A history of Ancient House

The charming black and white building known as the Ancient House is among the principal attractions of the town of Thetford in Norfolk. Indeed, it probably ranks as one of the best examples of an early Tudor town house in East Anglia.

None of the documents at present available, shed any light upon who built the house or when. The conveyance of 1921 (when the house was given to the town) speaks of its erection in the reign of Edward IV (1461-83), architectural details point to a date soon after 1500.

Clearly it was the home of a merchant of some wealth, who wished to model his dwelling on the larger mansions of the day and was prepared to pay for the best craftsmen in its construction. He seems to have been restricted in the size of the site at his disposal, however, and was probably constrained by earlier boundaries on both sides. Nevertheless the house would have been detached when first built, with perhaps a carriage entrance at the side.

The house attracted attention in 1867, when a local historian wrote that ‘two interesting Elizabethan studded houses were discovered in White Hart Street upon the removal of the external plaster’. Sketches of the house made in the late nineteenth century show that its external appearance was then much the same as it is today.

In 1921, the Mayor of Thetford consulted the local antiquary Prince Frederick Duleep Singh about setting up a museum in the town. The Prince very generously responded by purchasing the Ancient House and presenting it to the Mayor and Corporation of Thetford for this purpose.

With the advice of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the house was carefully restored, and the Prince contributed to the estimated cost of £550. Stairways, doors, fireplaces and partitions were removed, and the plaster stripped to reveal the unsuspected richness of carving underneath.

On 11 December 1924, the museum was opened by the Duchess of Grafton. It was administered by Thetford Borough Council until the museum became part of Norfolk Museums Service in 1974.

For more information on the architecture of the building download: A Short History of the Ancient House (pdf - 8213kB)