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The Late Stephen Oldman

Thetford's Grand Old Man

A forceful and striking personality

from the Bury Free Press and Post April 2 1932

Note: Not all the details of his life are correct - he married three times for example, and the family of 22 from which he came was actually 13.

With the passing of Mr Stephen Oldman Thetford loses its Grand Old Man. After a long and strenuous life, much of which he devoted wholeheartedly to the service of his native town and to the County of Norfolk, some twelve months ago he retired from business and active participation in public work. For some time he might be seen taking his daily walks in those pleasant ways and haunts around Thetford which he knew and loved so well, but a few months ago he had to discontinue these and it was evident to all that his strength was fast failing. During the past few days he has been confined to his bed, and he passed peacefully away at the Grey Gables, the home of his son Mr H F Oldman on Saturday evening in his 86th year.

Early Struggles

Mr Oldman's early life was not one bed of roses. In those days educational facilities were very limited and he often boasted that the only schooling he received was at a Dame's private school and afterwards for a short time at Thetford Grammar School. Early in life he imbued a stalwart and rugged Radicalism from his father who was constantly in the forefront of battles for political and religious liberty of that day. At that time it was no small matter to be possessed of advanced ideas, when political and religious bigotry were so rampant, and men were often made to suffer for their honest beliefs. Mr Oldman well knew what all this meant and its results were stamped as with a hot iron on his brain and seared themselves deep into his very soul. Such experiences could not but have a lasting effect on the grown man, and probably did more than anything to mould the rugged and indomitable character we all knew so well. One of a family of 22, the only survivor, he must have retained the character of all those he outlived.

Succeeds father in business

When his father died, Mr Oldman and his brother William carried on the business together until the retirement of the latter in 1908. Then Mr Oldman carried on alone and right up until twelve months ago, regularly attending the markets at London (Mark Lane), Ely, Kings Lynn, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.

Mr Oldman married twice, his first wife being Jane, daughter of the late Mr J Fowell of Thetford, and his second Alice Rebecca, daughter of the late Mr Jessup of Attleborough. Two of his sons, Alfred and Arthur died within recent years and he now leaves behind him his two sons, Mr Herbert Oldman of St Ives, Huntingdonshire, and Mr Harry Fowell Oldman, Thetford and one daughter, Mrs A J Chell of Surbiton.

Religious tendencies

Mr Oldman inherited from his ancestors strong nonconformist beliefs. Mr and Mrs William Oldman were among the 8 people who founded the first Methodist Church in Thetford. This was in the time of John Wesley, and throughout his life Mr Oldman was always closely identified with the Wesleyan Church in Thetford. He, however, was not of the narrow, intolerant type, but extended his liberalism in religious matters beyond the confines of mere sectarianism. 30 to 40 years ago he was also a great temperance reformer, and was to be found on the platform advocating the cause of temperance. He had been brought up a strict teetotaller and remained so up to the end, although in later years, with the spread of education and the greater sobriety of the people, his voice was not needed in this cause to the same extent.

A sturdy Liberal

Now a word or two as to his political work. As we have stated, Mr Oldman came of a rare old radical stock. When a boy of between 13 and 16 he had seen his father forced to give up his land and his business premises because of his radicalism. No wonder he remained true to Liberalism all his life. His political career may be said to have started in 1880 and he soon became one of the leading figures in South-west Norfolk politics, which position he maintained right up to the election of 1929 when he was still chairman of the SW Norfolk Liberal Assn and threw himself heart and soul into that election - insisting on going out every night to take the chair at some village or town meeting. Not only in SW Norfolk but in NW Suffolk he was equally well known, where side by side with the late Mr F H Millington, he was always to be found in the thick of the fray, always fighting for the political and religious liberty of the people.

Seven times Mayor of Thetford

For more than half a century, Mr Oldman has been connected with the Thetford Town Council, and during that time has been elected Mayor on no less than seven occasions. Elected as Alderman of the Council in 1902, he was first chosen Mayor in 1898 and re-elected the following year.He was again elected in 1915 and served during practically the whole of the Great War. When 80 years of age he was again called upon to fill the vacancy in the Mayorality of Thetford on the death of Mr J E Meek. To sum up, we may say that during all his years in office, there has been no development or movement for the betterment of the town that has taken place, but Stephen Oldman has played a great and leading part.

Poor Law Administrator

If his work on the municipal body has been noteworthy, his efforts in connection with the Poor Laws have been no less distinguished. It may be safely said that no man devoted more valuable time to the administration of the Poor Law than did Stephen Oldman. In this work he was indeed one of the veterans. Here again, he was following in his father's footsteps, who had held the chairmanship of the Board of Guardians for some years, Mr Oldman held it for 15 years, and we do not think it an exaggeration when we say that so great was his force of character that he practically ruled that body unchallenged during that period. In connection with the Guardians, he was also chairman of the Assessment Committee, and was a member of the House and Visiting Committee and the Thetford representative of the Poor Law Unions Association.

