Why August 1 is a date of tragedy over the years for Norwich

Garlands Department Store in London Street pictured on August 1, 1970 as fire guts the building. The

Garlands Department Store in London Street pictured on August 1, 1970 as fire guts the building. The store was rebuilt but closed in 1984 - Credit: Archant

August 1 is a date that has darkened Norwich’s history with death and destruction as Derek James reports

The fire that destroyed Norwich Library on August 1, 1994

The fire that destroyed Norwich Library on August 1, 1994 - Credit: Archant

Two libraries, two department stores and factories all burning on August 1, people killed in an air raid…and during the rest of this month further back in time there was the plague, cholera, floods, riots and Kett’s bloody rebellion.

August is a dark month in the life and times of the Fine City.

AUGUST 1 1898.

It was in the early hours when Alfred Booth and his wife, who lived on London Street, were walking up Dove Street when they smelt burning and then noticed smoke coming from the world famous premises of Royal rope-maker Daniel Hurn.

Alfred told us at the time: “While opposite Hurn’s and trying to locate the fire, a youth passed, whom I asked to hurry to the fire station and report it.

Salvage work takes place at the old Norwich Library on August 1, 1994

Salvage work takes place at the old Norwich Library on August 1, 1994 - Credit: Archant

“The words had hardly left my mouth when smoke coming from Hurn’s top windows and tar oozing from the shutters confirmed our first impressions. We raced to the fire station,” he said.

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Old Daniel was asleep on the top floor and owed his life to a passer-by called Samuel Salkind who rushed into the building and carried him to safety.

Within minutes the blaze had taken hold and had spread to a gas-fitters shop run by Mr Self and then to Chamberlins grand department store and warehouse on Guildhall Hill.

The city fire brigade were joined by firemen from Colman’s Carrow Works and Bullard’s Anchor Brewery but they couldn’t stop the flames from reaching the library…even their ladders were not lomng enough to reach the roof.

By now a huge crowd had gathered to watch in horror as the rare and priceless books were destroyed including the Norton collection of foreign dictionaries, natural history and scientific books.

The roof caved in, Hurn’s collapsed and Chamberlin’s was gutted during the five frantic hours it took the exhausted firemen to control the blaze.

Lily Greaves who died in the air raid at Boulton & Paul on 1st August 1940

Lily Greaves who died in the air raid at Boulton & Paul on 1st August 1940 - Credit: Archant

It was described by us at the time as “the most disastrous conflagration with the city, or indeed the county, has witnessed in living memory.”

Tens of thousands of books were destroyed at the largest private subscription library in the country, the damage at Chamberlins was estimated at £100,000 and Hurns was rebuilt at a cost of more than £70,000.

A few days after the blaze Daniel was lucky to escape again.

This time he was being photographed for us amid the ruins when there was a “roar of thunder.”

The Edinburgh public house next door collapsed in a heap of rubble. One of his sons – Orlando and Cornelius took over the business - pushed him out of way and the photographer ran for his life…one of the people inside the pub, Ann Stowers, was badly hurt.

AUGUST 1 1940.

This was the day of the fourth air raid over Norwich during the Second World War.

And once again it was the big Riverside Works of Boulton & Paul which took the full force of the attack.

There was no warning at bombs hit the factory killing three women in the canteen, one being Lily Greaves, a mother of seven, three more people died in the printing and stationary office, two in the drawing office and another in the joinery department.

More casualties followed as people in King Street, Prince of Wales Road and the Thorpe Station area were fired on before the planes departed,

The Luftwaffe would return time and time again killing many more men, women and children…and then there were the terrible Baedeker Raids of 1942.

AUGUST 1 1970.

A busy Saturday in the heart of Norwich was drawing to an end…the city centre was packed with shoppers and the staff at the big department store of Garlands in London Streets were starting to clear up.

The last meals of the day were being prepared and then a small fire started in a chip pan in the kitchens. It quickly took hold and then swiftly spread through the landmark store. One of the most popular in the whole county.

