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A Brief History of Diss.

Many towns claim to be 'historic market towns', but there has been a market in the centre of Diss, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border for well over 500 years. The town, which lies in the beautiful Waveney Valley, was established around one of the deepest natural inland lakes in the country. The 6 acre Mere is 18 feet deep, but below this is another 51 feet of mud! The water level is maintained by a number of underground springs near to the northern edge. The local Rotary Club is hoping to install an 18metre high water fountain in the centre of the Mere next year to celebrate their centenary.

The town has a population approaching 7,000. However, the town also serves a recognised rural catchment area of approximately 40,000 people.

The town centre comprises some excellent examples of Georgian and Edwardian buildings, as well as a public park, the Mere and a number of thriving shopping streets and the market place. The Market operates every Friday and coincides with a local antiques and collectables auction which is held at Gazes Saleroom. Speciality markets, flea markets and farmers markets are also held regularly.

Diss is one of only two UK pilot towns chosen to trial the Italian "Cittaslow" scheme which is a project aimed at counteracting the modern ethos of fast food and the fast pace of life. Cittaslow translates as "Slow City", but Diss prefers to think of itself as a town that prides itself on a good quality of life in a relaxed environment promoting good food. Diss was the runner up in the recent Norfolk Town of the Year Awards.

To the south-west of the town centre lies Fair Green which was first granted a Royal Charter in 1185 and such activities as bull baiting and cock fighting took place until the fair closed in 1872. The Green is now however, still the location for modern day travelling fairs and circuses.

The town has two modern industrial estates to the east of the town centre and benefits from being on the main London to Norwich main railway line.

Attractions in the area include the town's award winning museum located to the north of the Market Place, the wonderful Steam Museum and Gardens at Bressingham and the zoo at Banham.

The Mere with Diss Park beyond.
The Mere with Diss Park beyond

Betjeman's View of Diss

For many years Diss was to me a lonely railway station on the line to Norwich. I knew of it as the headquarters of the British Goat Society, to which my wife belonged long before the last war. Studying the one inch Ordnance Survey map and reading about it between the lines in Kelly's Directory of Norfolk, I realized it would be the prefect English country town, neither too big for people to feel neglected nor too small to become a hot-bed of gossip.Then it was associated with the cheerful and delicate poet, John Skelton. I was not disappointed. The first way I saw it was the worst way. That is to say by motor car. Towns are made to walk about it, not to drive through, and to meet in, which accounts for churches, chapels and charming buildings like your Corn Exchange. That motor drive did reveal one thing, which was a flash of water seen driving to Attleborugh - the Mere. I was determined to come back which I did by train and with Mr. Malcolm Freegard, the BBC film producer at that time in the BBC Norwich office. Together we made a short film of the town and spent several days walking about and looking. Walking down alleys and suddenly glimpsing the Mere, noticing the charming Unitarian church and the Quaker meeting house and ending in the splendid Nave of the Parish Church of St. Mary. There were many more timber-framed and plastered cottages in the town then. Would that they had all been repaired and modernized. Luckily many remain and no more will be destroyed and Diss can still be its individual self and not some dead, hygienic housing estate. (Written by Sir John Betjeman, then Poet Laureate, for the Foreword of the 1975-76 Diss Town Guide.)

Diss 100 Years Ago

What was it like to live here 100 years ago, at the end of the Victorian era, when the 20th century was young and nobody had any idea of the wars, disasters and technological progress to come? A local boy born in the late 1890s would see the horrors of the Great War, from which 101 men did not return. But, for the time being, life must have been slower and more peaceful, with horses and bicycles and scarcely a car to be seen in the gaslit streets. Everyone wore a hat, both men and women, skirts reached down to the ground and women showed only their faces.

At that time the owner of The Uplands (now the Sixth Form Centre), Stroud Lincoln Cocks JP, could have stood at his house and looked down at a view of nothing but fields as far as Victoria Road.` Francis Taylor JP, at the Manor House in Mount Street, a Quaker at the Friends' Meeting House or Mrs. Cupiss at The Wilderness, would all have had similarly uninterrupted views eastward as far as the railway station. Right up to the 1960s you could still see the trains from the Church School.

The Entry was still known as The Parson's Entry. John Skelton, Tudor poet laureate and Diss rector, would have walked this way to church from Mere Manor. In 1905 this house was the rectory of the Reverend Charles Upwood Manning MA, the last of a line of Manning rectors who had held the living since the reign of George III. Rectory Meadow takes its name from the house which was still called The Old Rectory until the mid 20th century. Mere Manor is said to have been just a nickname given during the war.

Where was Moat Road, a name which appears in old directories, with a harness maker, dressmaker, boot and shoe maker, shopkeeper, private residence and the Suffolk Electricity Company there? It may have been the first stretch of Shelfanger Road, from Crown Corner to the Parish Fields footpath, as there was a moat by the maltings. The saleyard where the auctions now take place was then a cricket ground and later the football ground. Louie's Lane was originally Broom Lane but was re-named after the mysterious murder of Louie Bryant in 1829. This and Meetinghouse (now Croft) Lane were out in the country in 1905. There were scarcely any houses and nothing to the west, apart from fields and Hall Hills. This was a grand house, later demolished. Its grounds exist now only as an address.

Factory Lane existed; but the short stretch by the old Matting and Brush factory was known as Cheap Lane. The rest, as far as Roydon, was Factory Lane. The Secondary School, later the Grammar School, had not been built. It was demolished in the early 1990s to make way for the Scholars Walk houses. Sunnyside was then known as Mount Street Road and had a blacksmith called Albert Fairweather, Mount Pleasant had not been built, The Causeway was Horn's Entry and Park Road was Parkfield Road. There was another blacksmith in Chapel Street and a whitesmith or tinsmith, Ephraim Rice, in Church Street. The fire engine was housed in Wills Yard, Chapel Street.

