Looking back at Debenhams shop site that survived Nazi bombing

Debenhams in Norwich in 1988

The Debenhams department store seen from the Brigg/Rampant Horse Street Street junction. Date: December 15, 1988. - Credit: Archant Library

The prospects seem bleak for Norwich's Debenhams store.  

For a site where a shop survived Second World War bombing and multiple recessions, it seems a global pandemic has brought a once cherished department store to its knees.   

The fate of Debenhams might not be sealed but the withdrawal of JD Sports from a last-minute buyout does not bode well. 

Sales shoppers inside Debenhams in Norwich

Sale shoppers inside Debenhams in Norwich - can you help us with the date for this photo? - Credit: Archant Library

The building, which previously housed Curls, rose from the ashes after being flattened by a Nazi bombing raid. But what will happen now Debenhams appears likely to close?   

Christmas shopping at Norwich Debenhams

The Debenhams department store in Norwich looking festive for Christmas shoppers. Date: late 1970s or early 1980s. - Credit: Archant Library

The Curl brothers arrived in Norwich from west Norfolk in 1860. Soon after they purchased The Rampant Horse inn, transforming the site into shops and warehouses.  

Curls, as shoppers came to know it, prospered and expanded absorbing neighbouring buildings and shops.

Orford Place in Norwich, 1937, with Curls in the background

Taken a year or so before the war with the tram regulating building in the centre, the Curls department store in the background was blitzed during the Second World War. Date: circa 1937-8. - Credit: Archant Library

By 1929, Curls covered 51,000 sq ft – and boasted a glass dome roof over the wholesale department store and a restaurant on the first floor. 

Hundreds of employees worked there and many of them lived on-site in the heart of the city. 

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But disaster struck in 1942 when Curls was razed to the ground by German bombs during the Baedeker raids.    

Firefighters tackle the blaze at Curls after the Baedeker raids in 1942

Soldiers lending a hand to the Nowich Fire Service as they fight the blaze at the Curls department store in Norwich city centre after the Nazis bombed it and several surrounding shops during the Baedeker raids. Date: April 28, 1942. - Credit: Archant Library

It took 14 years to rebuild the store with the site serving as a car park in the meantime.

Reconstruction commenced in 1953 and took three years to complete.  

In the 1960s Debenhams took over the business but continued to trade under the Curl Brothers name until 1973. 

Party guests when Curls department store officially changed its name to Debenhams.

Some of the guests at the name-changing ceremony when Curls department store became Debenhams in 1973. Image accessed via the Local Recall project at localrecall.co.uk. - Credit: Archant Library

Curls merged with rival local retailer Chamberlins in 1963 and opened new headquarters in 1965.  

Newspaper clipping for the Curls and Chamberlins merger

Before it became Debenhams, Curls merged with Chamberlins in 1963 and opened a new headquarters in 1965. This EDP clipping from September 8, 1965 is available online at localrecall.co.uk. - Credit: Archant Library

Elsewhere in Norfolk, the Arnolds department store in Great Yarmouth changed hands and started trading under the Debenhams name in 1972 but it had closed by 1985.  

Old photo of Debenhams at Great Yarmouth in 1985.

In 1972 the Arnolds department store in Great Yarmouth changed its name to Debenhams but by 1985 the store had closed. Date: May 2, 1985. - Credit: Archant Library

Santa arrives at Debenhams in Gt Yarmouth in 1974.

Santa arrives at Debenhams in Great Yarmouth, after landing in a helicopter on the Wellesley Recreation ground. Date: November 2, 1974. - Credit: Archant Library

Sales shopping in Great Yarmouth Debenhams

Shoppers flock to the sales at the Debenhams in Great Yarmouth. Date: circa 1970s. - Credit: Archant Library

In Debenhams’ bicentenary year, 1978, the Norwich store was one of six locations chosen to host an exhibition about future trends in shopping.   

Since the 1970s Debenhams has been a go-to destination for Norfolk shoppers.   

Christmas shopping in Norwich Debenhams in 1978

Last-minute Christmas shopping in the Debenhams at Norwich. Date: December 23, 1978. - Credit: Archant Library

It is unclear if a chapter is closing for a pillar of the British high street. Nevertheless, Debenhams has been a major part of the Norfolk shopping scene for many years.  

Sales shoppers in Debenhams in December 1993

Bargain-hunters out in force for the Christmas sales at Debenhams in Norwich. Date: December 1993. - Credit: Archant Library

Shoppers in Debehams during the 1993 winter sales

Norwich shoppers in Debehams during the 1993 winter sales. Date: 1993. - Credit: Archant Library


What are your memories of Curls or Debenhams? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.  

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