances, he was to alienate many English people with his radical writing and sympathies. He was to support revolutions aimed against his own country in America and France which led to indictment for treason in the 1790s. That was all a long way off when he was born in White Hart Street. The Thomas Paine Hotel, at the top end of Bridgegate, is the starting point for what the local tourist authority term the Thomas Paine Trail, taking in many of the towns historical sites. Were not entirely sure he was born at what is now the hotel. His father was a corset-maker and smallholder, Joseph Paine, a Quaker. The radical influence of the Society of Friends leaders in spreading the message of equality, and campaigning to end slavery must have influenced young Thomas. You can see Paine artefacts at the nearby Ancient House museum, then walk over the town bridge and see where he went to school. Paines father was a freeman of the borough of Thetford, which enabled him to send his son to the local grammar school at reduced fees. There has been a school of some kind on the site since Saxon times, reflecting Thetfords long history. It was once the most important town in Norfolk before the rise of Norwich under the Normans.
Paine may have encountered the first inequalities that later galled him while at school, for his family was not rich. He later wrote: My parents were not able to give me a shilling beyond what they gave me in education and to do this they distressed themselves.
On leaving school, aged about 13, he had a better education than most boys of his class. He was apprenticed to his father, but was destined for higher things. The corruption he later railed against was all around him. Thetford was a rotten borough, a parliamentary seat in which just 31 electors sent two MPs to Westminster, despite the fact 2,000 people lived there. Corruption of a different sort could be seen at the Guildhall, where the law courts dispensed the harsh justice of the 18th century with its severe penal code which always had the most severe impact on poor people at the bottom of the pile.
Talented but frustrated, Paine tried several jobs as sailor, schoolteacher and exciseman. Influenced by his friend Benjamin Franklin, the articulate spokesman for the American colonists at loggerheads with the British government, his future course was set. In 1774, aged 37, he set sail for America, and was thrust headlong into the propaganda war leading to revolution. An effective writer, Paine was the first to use the term United States of America and his writings helped sustain American morale during the War of Independence. Back in England in 1791 he wrote his best-known work, The Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution and a clarion call for democracy.
Paine demanded votes for all, abolition of monarchy, religious toleration and an end to war. In the 1790s, with Britain fighting for its existence against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, such sentiments were dangerous; he had to flee for his life. Making for revolutionary France, he was initially hailed a hero, but later came close to being guillotined during the Terror. Despite this he wrote The Age of Reason, reiterating his call for religious freedom. He died in America in 1809, controversial to the end.
Paine is seen as an early democrat, a fearless free-thinker who could not be silenced by oppression. His reputation has grown, particularly in America, since his death. His quotes have power to inspire: These are the times that try mens souls; Wealth is no proof of moral character, nor poverty of the want of it; All hereditary government over a people is to them a species of slavery, and representative government is freedom.
The Carnegie Room in Cage Lane is built on the site of a thatched meeting house built by the Society of Friends, where Paines father worshipped. Just along the road is the towns library, which hosts one of the best collections of Paine material in Britain, available for study by appointment. Which leads us to his famous statue in King Street. The impetus came from America. During the second world war thousands of GIs and airmen were stationed in Norfolk. An American aircrew named its B17 bomber Thomas Paine. Concerned at the lack of recognition for their hero, they also put up the plaque seen today on the Thomas Paine hotel, which was then a private residence. Twenty years after the war, the American Thomas Paine society offered to put up a gold statue of their man in his home town. The idea was not universally popular, sparking fierce opposition which received national headlines. The uproar led eventually to the creation of the Thomas Paine society in Britain and greater acceptance. The statue was designed by Sir Charles Wheeler in 1964, and stands outside the historic Kings House. It depicts Paine holding a pen in one hand and a copy of The Rights of Man in the other. Strangely, the book is upside down, which Wheeler claimed he did to pique onlookers curiosity.