A brief history of the Franshams
The medium clay soils of Fransham have been exploited by farmers since the Neolithic period in circa 3000 BC, and there is abundant archaeological evidence for human activity in later prehistory, the Bronze and Iron ages has been recorded.
During the period of Roman occupation from the 1st to the beginning of the 5th century AD the peasant population was quite numerous, with eleven small settlements occupied in circa 200AD.
Some time after 450AD the area was named ‘Fransham’ by Germanic immigrants, the Anglo-Saxons, the ham element denoting a place of some importance. The meaning of the first part of the place name is uncertain. At first these people lived and farmed only in what was to become Great Fransham, while much of the land formerly cultivated in Roman times reverted back to scrub and woodland.
By circa 900AD two small villages had been established , one in Great and one in Little Fransham, although the ‘Great and ‘Little’ (or Magna and Parva) prefixes were not added to the names until the middle of the 13th century AD.
According to the Doomsday Book, compiled twenty years after the Norman conquest in 1086, there were three manors in ‘Frandesham’ or ‘Frounesham. The land of two, which were held by William de Warenne the builder of Castle Acre castle, lay mostly in Great Fransham, while Little Fransham was held by Ralph de Tosny, whose surname is commemorated in Saham Toney near Watton.
The total population in 1086 can be calculated at approximately 300. At about this time and over the following century the two village-like settlements were abandoned, and the people moved to small hamlets and widely spaced farmsteads and cottages around the edges of the many greens or common pastures throughout the parish. By circa 1300 population had reached 600+.
The Black Death of 1349, and several other plagues caused a drastic decline in the number of inhabitants, and the permanent desertion of many of the green-edge settlements. The greens were themselves swept away by a Parliamentary Act of Enclosure in 1807. The resultant dispersed settlement pattern, of far-flung and often isolated houses, persists to the present day. The edges of one green suffered far less depletion in population than the others, and there, set back from the A47 is Little Fransham, a recognisable ‘village’ still exists around a former long and narrow green, currently occupied by the Village Sign.
The two ecclesiastical parishes of Great and Little Fransham were joined together in 1925, and both their churches are not only fine buildings , but also the only structures to have survived from the Middle Ages. There have probably been churches on both sites since the 10th or 11th centuries. The parish registers, which begin respectively 1559 and 1538, are held by the Rector.
Other important historic buildings include Little Fransham Old Hall built in the reign of Elizabeth 1st and the two Georgian former rectories. There are a few other timber-framed buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries, although most of the houses and farm buildings were built in brick and flint or clay-lumps in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Little remains of the two major manor houses of medieval times. That of the Kirkham’s manor in Little Fransham survives as a lonely shrub-covered moated earthwork in the middle of an arable field. The site of the Great Fransham manor house was relocated by an archaeological survey in the 1980’s. Nothing, but a dense spread of medieval building rubble and pottery fragments mark the spot.
Sir Geoffrey (in Latin Galfridus) Fransham, whose memorial brass is shown on the village sign, lived in this manor house until his death in 1414 when the site was deserted. He had no children, and so his manor was divided up between three of his five sisters who lived elsewhere.
One part of the manor fell to the occupancy of Curd’s or Crudd’s Hall in Great Fransham. This became an important house but was demolished in the 1930’s. No record of its appearance and no description of it has been traced. An obelisk, was erected in the grounds of Curd’s Hall but just inside Little Dunham parish commemorating Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon’s fleet at the battle of the Nile in 1798.
The civil parishes of Great and Little Fransham, corresponding in area exactly to the ecclesiastical ones, were amalgamated in 1935. The railway linking East Dereham to Swaffham was completed in 1848 and closed down in 1968. The main road between the two towns lying largely on an ancient route, was opened as part of the Swaffham to Norwich turnpike in 1770. It is now the A47 trunk road. The present population is slightly over 400.