Parish Summary: Norwich (Modern Period)

Prior to World War One

The archaeological records for Norwich during the period 1900-1914 are understandably sparse. By and large the character of the city had not changed much from that of the late 19th century.

The most significant building dating to the period prior to the World War One is the Roman Catholic Church (subsequently Cathedral) of St John the Baptist on Earlham Road (NHER 26095). Although it was started in 1882 it was a grand undertaking and was only finished in 1910. This magnificent building occupies a prime location on slightly raised ground and was designed by J. Aldrid Scott and Giles Gilbert Scott (jnr). It imitates the Early English style of architecture and has a sumptuous interior, particularly in the eastern section.

A couple of other merit-worthy buildings can also trace their origins to this period. The office of the Norfolk Daily Standard newspaper was built at No 7 St Giles Street (NHER 26184) in 1900. The building has an unusual yellow ochre-coloured terracotta exterior made all the more striking by the blue diamond frieze situated below the Corinthian cornice.

Similarly, a grand house was built at 13 Lime Tree Road (NHER 40172) in 1908-09 for the Company Secretary of Norwich Union. This property, known as Inverleith, incorporated several 18th century features from their premises in Norwich which were demolished at the time. It is of particular interest due to the splendid interior which features a Chinese Chippendale staircase, Arts and Crafts back stairs and an intact Butler's pantry.

During this period the Roberts Warehouse, described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most interesting factory building in Norwich and of European importance’ was also built on Botolph Street. Sadly, this building was scandalously demolished in 1967 to make way for the H.M.S.O offices (NHER 45467).

Thus we can see that just before the outbreak of World War One Norwich was a provincial city with sufficient wealth to allow the construction of grand public and private buildings. However, the pressing problem of overcrowding and slum housing was not to be dealt with until the inter-war period.

World War One

World War One affected Norwich in both a military and industrial capacity. In October 1914 the Royal Flying Corps took over the old cavalry drill ground (NHER 12415) on Mousehold Heath and laid out an airfield covering 263 acres. This was used for a number of purposes during the war, including training pilots prior to their deployment to the front, home defence and aircraft repair. Mousehold Tramway (NHER 26590) was laid to carry munitions from Thorpe Station to the airfield.

Two local engineering firms switched production to aircraft manufacture during the was. In October 1915, the first aircraft to be built by Boulton and Paul at their Rose Lane works, an FE.2B fighter, made its maiden flight from the airfield. The firm went on to build 2,500 aircraft by the end of the conflict, also manufacturing wooden hulls for flying boats and hangars. Mann Egerton made Short bombers, Sopwith fighters and other aircraft until 1919, erecting a large wooden hangar with a private airfield on the Mann Egerton site (NHER 13161) on the Cromer Road in 1916. The hangar was demolished in 1984.

The site of Mousehold airfield is today completely covered by the Heartsease estate, although fragmentary traces of its ancillary buildings may survive on the Rowntree Way industrial estate. All that now remains of Mousehold Tramway is a deep cutting, rising up to meet Gurney Road at the southwest end.

Inter-war Period

According to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner Norwich City Hall (NHER 26201) should ‘go down in history as the foremost English public building of between the wars’. It was built in 1932-38 by C. H. James and S. R. Pierce and occupies an enviable position overlooking the Market Place. Carved lions flank the triple entrance doors and the square clock tower is topped with a square cupola and finial.

Other prominent buildings dating to this period comprise the Theatre Royal (NHER 26395) on Theatre Street and the former Barclay’s Bank on Bank Plain (NHER 26011). The Theatre was built in the 1930s in an Art Deco style whereas the Bank was constructed in 1929 in a Classical Palladian style with an interior consisting of a monumental banking hall of basilican form.

A number of memorials relating to World War One were also erected during this inter-war period. In 1938 memorial gardens were built on a stepped, sloping terraced site on St Peter’s Street parallel to the principal facade of the City Hall and orientated towards the market square. There are seven lampposts with bell lights occurring at regular intervals either side of the central memorial. The actual war memorial dates to 1927 but was moved here from the Guildhall (NHER 657) on completion of the gardens. In addition to these gardens, a memorial was erected to commemorate the Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell (NHER 48149) who helped numerous allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. This bronze and stone bust can be seen on Tombland outside The Close.