As the smoke billowed into the sky (people living five miles away said they could see it) large crowds gathered to watch as the fire moved from one department to the other.

Police had to hold back the people, estimated at more than one thousand, as the staff fled as the firemen, led by chief fire officer John French went to work.

A human chain formed to take shoes from Buckingham’s on neighbouring Swan Lane to safety. The whole area was under threat and shops and restaurants closed.

Diane Whitehead, the 14-year-old daughter of a one of a fireman, and Joy Everett, a secretary from the fire station, supplied the weary men with tea.

It took them three hours to get the blaze under control – the fire fighters were praised for their hard-work preventing the blaze was spreading.

AUGUST 1 1994.

This was the fire which changed the way the city looks and resulted in the futuristic Forum being built.

At Prospect House it was just another day and we set about reporting the day’s events and preparing the newspapers.

Then there was a call those of us there will never forget.

The Central Library was on fire.

The blazed started at around 7.30am and quickly spread.

An electrical fault was later said to have caused this fire which ripped through the building which had been opened by the Queen Mother in 1963.

People watched in horror as the flames and smoke billowed into the air.

Members of staff fought to save as many of the books as they could and thank goodness some of the important historical documents were kept in the fire-proof basement.

But the losses were great. The contents of the lending library and the unique and world-famous 2nd Air Division Memorial honouring the role the American Air Force played in the Second World War were gone.

Thousands of young airmen had turned Norfolk into “little America” and many died fighting for our freedom.

It was said later that around 125,000 leading and reference books were lost along with 25,000 local history books, more than 11,000 videos and 75 years of newspaper cuttings.

Library staff wheeled out charred books in shopping trollies and formed human chains to pass dripping wet documents to safety.

More than 100 firefighters and 15 engines were at the scene and thousands watched as the library burned.

Anglian Water was asked to increase the pressure on the mains to give them even more water.

Following the fire the Great Norfolk Book Hunt was launched and many people were only too pleased to help and hand over books to the library while experts worked restoring as many of the important historical documents as possible.

A temporary library was set up on Ber Street while the great debate on the future of the library in Norwich was debated, time and time again.

Eventually the futuristic Forum rose from the ashes. It opened seven years after the fire in 2001 and today is the beating heart of city life.

Readers of this newspaper were asked to vote for the first book they thought should be placed on the shelving at the new library and it was Thetford-born Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

A wise choice.

Other events in awful August

AUGUST 1578.

The plague spread through the city and county killing thousands of people.

Historian and traveller Frances Blomefield recorded that 2,335 English and 2,482 “alyan strangers” (Flemish weavers) died.

The mayor declared that anyone unfortunate to have a plague sore was not allowed to enter the city until they had been clear for 20 days.

If you lived in an infected house but didn’t have the plague you can to carry a 2ft long white wand and you were banned from public places.

The parish clerk would attach a notice on every door of every infected house with the words: “Lord have mercy upon us.” It had to stay on the door until the house had been free of the plague for at least one month.

The plague returned in August of 1603 claiming an estimated 3,000 lives in the following twelve months.

AUGUST 1832.

Cholera arrived in Norfolk. It started in King’s Lynn and around 35 people lost their lives. It spread to Norwich where it was reported that 128 men, women and children died.

AUGUST 1912.

Norfolk and Norwich sank in a 30-hour deluge.

The rivers burst their banks as the waters brought death and destruction. The roads in Norwich turning into raging torrents. Thousands of homes along with factories and work places were flooded out. Among those who died was five-month-old Edward Poll and brave rescuer George Brodie.

Distress calls from women and children brought tears to the eyes of those saving them. Some people living around the rivers lost everything.

The disaster was said to have improved relations between the police and the public. A relief programme attracted £150 from the King and Queen and money from across the world.

Long queues formed outside St Andrew’s Hall for help and relief centres were established across the city.

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