Thie History of Diss

town sign
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The oldest joke about the place is that as you approach the town Disappears.

Nobody knows where the name of the town came from. The theory that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon for ditch or dyke ignores the fact that nowhere else has that in its name, whereas there must have been thousands of settlements with ditches and dykes. It could come from the name of the first settler or even from Dis Pater, the Roman god of the underworld.

Diss was Betjeman’s favourite Norfolk town. He was Patron of the Diss Society and made a film, Something About Diss, in 1964.  This was re-made by the museum in 2006 to commemorate his centenary. Betjeman came back to Diss in 1969 with Mary Wilson, wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and both John and Mary wrote a poem about their day.

For 700 years, from the reign of Henry II until 1872, the annual Cock Street Fair was held on Denmark  or Fair Green in late October and early November. Bull-baiting and cock-fighting took place there. At the fairs a servant was marked on the back with chalk when he was hired. So it was called Chalk-Back Day, although there are other theories about this. Bull-baiting also took place on Market Hill until the 18th century. Some people still say Pump Hill, as there used to be a pump (replacing the parish well) near Barclays Bank. There was another pump in Mount Street, just past the rectory.

By Tudor times Diss was important for woollen weaving and farming. In the 16th century the town was famous for linen weaving, Suffolk hempen cloth , worsted yarns, leather stays and knit hosiery. The Cloth Hall or Weavers' Hall was at the Saracen's Head Inn. In the 18th century Diss was noted for the making of clocks and watches. Diss Lace won awards in the early 20th century.

The plague hit the town in 1569. Mere Street was gutted by fire in 1640. In 1761 there were food riots in Diss. The Riot Act was read and the militia helped to maintain order.

Diss MereSilver in the light, green in the shade, the Mere is said to be the second deepest lake in the country, counting the depth of the water and the mud. The deepest is also in Norfolk, at Saham Toney.  A carousel in the museum recounts the history of the Mere, showing how soil and pollen analysis can indicate when the land around it was forested or arable. John Skelton’s poem ‘Philip Sparrow’ mentions over 70 birds that were common in his day including ospreys (fish eagles) that would have nested around the Mere. Throughout history, Diss people have drawn water from here, swum in it, boated on it, skated on its frozen surface and thrown their refuse in it. It is said that, when the waters became particularly noxious the eels would jump out and commit suicide on the bank rather than stay in the Mere. It often froze over in the severe winters of the 19th century. In 1827 a cricket match was played on the ice. In the latter part of the century there were ice carnivals, with Chinese lanterns and skaters in fancy dress costumes. A horse and cart has been driven across the surface; and also a motor cycle and sidecar.  Local people were again able to walk across in the cold winter of 1963. Up to the 1930s people were still swimming in the Mere. The museum has pictures of young men taking the plunge from a diving board. The inevitable tragedies happened. Just after Christmas 1944 two evacuee boys drowned when they fell through the ice, one brother trying to save the other. In the 1990s a teenage boy drowned while trying to swim across the Mere with his friends.

Camping or camp-ball was a kind of all-in rugby, played from medieval times right up to the 19th century. A match between Norfolk and Suffolk on Diss Common in the 1740s had 300 a side, went on for 14 hours  and nine people died of injuries received.

Some Diss Worthies:

John Skelton, Rector 1504 to 1529. Poet-Laureate.

John Salisbury, Rector 1554 to 1572. Bishop of Thetford, Dean of Norwich, Bishop of Sodor
and Man.

John Wilbye, baptised in Diss 1573, son of Matthew Wilbye, tanner. Composer of
Elizabethan madrigals.

Francis Blomefield, Norfolk historian, born at Fersfield in 1705. Educated at the Guildhall
Grammar School in Church Street, Diss. Died of smallpox in 1752.

Thomas Manning, born 1772. Oriental traveller and linguist. Friend and correspondent of Charles Lamb. First Englishman to reach Lhasa in Tibet.

Thomas Edward Amyot, FRCS. Practised in Diss for 50 years. Surgeon, scientist, poet.
Died 1895.

Charles Robertson Manning, MA, FSA. Hon. Canon of Norwich & Rural Dean. Rector 1857 to 1899. Antiquary and Genealogist.

Although Thomas Paine is normally associated with Thetford, his birthplace, he also worked in Diss for a year. In 1765-66 he was employed by Gudgeon the staymaker in Cock Street, now Denmark Street. Stays were part of the corsets worn by 18th century ladies. Nobody could have known then that this young man would shake the world with his radical ideas. He went on to write the three best-selling books of the 18th
century – Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. He was deeply
involved in the American and French Revolutions. American soldiers charged into battle shouting his words. In revolutionary Paris he was imprisoned and narrowly
escaped the guillotine. If it had not been for Paine, North America might still be ruled by the British monarchy and be called Virginia.  He coined the term ‘United States of
America’.  He was against slavery and in favour of women’s rights. The Welfare State, benefits, education funding and pensions all stem from his ideas.

Diss Museum’s Paine commemoration in2009 won three awards, including a museum’s ‘Oscar’, with a Museums & Heritage Award for Excellence. In 2011 the Manning family were commemorated on the bi-centenary of Thomas Manning’s journey to Lhasa. The museum is also working closely with the Corn Hall in the  regeneration of the Heritage Triangle.


Throughout the Victorian period Cleer Sewell Alger, senior and junior, took
photographs of Diss and District. They would go out with a horse and cart, take pictures with a heavy plate camera and then develop them in a 'dark tent' on the back of the cart. They also took many studio portraits of local people. Cleer Alger junior and his son were killed in a motoring accident. Despite heavy rain, the whole town turned out for the funeral. Alger's popularity was surprising as, despite his many accomplishments, he was also the district collector of income tax. The Alger pictures are now in the Suffolk Record Office.

Diss Common or Moor was 90 acres in extent.
It was a mile long and 600 yards across at its widest.
Copyhold tenants had the right of Commonage for Great Beasts but not sheep.
In 1693 John Cracknell was fined 2s 6d for having “seaventene sheep on the Common called Diss Moore.”
The Common would have resembled Wortham Ling, with a track across it.
“The southern edge was the Waveney, bordered by otter-haunted swamps.” (Pursehouse)
The Common was enclosed in 1816. It had five windmills.
Mary Tudor often crossed the Common travelling from Kennninghall Palace to
When Thomas Duke of Norfolk died, in 1524, his body was taken in a grand torchlit procession from Framlingham to Thetford via Diss Common.
In 1556 Diss schoolmaster Cleber was involved in an unsuccessful plot against Queen Mary. Cleber was ambushed on the Common by the Queen’s supporters, hanged, drawn and quartered at Bury.
In Napoleonic times the Diss Militia drilled on the Common.
Camping, a kind of all-in rugby was played on the Common from medieval times until the 19th century.
The annual St. Blaize procession, commemorating the patron saint of woolcombers, started from the Workhouse on the Common. The building was later the Almshouses.
The procession, every February 3rd, last took place in 1801.
Victoria Road was nearly called Prince’s Road or Albert Road.