Needham High Road
Old Post Office, Needham High Road c1900

Needham History - An introduction

There has been some sort of permanent settlement adjacent to the River Waveney on the site of the village of Needham since Neolithic times (2300-4000BC), whilst significant archaeological finds made at the west end of the village in the inter-war period indicate that Roman kilns were in use here by a small community of potters producing a variety of decorated household wares. Between 1992 and 1995 a modest hoard of 29 Roman coins was discovered in the fields surrounding the new bypass by an amateur local detectorist which is now in Norwich Castle Museum.

Virtually no evidence has been found of Saxon activity and, rather unusually, the village is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – either because there was no settlement here, or it was included (unnamed) in the listing of the adjacent Parish of Mendham. According to 18th century antiquarian and historian Francis Blomefield in his epic work The Topographical History of the County of Norfolk (1806) the village in the Medieval period was known as ‘Nedham in Mendham’ in the Hundred of Earsham, and contained five Manors: Witchington, Bourts in Needham, Gunshaws in Starston and Needham, Densons, and Seymers.

Later historians have argued that the village’s name comes from it being “a poor, needy place”, which seems unlikely as that description could have applied to thousands of small rural villages all over the country, not one of which has ended up being called by the same name. Blomefield’s own theory seems far more plausible: that the descendants of Frodo, who was given the land after the Norman Conquest, “took the sirname of Nedham, and contrary to the common rule, gave their name to this place.”

By far the oldest building in the village is the Parish Church of St Peter which Blomefield suggests was originally a small 12th century chapel “in all probability founded by the Nedham family, and most likely, by Sir Thomas de Nedham himself, for his own tenants.” In 1411 the tiny congregation of the chapel instigated a rather extraordinary act of religious rebellion against the Bishop of Norwich by sending a complaint directly to the Pope about the lack of a priest to minster to their immortal souls. Their boldness resulted in a Papal Bull being issued to support their case, the text of which we have managed to track down and have translated for future reference.

The surviving records from the 16th and 17th centuries, containing many wills and household inventories, reveal a prosperous community of Yeoman farmers – in 1603 the congregation of the church, which had undergone enlargement a century or so earlier, numbered 220 souls and the Hearth Tax of 1664 lists a total of 23 properties in the village.

Original tax records, manorial documents and legal deeds chronicle how the residents of Needham were buffeted by revolution, war, and economic unrest as the 18th century gave way to the Victorian era. From 1840 onwards, we’ve been able to chart the owners and tenants of the majority of properties in the Parish by consulting the Tithe Map and the official decennial censuses through to the 1939 Survey just after the outbreak of the Second World War. With the local press expanding as the 19th century progressed, newspaper cuttings reveal a multitude of human dramas of the type that would affect any small community including bankruptcies, criminal prosecutions, fatal accidents, furious driving, and regular drunken pub brawls.

Apart from Francis Blomefield’s vitally important research into Needham’s past, there have only been two subsequent booklets dealing with village history, both produced in the latter part of the last century. The vicar, Rev. Cuthbert Mather, researched and wrote his pamphlet ‘Some Notes on Needham’ in 1974 which consisted of an interesting rag bag of facts about the settlement and its inhabitants past and present. A decade later, octogenarian resident Albert Bush, who was Needham born and bred, produced his similarly titled Needham Notes or Memoirs of a Miller’s Son in which he shared delightful stories of life and events in the village primarily in the first half of the 20th century. A few copies of the former publication can be purchased in the Parish Church, and the latter from Needham Village Hall.

Although two out of three of the ancient inns have closed, along with the Victorian primary school, blacksmith’s forge and its motor garage, the village of Needham today maintains a fairly stable population of just over 300 with a well-patronised local pub, a busy village hall accommodating a range of community events, and a beautifully maintained Parish Church just about hanging on with a small but loyal congregation.