Thomas Paine Statue, Thetford in Norfork, England
Thomas Paine Statue, Norfork in Thetford, England
Thetford in Norfork, England
Thomas Paine was born in a thatched cottage in Thetford in Norfork, England on January 29, 1737. Within view of Paine's childhood home was a place known as Gallows Hill where public executions occurred every March. During this time a festival atmosphere enveloped Thetford as hundreds of people traveled from miles around to witness the executions. Thetford inns were filled to capacity, vaudeville companies played to packed houses and booths on street corners sold cider and ale to the milling crowds.
The trials, called Assizes, were held in the Guildhall close to the Paine's home. In the courtroom sat the Lord Chief Justice, High Constable, Petty Constables and a Grand Jury all of whom swore an oath of faithfulness to their King, Church, Country and conscience. On the prisoner's bench the accused waited, not knowing the charges against them and not allowed to give evidence for themselves. They were forced to remain silent while their fate was decided.
In Paine's England rich and poor lived by different standards of conduct. The poor, whose crimes were overwhelmingly against property could be executed for as little as stealing a packet of tea while high crimes by the wealthy, including murder, went virtually unpunished.
This system of justice in Thetford was maintained by the powerful Dukes of Grafton whose immense estate covered an area with a circumference of over 40 miles. The Graftons exercised complete rule over the town providing representatives to Parliament who ran unopposed year after year.
One example of the power of the Graftons occurred in the 1750s while Paine was in his teens. At that time the second duke of Grafton complaining that the sight of Euston Village ruined the view from his bedroom window hired an architect to move the entire village and a river so that his vista would be pristine.
The power of the Graftons was typical of aristocratic relationships in Paine's day. Throughout the country millionaire landowners had usurped roads, farmlands and streams from public use, all without payment to the counties. The farmers and others displaced by this practice often resorted to poaching game from these immense private lands. Many were caught, imprisoned and hanged for their offenses.
In the year of Paine's birth three men were ordered hanged on the day following their trials, each for varying degrees of petty theft. On their final journey from the jail to the hangman's noose on Gallows Hill the condemned men passed by Paine's cottage.