Diss is a quintessential market town. It has always been shaped by the land and villages around it as its trades and tradesmen responded to local needs and also the production of those farmers around it in the Waveney Valley area.
From at least the late medieval period, farms around Diss were small and often free from the domination and control of large landowners. From the fifteenth century the farms were also prosperous, as is clear from the large number of timber-framed farmhouses with large medieval and early modern barns in the region. It was these men and their families who came each week to the market in Diss and twice a year to its fairs.
Prospering from the rag trade
From the sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries, Diss became an increasingly important centre for the East Anglian linen industry, partly because of its established reputation as a market but mainly because hemp growing and linen production was centred on the town.
This period of Diss’s pre-eminence came to an end with the growth of a mechanised textile industry in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; dealing the whole of the East Anglian textile trade a mortal blow.
Norfolk in particular suffered very badly. Unmechanised, the Waveney Valley industry could not compete, especially as new, cheap cotton goods were much preferred. The only survivors were in the villages of North and South Lopham which continued to produce high-quality linen until the 1900s.
By 1840 Diss had only one ‘putting out’ master, Henry Warne, employing 40 men, 20 boys and three women – some of them in a factory in Mere Street. By the census of 1851 even Warne had left Diss and by that date brush making was becoming the town’s main industry.
Going to the market – Diss through the 1800s-1900s
By the 1880s Diss offered a range of goods and services far larger than even the biggest villages could think to match. The wealthier may have been going to Bury or Norwich for ‘special’ clothes but for the mass of farmers, tradesman and even working men and their families, Diss provided all they needed – and a lot more.
In the years after 1850, Diss moved from a market town for linen to a general market town serving a radius of about 20 miles with its Friday Market, Corn Hall and range of shops. The Bobby family, whose first shops appear by the 1840s in St Nicholas Street, owned all the shops on a stretch of Market Hill. Bobby’s is still remembered by older Diss people. It was one of the main shops visited on Fridays by farmers’ wives (and sometimes daughters) when their husbands went to the Corn Hall or the auctions.
Bikes, buses and carts
People from the surrounding villages streamed in on bikes, in buses and cars, in traps and carts, and on foot, wanting to buy, bring things to sell and have a day out in Diss. Drovers, dealers, horsemen, market traders and others came wearing clothes that were probably years behind the times.
Stopping for a drink At various times between about 1830 and 1914 there were eight pubs in the Heritage Triangle. These were on Market Hill – The Black Bull; on Crown (St Nicholas) Street – The Prince of Wales, The Crown, The Two Brewers, The Half Moon and The Greyhound; on Half Moon Street and on the stretch of market place that marks the eastern edge of the area – The Saracen’s Head and The White Horse. This concentration of pubs is at least in part because of the market area. Marketing went on six days a week in Diss. Shops needed goods, orders had to be delivered and collected, people and things need moving. In 1912, 3428 horse-drawn vehicles passed by the Corn Hall between 6am and 6pm daily in the week from Monday 2 October to Sunday 8 October.
Horses needed resting regularly during a journey and most of the pubs in the Heritage Triangle had ample stabling for horses. The Greyhound in 1840 had a yard with stalled and open standing for sixteen horses; The Half Moon had five stalled spaces and ‘open standing’ for eight horses while The Saracen’s Head had stabling for six horses and open stabling for 32. These spaces were not for romantic mail coaches or even overnight travellers, although all had some ‘chambers’. They were for working horses which came day after day, week after week, like the ubiquitous white vans of today.
The Diss Heritage Triangle Trust | 11-12 Market Hill | Diss | IP22 4JZ