Thomas Paines Norfolk, Norfolk


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Thomas Paines Norfolk, Norfolk

The revolutionary writer and activist Thomas Paine is remembered for his intellectual support for the American War of Independence (or Revolution depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from), and for his work in the French Revolution and its aftermath. But he was born and educated in Norfolk , and the county retains a certain affection for the writer of that key work of modern political thought, The Rights of Man.
Thomas Pain (he added the additional 'e' when he left for America) was born in 1737 in Thetford, in the south western part of Norfolk. His father, John Pain, was a Quaker by conviction and birth if not by attendance; a poor man who managed to feed his family by his work as a corset maker and from the produce grown on his small-holding.
From 1744 to 1749 Thomas attended Thetford Grammar School, an ancient foundation (with a half serious claim to roots in the 7th century) still thriving in the town today. At the then one roomed school in an Elizabethan building he was kept from learning Latin because of his father's Quaker beliefs that studying such books were wrong, but he showed capability in mathematics and, in a glimpse of his future work, in poetry.
Paine's birthplace is to be found in White Hart Street, in the garden of Grey Gables. Not unnaturally Paine is celebrated by the town of his birth, a statue of the writer standing outside Bell Hotel there. This splendid bronze of the great man has him quill in hand, a copy of The Rights of Man in the other; though it is claimed the book is upside down, perhaps a conservative Norfolk comment on the radical work.
Work as assistant to his father followed his withdrawal from school aged 13, this great thinker leading an undistinguished life in his home town until he left aged 20.
After a varied early career that took him around the country, and to sea (briefly) as a privateer on board The Terrible, led by the equally dramatically named Captain Death, Paine returned to the town in 1761, interestingly enough the future revolutionary who would call for the overthrow of the English monarchy working for the crown as a diligent supernumerary excise officer.
During a period between posts in 1765 - 1766 (he was fired for making an incorrect entry in his books) Paine worked again as a staymaker, this time in Diss in Norfolk, one of the loveliest towns in the county. He worked making leather corsets there in a shop in Cock Street, now rather more elegantly called Denmark Street. Diss at that time was known for its non-conformism, and some see his radicalism as possibly first blooming there.
Diss has plans for a Paine display in its museum, and in the park in the town there is a Liberty Tree to honour Paine's poem of the same name.

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