Thetford was the birthplace of Thomas Paine, aka The Father Of The American Revolution.
He was the author of Common Sense, The Rights Of Man and The Age Of Reason. He was a tireless campaigner. He was one of history’s greatest political thinkers and an eloquent proponent of social justice, emancipation and liberty. He was, as his soubriquet suggests, one of the biggest inspirations in the American Revolution. Without Thetford and Thomas Paine there would have been no California, no President Obama, no D-Day landings, no walking on the moon, no Elvis Presley. And no Sarah Palin, Fox News, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Guantanamo Bay, 60″ waist “pants”, or people that can’t say lieutenant properly, either.
He was, in short, a big deal. The kind of man you’d think might deserve a statue in his hometown:
Unless, of course, you happen to be on of Thetford’s many local Tories. When a group of Americans first offered to erect a statue to the great man in the 1960s, a Conservative town councillor declared it “an insult to the town” and tried to stop its erection. When that failed, his council tried to get an inscription about Paine being a “traitor” engraved alongside the current inscription: “My country is the world, my religion is to do good.” Ever since, the town has regarded its famous son as a source of shame, rather than pride.
But don’t worry! The dislike was mutual. Thetford was a thoroughly Rotten Borough in Paine’s day. It was dominated by a small rich elite, who frequently (and literally) got away with murder, while poor men could be hanged for stealing a sheep. He hated it.
In fact, you could probably say that the entire American Revolution was a result of Paine’s desire to escape the legacy of his upbringing in Thetford. And you can definitely say that one of his most famous quotes is about the town: “When, in countries that are called civilised, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government.”
It’s hard to imagine he’d like the place much better now:
Mind you, it is at least fun to imagine what Paine might think of Thetford’s latest piece of statuary:
This is commemorates another famous local: the Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last royal ruler of the Punjab. He was exiled to nearby Elveden in the 19th century, where by all accounts, he felt thoroughly miserable, pining for his homeland, desperate to flee Thetford. (Which he did, eventually, making it as far as Paris, where he died.)
The birthplace of one of history’s most persuasive republicans has become a place of pilgrimage for Sikh royalists. And that isn’t the cruellest irony. Tom Paine might have a statue in Thetford, but it has been so positioned that he gazes out forever over the town’s main thoroughfare: King Street. It would be enough to make him turn in his grave, if only he had one.
My friends and I once spent an evening in Thetford. Some people threw a cucumber at us.