Riddle of the letter that survived fire which tore through Fakenham’s Aldiss store

Tim Aldiss with the 100-year-old letter found in the attic of the building next to the old Aldiss st

Tim Aldiss with the 100-year-old letter found in the attic of the building next to the old Aldiss store in Fakenham which was destroyed by fire.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

A brief, folded letter written more than a century ago to inform a future reader of a snippet of Fakenham's history survived both the fire which tore through the Aldiss building on the town's Upper Market in May 2014, and the battle to put it out.

The area in the attic of the building, next to the old Aldiss store in Fakenham which was destroyed

The area in the attic of the building, next to the old Aldiss store in Fakenham which was destroyed by fire, where a 100-year-old letter was found.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Contractors preparing the site for redevelopment found it in what is now the attic of the Norfolk Hospice charity shop next door.

Fire in Fakenham town centre.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Fire in Fakenham town centre.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Site foreman Colin Phillips, from Norwich-based contractors Draper and Nichols, said it was discovered by plant operator Tim High-Caston tucked beneath the floorboards, as he was working in the shop building.

'It was just a piece of folded-up paper,' he said. 'Tim picked it up and thought: 'What's that?'.

'He could have chucked it away, but he opened it up and thought 'that looks interesting'.'

Just over a century ago, the building housed a printer's shop.


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On June 12, 1900, printing foreman Ernest Stebbings sat down and described a violent thunderstorm which had just passed over the centre of Fakenham, before noting down the names of all those who worked for his employer, based in what is now the charity shop.

'From October 1899 to present date the Boer war in South Africa is being carried on under Lords Roberts, Kicthener, Sir Redvers Buller and others,' he writes.

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'Mistress of this house is Jessie Kate Stewardson, printing foreman Ernest Stebbings (serving 13 yrs 9 mths to present date) apprentices in office Walter Wade, Fakenham, and William Meek, Hempton. Apprentice in shop Flossie Herring, assistant Gertie Bacon, servant Agnes Barnes. Staying in the house is Mr J Whitechurch, of London, nephew of Miss Stewardson.'

While what happened to most is unknown, the list includes apprentice Walter Wade, of Fakenham. Across the Market Place, the town's war memorial carries the name of a Walter Wade who fell during the First World War.

Mr High-Caston said: 'I was amazed, absolutely amazed. One of the apprentices is on the war memorial – he was killed in the Somme.'

Mr Stebbings clearly wanted the brief, folded note to be found – but not too quickly.

'May a blessing fall on the person who shall find and read these few remarks, as it is the idea of the writer they will not be discovered for many years to come,' he wrote.

Whether he would consider 116 years a long enough interlude will never be known – along with the reason Mr Stebbings chose to record his colleagues' names for posterity.

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