Thomas Paine was born in Thetford. His father was a Quaker who worked as a corset-maker and smallholder. Although educated in the town, the young Paine left Norfolk at an early age. Already he was smarting at the unfairness of the hierarchical, undemocratic society of his time.
He tried a number of jobs, including working as an excise collector, schoolteacher and sailor, before finding his true calling. A meeting with American Benjamin Franklin led him to emigrate to the colonies. There he lent his considerable intellectual skills to the cause of American independence. His best known line – “these are the times that try men’s souls” – helped raise the morale of George Washington’s army at a crucial time.
Back in England he wrote his best-known work The Rights of Man, in 1791. It was a defence of the French Revolution, and an early call for democracy. With Britain thrust into a war against revolutionary France, his words got him into trouble and he fled to the continent to avoid arrest.
In France he got mixed up with dangerous revolutionary politics, and was lucky not to be guillotined during the Terror. Despite this, he wrote The Age of Reason, stressing his demands for religious freedom.
Eventually, he returned to America, where he died in 1809. In 1964 a statue of Paine was erected in Thetford, where it stands outside the historic King’s House.