The problems of overcrowding in Norwich were dealt with during this period. Along with slum clearance a number of council estates were built. This included the Mile Cross Estate, built in 1918, the earliest of its kind outside London. The mirror image entrance gardens (NHER 26415) were added to the estate in 1925-29 and each garden features a stone and timber pergola leading to an oval bowling green and at the far end of the gardens is a classical pavilion flanked by further pergolas.

It is worth remembering that this inter-war period was also one of great architectural loss with a large number of post-medieval (and earlier) buildings cleared to make way for new development. However, in some instances local residents did save properties from this fate, as was the case with the Boar’s Head public house (NHER 26514) on St Stephen’s Street (sadly subsequently destroyed by bombing in World War Two). 

World War Two

World War Two had a far greater impact on the city, not least because of the new and horrifying concept of systematically bombing enemy civilian targets, the German Air Force having refined the tactic during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Norwich was subjected to enemy air raids in April 1942 which left much of the south-western core of the city in ruins. By the end of the war, bombing had destroyed the medieval churches of St Benedict (NHER 157), St Michael-at-Thorn (NHER 436) St Paul (NHER 378) and St Julian (NHER 572) (the last the only one to be re-built post-war) as well as the remains of St Bartholomew (NHER 399). St Stephen’s Street was devastated and houses were wrecked across the city. Even the Cathedral Church (NHER 226) was hit by incendiary bombs, and to this day an unexploded bomb lies buried close to the north transept; it fell into a well and efforts to dig it out were unsuccessful.

Unsurprisingly, the civilian response to the bombings was to build air raid shelters. These were both privately undertaken enterprises, such as converting a house’s cellar into a shelter (NHER 40890), and civic building of large communal shelters, the remains of which have since been traced, for example, beneath the site of the old swimming pool on St Augustine’s Street (NHER 26605).

Norwich had its own ‘Dads’ Army’ or Home Guard and two of their posts (NHER 26456) were situated near the railway station. They were still there when inspected in 1998. Most other wartime installations were demolished after the war, like the pillbox in the grounds of Bracondale Hall (NHER 26455), removed to build a roundabout.

The World War One airfield on Mousehold (NHER 12415), used as a civilian aero-club between the wars, was in World War Two used as a decoy site for a much larger new airfield at Horsham St Faith (NHER 8137). This had been established just before the start of the war and became operational at the outbreak of hostilities. Hangars, technical and domestic buildings and grass runways were constructed and the Officers' Mess and three Picket Hamilton forts (see NHER 32543, 32544 and 32545) are amongst the buildings that survive. The base was used by RAF bomber and fighter squadrons from 1939 to 1942 and the United States Army Air Force between 1942 and 1945. The RAF returned in 1945 and used the airfield until 1963. The site was purchased by the local authority in March 1967 and is now used as Norwich International Airport and as an industrial estate.

Modern Norwich

The most recent records in Norwich mainly relate to buildings from the 1960s. The most obvious of these are the buildings of the University of East Anglia (NHER 40079). Four parts of the original complex are listed as important structures and consist of the Suffolk Terrace, Norfolk Terrace, Library and Teaching Well. The Suffolk and Norfolk Terraces, known as the Ziggurats, are particularly striking and were influenced by the designs of Louis Kahn. These buildings were Britain's first, and most successful, expression of a university as a small city rather than a dispersed campus.

Perhaps less dynamic, are the buildings of Anglia Square (NHER 45467). The cinema and square of shops here are approached from the surrounding streets by a series of tunnel like passages. The main part of this complex was built in 1971 by Alan Cooke Associates, and may represent Britain's first mega structure.

 

Photograph of the Royal Observers Corp headquarters at Sprowston, Norwich.

The Royal Observers Corp Headquarters at Sprowston, Norwich. (© NCC)

The last building discussed by this summary is the former Royal Observer Corps Headquarters on Chartwell Road (NHER 26488). This building was the group headquarters of the fifty-five Royal Observer Corps Cold War underground monitoring posts in Norfolk, whose purpose was to monitor fall-out in the event of a nuclear strike. The building takes the form of a two storey semi-sunken structure and was designed to be self sufficient for a week under fall-out conditions! Sadly it closed in 1991 and public access is discouraged.

This concludes the overview of Norwich’s archaeological records. Interested readers should access the individual records for sites and finds of particular interest.

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