The town takes its name from Aegel, a Saxon thane, who set up his homestead near
the Market Place in about 500 AD, - Aegel's Ham - Aylsham - although a hoard of
Bronze age metalwork discovered in 1968 close to the High School on what was
then a new housing estate shows that he was not the first to settle here.
However it was in the following five hundred years that Aylsham grew so that by
the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 its population was around 1000,
approaching a fifth of its present size.
By the fourteenth century the town was famous for the quality of its linen,
supplying royal palaces, and when Edward III granted the manor of Aylsham in
1372 to his son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the town became the principal
town of John's lands in Norfolk, with accompanying privileges for the townsfolk.
The linen industry declined in the sixteenth century to be replaced by the
manufacture of worsteds but the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries with the accompanying competition from the towns of the
north put an end to local textile manufacture.
For centuries boats using the River Bure could get no further upriver than
Coltishall. Then in 1779 a canal extended river navigation to Aylsham and the
town was linked to the sea at Yarmouth. However in 1912 enormous floods washed
away the canal and because the coming of two railway stations to the town had by
then removed much of the river trade, the canal was not dredged and repaired.
The railway stations were lost during the I960's. The Town Council owns one of
the two station sites, together with the Staithe close by, where the boats used
to unload when they came upriver from Yarmouth.
The first official census in 1801 shows a population of 1667, not quite
double the population at the time of the Domesday Book. By 1841 the population
had grown to 2448, and it remained more or less the same for over a century,
growing again only with the steady addition of housing estates from the I960's
onwards. The population now is about 5500.
Around The Town
Most travellers going through the town would originally have entered from the
north by Red Lion St and exited to Norwich by Hungate Street, crossing the
Market Place on the way.
The main building materials were bricks, tiles and timber and some buildings
are timber framed, with brick frontages added later. The steep pitch of the
roofs shows that they were probably thatched with reed originally, and only
later replaced with pantiles. Several have the characteristic Dutch gables
reflecting the early close links between East Anglia and what is now Holland.
The Market Place
The Market Place is owned by the National Trust as it is part of the
Blickling Hall estate. In 1897 it hosted 1700 people dining to celebrate
Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and in 1902, 1800 to celebrate Edward VII's
coronation. The Town Hall, to the side of the Market Place, was built by a
private company in 1857 as a corn exchange and sold to the Parish Council in
1908 for £1400. The Black Boys pub on the corner was probably built in the 17th
century; its present frontage dates to between 1710 and 1720; the coach entry
from the market place to the stable yard at the back was blocked up in the
I930's to be replaced by what is now the bar.
The John Soame Memorial Pump
Until 1938 there was no public water supply in Aylsham. Townsfolk drew their
water from private wells. In 1911 after John Soame's death a public well was
given to the town by his uncle, a wealthy financier. The artesian well is 170
ft. deep with a cover thatched in Norfolk reed and stands at Carr's Corner
between Penfold Street and the Cawston Road.
Now 170 yards long the Butts originally stretched 220 yds from Cawston Rd to
Mill Rd and was where the men of the town practised the longbow as required by
law. It is currently owned by the National Trust as part of the Blickling estate
and is mainly used as a car park.
The buildings on the corner of Red Lion St and Burgh Rd were once the local
prison. It was closed in 1825 when Norwich castle became the principal gaol.
Some of the cells remain to the rear. The triangular-shaped building known as I
Burgh Road was recently restored and is currently the office of the Aylsham
The Parish Church
The distinctive small spire on top of the 90ft. tower of St. Michael & All
Angels Church can be seen for many miles around Aylsham.
Building the Church began in the late 13th century with the construction of
the nave, aisles and chancel; followed by the tower and ground floor of the
south porch in the early 14th century. The north transept was built under the
patronage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, about 1380, Aylsham at that time
being the principal town of the Duke's duchy in Norfolk. In 1488 the upper floor
of the south porch was added by Richard Howard, Sheriff of Norwich, who was a
native of Aylsham.
Only the lower part of the rood screen remains, with painted figures on 16
panels, some of which have been disfigured by Puritan reformers. The cost of
painting the panels was borne by Thomas Wymer and John Jannys, whose portraits
may be send on the first and third panels.
The grave of Humphry Repton, the celebrated landscape gardener, can be found
in the churchyard in a small walled garden near the south chancel door, the spot
having been chosen by him. It was restored by the Aylsham Association in 1969,
and the garden planted in accordance with the sentiment expressed by the epitaph
which Repton composed. The garden is now maintained by local resident
"Aylsham Remembered" - a few copies left, and "Sapwell's History of Aylsham"
- now out of print, but reference copies are available in the Library.
Several books on Aylsham's History available from the Local History Society -
contact the Secretary, Mrs. Angela King Tel: 01263 768655
Explore Aylsham leaflet from Tourist Office and Council Offices