Strolling down Mere Street you would have passed Edward Abbott's printing and stationery establishment, where the Alliance and Leicester Building Society is now. This, as the Diss Publishing Company, remained the same kind of business until the 1970s. Next was Stead and Simpsons, now Castle Fruit. The shoe shop's current premises were then the International Tea Company's Stores ('The International'.) You could also have bought shoes at Hilton's and Hammond's on the same side of the street. Hughes Electrical is on the site of Taylor & Sons, watchmakers, and Miss Ellen Taylor's fancy repository, a gift shop. John Double the tobacconist was where the Camera Shop now is. W.H. Smith's was a public house called the King's Arms until the early 19th century. In the early 1900s it was Brame's Electrical, the father of the man who had a similar shop (now Whittley Parish, the estate agents) on Market Hill. Mrs. E.S. Burrage, a ladies outfitter, was in the shop which would later be Toyland and now Special Occasions. William Lang the butcher was where the betting shop is now. There were grocers on the Paper Chain site for many years, David Tipple in 1900, later Williams and then Harveys. Charlie Humphrey, dealt in china and sold pails and all sorts of other things. He was also the local agent for Unemployment Insurance; and men used to line up by the side of the building (now Taylor's Electrical) to sign on.

The building which now houses shops and the Diss Express offices is on the site of The Ship Inn, which lasted until the late 1960s. Edward Weaver, confectioner and pastrycook, also had his premises there (Denny's Café in later years); and John Cadge made artificial teeth nearby. The Diss Mercury office (which has moved around the town numerous times) is, appropriately, where Lusher Brothers, printers and bookbinders, had their premises. (See 'A Country Boyhood in the Late 19th Century' in my book Northfolk Southfolk, where John Nice describes working there.)

The building many people still think of as Currys, now Diss Discount, was Arthur E. Capon's tea shop at one time (spot it on one of the big photographs in Diss library) and later the Co-op. There were several cottages at the back of the building, all of which have long gone. The next few premises, where the barber shop, jeweller and pet shop are now, were a pasture meadow until the mid 19th century. By the early 20th there were dressmakers and a teacher of music working there. Chapman's the jewellers was the premises of Cleer Sewell Alger, the photographer whose work left such a precious legacy of Victorian life. He was killed in a motoring accident in 1903.

The United Reformed church, then known as the Congregational church, was there, having been built in 1839. The parish church hall was at the foot of the street, looking back up towards the church, having been built on the site of the cattle pound. Now there is a building society there and shop. There were houses where the Somerfield supermarket is; and later Chitty's garage. Park House, now a solicitors' office, had been built in 1837.

Coming back up the street you would have passed Charles Lait's, coach builders, where the Diss Publishing Company is. The next shop has been a watchmaker and jewellers for many years, Livock and Moss in those days, now Hemstocks. You could quench your thirst at The Sun, now the Waterfront Inn. You would pass Harry Markwell's, basket maker and perambulator factor, where you now buy fried chicken. Butler's the greengrocer was where the florist is. William Boyce, the fish dealer, was where Cannell's the butcher is now. Francis Cupiss had his first premises here in Mere Street, where the card shops are, before moving to The Wilderness in 1874. Palmer's Drug and Oil Stores was here. Hopgoods also had their first shop in this part of Mere Street, where the kebab place is, a century ago. The Cross Keys public house stood here, on the Woolworths site, in the 18th century. Later William Amos Lines had a barber shop; and there was also a fish shop. The Masonic Hall was also there before Woolworths was built. The King's Head hotel, now divided into several different premises, was next as you came back up to the Market Place.

Elsewhere in the town you would have found the stay factory, where the Heywood Road scout hut is. There was another matting factory, where the Salvation Army headquarters are. Their original 'barracks' was tucked away behind The Beehive yard, accessed from there or perhaps Roydon Road. The Diss Soda Water works stood where St. Mary's Court is. Later in the century the site was Bardwell's timber yard.

The Almshouses stood where Bellacre Close is now. Cows from Pleasure Farm grazed on the land where Dennyholme would be built. The Court, formerly home of William Betts who created the Frenze farm railway, stood between Vinces Lane and the railway line. (The Betts railway had disappeared by 1888.) On the way to Scole you would have seen the Isolation Hospital, where Sawmills Road is now.

Several firms still traded as wind and steam millers – Button, Chaplyn and Chase. There was a string of public houses which have since disappeared, including the Dolphin, Bell and Star (all in the Market Place), Half Moon (St. Nicholas Street), Beehive (Denmark Street), Cherry Tree (Roydon Road), Ship (Mere Street), Denmark Arms (corner of Park Road and Fair Green), Red Lion and Railway Tavern (Victoria Road), Jolly Porters (by the railway station) and White Hart (now the White Elephant, Stuston Road). You would have changed your library book in the reading room upstairs at the Corn Hall. The sick were cared for at Diss Hospital, where Grasmere is in Denmark Street.

Many business names which are still associated with the town, some just in memory, were active then: Albrights the ironmongers, the Aldrich brothers for matting and brushes, Aldrich and Bryant the grocers, Anness the butchers, Bobby's the drapers, the Cuthbert Stores, Doubledays for lemonade and mineral water, Easto's the fishmonger, Gaze's the auctioneers and estate agents, Gostling the chemists, Harrison's the cabinet makers, Lyus the solicitors, Perfitt's the stonemasons, Spink's the butchers, Youngs the engineers and so on. As the town takes part in the Cittaslow project it could be useful to ponder life as it was in Diss 100 years ago.


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