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Brandon now shares its name with towns in Durham, Lincolnshire and Warwickshire. In its time it has been known by many variations, as W. G. Clarke tells us in his 1908 Guide to Brandon, the settlement "was anciently known as Brandona, Brantona, Braundon, Brandones Ferye, and Brand, the last-named being still used by many people in the district."
The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names explains the likely origin of the name as follows: "Brandon, usually 'hill where broom grows'", the earliest known spelling being in the 11th Century when the town, gradually expanding up and along the rising ground of the river valley, was called Bromdun. If further proof were needed, the site of Bromehill Fair and of Cardinal Wolsesy's priory of Bromehill (built by Sir Hugh de Plaiz c.1220) lay just over the parish boundary to the north of the present railway tracks, and local people can attest to the fact that broom still thrives in the well-drained sandy soil of the area.
In the words of W. G. Clarke, Brandon "is built on a gentle northern slope to the alluvium of the river-valley, which broadens out below the town and forms a tongue of the fenland. In the post-glacial period it was a creek of the fen sea, and the Little Ouse is still often called 'Brand Creek'." The river once formed the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk, Brandon falling in the main on the Suffolk side. Even though the border has since shifted to coincide with the present railway line, a small portion of Brandon has strayed over into the neighbouring county.
It's not difficult to guess why the town later acquired the name of Brandon Ferry for it is said that a ferry once replaced the ancient ford across the river Little Ouse. This name survived the demise of the ferry itself for a wooden bridge was built in the Middle Ages, subsequently giving way to one of stone construction that endured from the seventeenth century until the 1950s. Yet the name Brandon Ferry lingered on well into the late 18th century and references to the High Street area as 'Ferry Street' continued into the 19th century.
Despite scattered clues to indicate the presence of Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age and Roman inhabitants the earliest evidence of a significant and settled community at Brandon was discovered in Staunch Meadow on the southern bank of the Little Ouse near Brandon Lock. Here lie buried the remains of one of the most important Anglo Saxon settlements yet discovered in the British Isles. Described by the archaeologists as a 'wealthy, literate, Middle Saxon settlement of either royal or monastic status' it has yielded such a wealth of important information that almost fifteen years after the first phase of the excavation was concluded analysis of the discoveries continues.
This area became known as Town Street or 'Tip' (thought to be short for Tipperary, as many of workers who put the railway through Brandon in the 1840s were Irish and their camps were situated in this area of the town). The commercial focus of Brandon remained along Ferry Street where enterprising folk capitalised on the road and river traffic. The pilgrim travellers of the Walsingham Way had long required accommodation and refreshment. Then later, wharves were built near the river crossing in essence making Brandon an inland port enabling goods from Kings Lynn and other large towns on the Fenland Waterway system to be offloaded into smaller craft which finished the journey upriver to Thetford. Over time Ferry Street became High Street lined with retailers and tradesmen, inns and the houses of wealthy merchants whereas the residents of Town Street with its largely agriculture-based economy were, apart from a select few, a great deal less affluent - the majority of the houses being rented by agricultural labourers from the landlords of large estates.
"Thursday is the market day. The corn market is held at the Great Eastern Railway Hotel, adjoining the railway station. The fairs for cattle and toys are held February 14th and November 11th. There are some comfortable inns; and sub-branches of Gurneys and Co. Norwich Bank, and Oakes, Bevan and Co. of Bury, open every Thursday only. A considerable trade is carried on in malt and timber and in fur and skin dressing. Barges ply to and from Lynn with corn and coal. Gas works have been erected by a local company, and the town has, since the commencement of 1869, been lighted with gas. Gun-flints, and flints for building and ornamental purposes, are manufactured here: during the continental war, which terminated with the battle of Waterloo, and before percussion caps were introduced, the trade in gun-flints was the chief dependence of the working classes here..."
Much has changed since this trade directory was published in 1883 but surprisingly, it seems, almost as much has stayed the same. Market day is still Thursday (now Saturdays as well) but the Market Hill has become a paved pedestrian area. There is no longer a corn market although the Great Eastern hotel remains as popular as ever. The many commercial barges have been replaced by a few private pleasure cruisers and a few rowing boats but moves are afoot to improve the navigation and rejuvenate the river. The inns are still comfortable, though not as numerous, and some of those remaining have changed their names. All that remains of the Gas Company is the lane called Gas House Drove and the manager's house - aptly named the 'Gas House'. Alas the maltings are no more.
The flint knappers and furriers have also disappeared - the invention of the percussion cap and myxomatosis respectively saw to that and the nearest we get to a toy fair is the monthly antiques and collectors fair at the local Leisure Centre. However many of the surnames you hear around and about the town would have been familiar in the 19th century and some go back even further still.