By Wednesday Batchelor
Workhouse history is incredibly diverse; workhouses were staffed and inhabited by people of all colours and backgrounds. Today, I would like to tell the story of a very important man, whose achievements have been sadly underrepresented.
:Thetford, Norfolk, is remembered for a great number of things...:
The capital of Norfolk before Norwich claimed the title, land of the Iceni tribe led by Boudica, birthplace of Thomas Paine, a founding father of the USA, and home to the popular BBC sitcom, ‘Dad’s Army’. Heck, there is even a statue of the fictional Captain Mainwairing in the town.
Far less known, was Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns. Born on the 19th October 1858 on Inagua Island in the Bahamas, and educated at the Nassau Grammar School, Allan followed his older brother, Pembroke Robert Bunch Minns, in moving to London, England to study medicine at St. Guy’s Hospital. He registered with the British Medical Association in 1884 and moved to Thetford in 1885, to the practice where Pembroke worked, taking up post as his assistant. Their sister, Ophelia, also moved the Thetford and lived with Dr Pembroke Minns.
Once qualified as a doctor, Alexandra House on White Hart Street (opposite Ancient House Museum) became Dr Minns' own practice in 1888 and later the premises moved along to Bridge Street.
He became the Medical Officer at Thetford Union Workhouse in 1890. The workhouse was built in 1836 on Barnham Cross Common, sheltering over 100 people, many of whom were old or unwell and in need of medical care. He was also Honorary Medical Officer for Thetford Cottage Hospital and Chief Magistrate for the borough.
The boundary wall of Thetford Union Workhouse is all that remains today
In 1903, Dr Minns was elected as a town councillor, becoming the first person of Caribbean descent to reach public office in the UK. Just one year later, in 1904, he was elected (with a unanimous vote) as mayor, becoming the first black mayor in Britain. He was a passionate advocate for the health benefits of the environment, promoting improvement of sanitation in the town by campaigning for cleaning the River Thet, banning spitting in public and fighting for additional rail travel from Thetford to seaside towns including Cromer, Great Yarmouth and Hunstanton, encouraging the positivity of sea air. He wrote and released publications, including “Fresh Air & Common Sense”.He served two one-year terms as mayor of Thetford between 1904 and 1906, addressing issues from horticulture to capital punishment and overseeing improvements to town services, including the construction of a new pavilion at the recreation ground and expansion of the fire brigade. It was often recorded that his public appearances were full of charm and wit and that he was received with loud applause and laughter. After stepping down in 1906, he continued to serve on the council for a further six years.
Furthermore, Dr Minns had an interest in the preservation of historical heritage. He was reported running into a fire at the old theatre on White Hart Street to rescue two busts of Roman emperors, Tiberius and Othone, which were kept on the parapet. The busts were then kept in Dr Minns’ garden on King Street, Thetford for the next 36 years, and on his retirement as MO to the Thetford Board of Guardians and subsequent move from the town in 1923, Dr Minns' presented the busts to Ancient House Museum, where they can be seen today on the left hand-side on entering the museum.
In 1923, Dr Minns moved from Thetford to Dorking in Surrey, and later passed away at his home on September 16th 1930, at the age of 71.
One of Dr Minns' children, Allan Noel Minns, studied at Thetford Grammar School and went on to follow in his father's footsteps, training in medicine and qualifying as a doctor in 1914. He volunteered into the Royal Army Medical Corps and was commissioned as Lieutenant in September 1914, later rising to Captain in March 1918, giving active service in both Gallipoli and Mesopotamia earning two medals for bravery: the Military Cross in 1915 for gallantry at Suvla Bay on 30 August, and the Distinguished Service Order in December 1916. Dr Minns Jr. died just three years after becoming Captain, in a motor accident on the 6th April 1921. He is buried in Thetford Cemetery.
It is a shame that Dr Minns Sr. is not better remembered in Thetford, where many road names celebrate the town's famous figures. However, there is more to learn about this man and his family, as well as his contributions to Thetford society, and evident overcoming of prejudices and racism in a volatile Victorian culture. In media he was reported as an equal and a gentleman, and was a popular man involved with important functions in the town. That is not to say that he did not face these challenges but made himself successful despite them.
A photograph from the Gressenhall collections, showing Thetford Union Workhouse inhabitants: eleven elderly inmates, three nurses and a doctor, believed to be Dr Allan Minns.
Gressenhall and Ancient House Museum Collections