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Paine festival opens

PUBLISHED: 10:18 09 June 2009 | UPDATED: 11:19 08 July 2010

He was the "citizen of the world" and voice for democracy, who ultimately died penniless and alone.

But thousands of townsfolk and visitors showed their support for Thomas Paine at the weekend to celebrate the life of one of Norfolk's most famous sons.

He was the “citizen of the world” and voice for democracy, who ultimately died penniless and alone.

But thousands of townsfolk and visitors showed their support for Thomas Paine at the weekend to celebrate the life of one of Norfolk's most famous sons.

The sound of musket fire made shoppers jump to attention in Thetford with the opening of an ambitious six month festival to mark the bicentenary of the death of the best-selling author of the 18th century.

The pamphleteer, who was born and educated in the town, was not always popular in his lifetime because of his writings that influenced the American and French revolutions.

But local dignitaries, townsfolk, and visitors from across the region and the world gathered as the streets were brought back 200 years on Saturday.

A platoon of British redcoats marched to the Thomas Paine statue in King Street to fire their muskets and raise the American, French, and Union Jack flags to open the festival to commemorate the son of a Thetford corset maker.

Visitors from America, the nearby US Air Force bases, and Thetford's twinning towns also attended to celebrate the man who helped shape the modern world through his writings in the Rights of Man, Common Sense, and The Age of Reason.

John Weeks, celebrations coordinator, said he was “delighted” with the turn out for the start of the Tom Paine 200 festival.

“It has been excellent. There are so many aspects of Tom Paine, which has pulled so many organisations and individuals together. It has been a very good community effort,” he said.

Entertainment was provided by morris dancing in the streets, re-enactments of electioneering, 18th century-style army recruitment methods, and a play about the “rotten borough of Thetford” back in the days when the town had two MPs and only 32 men were allowed to vote.

Pam Spencer, Thetford mayor, added: “He [Paine] championed democracy, free spirit and fairness in a corrupt and violent world. He was sometimes controversial, but his message of courage and determination is an inspiration to all of us. The festival been a massive community enterprise and brought so many people together. I hope the friendships formed will last a lifetime.”

Tom Paine 200 continued on Sunday with an 18th century pastimes fair, Georgian Punch and Judy shows, Sedan chair racing, a grinning match, and a skirmish re-enactment by the American Revolutionary War Alliance. It was followed by a civic dinner in Thetford on Monday to mark the official bicentenary of his death.

Chad Goodwin, chairman of the Thomas Paine Society, said the words of Paine were still relevant today after being quoted by US President Barack Obama in his inauguration speech.

“He is still a revolutionary. He was an absolute democrat who believed in the aspirations of the people and he was on the side of the normal citizen. I think if he was to reappear he would be absolutely amazed that we still have a monarchy and the idea of politicians with their snouts in the trough at the moment would drive him up the wall,” he said.

A special Thomas Paine exhibition opened at Ancient House Museum, in White Hart Street - close to Paine's birthplace - which includes a portrait of the man loaned from the National Portrait Gallery.

The museum is also decorated with hundreds of mittens after volunteers began knitting 200 pairs last year to symbolise Paine donating the proceeds of his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense to buy mittens for soldiers.

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