Besides all this he was a Governor of the Thetford Grammar Schools, a Manager of the Council Schools, a trustee of the Thetford Cottage Hospital and had even been chairman of the Thetford Burial Board.

On the Norfolk County Council

In all his public work, however, the greatest heights to which he rose and the greatest successes which he achieved were to be found in his work on the Norfolk County Council. When the County Councils first came into existence, Mr Oldman contested the Thetford Division but was beaten by the late Mr C H Fison in 1889. The rejected of Thetford, however was elected for the Feltwell Division in 1902, and later became an Alderman. His strong personality and character soon asserted itself on the County body, so much so that with the help of friends he had gathered round him, he soon held a most commanding position on the County Council. For some years he was vice-chairman of that body and at the time of Lord Ailwyn's death was the acting chairman. On the Norfolk Education Committee too, for many years he played no small part in helping to make Norfolk one of the best equipped education counties in England.

The cause he especially espoused however on the Norfolk County Council was the provision of small holdings. This was not a generally popular movement, and needed for its advancement the aggressive personality he brought to the task. With some difficulty he overcame the early distrust, and as chaiman of the committee he plodded away and succeeded in establishing a large number of smallholders, who preferred tenancy rather than ownership, and who otherwise would have found it difficult if not impossible to acquire homesteads and land. In carrying through his schemes, Mr Oldman was able to bring in practical knowledge to bear and as time went on his ripe experience of land settlement proved to be very valuable when ex-servicemen returned and applied for land promised to them. The County Council today is the greatest landowner in Norfolk and that this land has been exceptionally well chosen for its purpose is largely due to the ripe experience of Mr Oldman. It is not so very long ago that he expressed his personal opinion that this was the best piece of work in his life.

All his activities are now finished, and Thetford has lost one of its greatest champions. Certainly he was the great outstanding character in Thetford of the last 50 years and worthily upheld its honour and dignity wherever he went.

Yesterday's impressive funeral

Remarkable evidence of the great respect and esteem with which Mr Oldman was held over a very large area was provided by the large gathering of sympathisers, representative of all sections of public and private life, which assembled at the Wesleyan Church, Thetford yesterday (Thursday) afternoon for the funeral service

The Revd T Cottam (Superintendant Methodist Minister) officiated and as the congregation assembled Mr C G Cottam who presided at the organ rendered "Blessed are the Departed" (Spohr) The service opened with the chanting of the Psalm 90, the hymns sung being "Safe home, Safe home in Port" and "Now the labourer's task is over". The lesson was from 1st Corinthians ch 15 v 20.

In his address the Revd H Gardner (Thetford Congregational Church) spoke in praiseful terms of the splendid qualities of the deceased gentleman and of his fine religious principles. Outlining the events of his honourable business and public life, he said that the late Mr Oldman was progressive and determined in public service; one who was able to keep the respect and esteem even of those who differed from him. Council Chambers and political platforms would no him no more, and there would be a vacancy on the Magisterial Benches. He was a man who distrusted compromise, continued the speaker, one who loved the clash of arms and found it difficult to see the other side of an argument, but seemed to leap right into the centre of the debate and make a decision denied to slower and less agile minds.

As in life, so in death. All his life the late Mr Stephen Oldman had been at the centre of a storm, and now in the middle of a quiet funeral service, Nature paid a fitting tribute. A sharp storm broke, the church was lit by flahes of lightning and the roll of thunder and the rattle of hail against the building almost drowned the voice of the reverend gentleman

As the cortege left the church the organist played "O Rest in the Lord" and as the procession wended its way to the distant cemetery rain fell heavily, continuing during the committal rites, conducted by the Revd T Cottam.

The coffin was borne to the grave by the following former employees of the late Mr Oldman: Messrs R Fox, R Goodson, J Cator, and S Ward.

The family mourners were: Mr and Mrs H W Oldman (son and daughter in law) St Ives, Hunts, Mrs Alfred Oldman (daughter in law) Hockwold, Mr Harold Oldman (grandson) Colchester, Mr and Mrs A J Chell (son in law and daughter) Surbiton, Mr H F Oldman (son), Mr F Lax (nephew) Leeds, Mr H R Oldman (grandson), Mr T J Chell (nephew) London, Mr J P Blake and Mr Leslie Blake (cousins) Isleworth, Mr and Mrs W J Oldman (nephew and neice) Gt Yarmouth, Mr Noel Oldman and Mr Eric Oldman (great nephews) Gt Yarmouth, Mr and Mrs Ernest Oldman (nephew and neice) Nottingham, Mr and Mrs Robert Mallet (nephew and neice) Nordelph, Mrs Martin (neice) Battle, Mr and Mrs Reynolds (great neice and great nephew) London, Mr S Oldman, Miss Collins Bourne, Lincs, Mrs Salter (neice) Attleborough, Mr Geo Norman (nephew) Burston, Mr Robert Palmer, MrsMeek, Mr R D Bowles and Mr R H Dixon

Thanks to Richard Brown for this obituary

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