20 years ago today - Norwich library was an inferno

The library site tower.

The library site tower. - Credit: Archant

155,000 books and thousands of other precious documents were lost in the Norwich Central Library fire on this day in 1994. ROSA MCMAHON reports on the stories which emerged from the ashes.

Firefighters tackle the blaze at Norwich Library.

Firefighters tackle the blaze at Norwich Library. - Credit: Archant


Margaret Munford's mother was a bookbinder – her love of libraries is in her blood.

So when the library assistant made her way to work at the Norwich Central Library on August 1 1994, she had no idea her life was about to be 'turned upside down'.

A rebound Norwich directory which just survived the Norwich library fire 20 years ago. Photo: Bill S

A rebound Norwich directory which just survived the Norwich library fire 20 years ago. Photo: Bill Smith

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The fire started at 7.20am and turned out to be the worst British library fire in living memory.

Mrs Munford, 48 at the time and based in the reference section, was driving from her home in Long Stratton when she saw thick, black smoke billowing over the city centre.

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When she arrived at the library car park around 8.20am, the mother of two and her traumatised colleagues saw their years of work and dedication up in flames.

Windows were smashing because of the 1,000 degrees Celsius heat, pages once from precious books were falling through the skies like confetti.

David Ashworth, operations manager at Hethersett Fire Service headquarters, who was one of the fire

David Ashworth, operations manager at Hethersett Fire Service headquarters, who was one of the fire fighters tackling the blaze at the Norwich Library twenty years ago. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

'It was really heartbreaking,' she said. 'Your whole life was turned upside down.

'There was no warning – it just happened. And it was a terrible trauma. I was just thinking about all that work and precious collections.

'There was an awful sense of loss. So much work taken and we wanted to make sure it was kept ok.

'But there was a realisation that there was items that would not be replaced.'

In the devastating days that followed, Mrs Munford and the library team entered the burnt out building, still hot with ash and smelling like burnt paper.

Between the lending and reference department, a staggering 125,000 books were lost out of the 140,000 collection.

'It was something out of science fiction. Computers were melted, the ash was still hot and there were wires hanging down,' she said.

Donning overalls, gloves and masks, the once white-collar workers were now trudging through the ashes, desperate to retrieve any salvageable items.

'We didn't dream we would be able to save any of it,' she said.

'People would say 'oh they're only books', but we were really distraught. We just knew was a dreadful loss.'


It was a warm, clear August morning and David Ashworth was on one of the last jobs of his night shift.

The fireman, then 27, was at Thorpe Green on the edge of Norwich when he saw smoke 'pluming' over the city.

His team was immediately called to what turned out to be one of the biggest fires Norwich has ever seen.

When his crew arrived the city centre was already on lock-down, with 200 officers and firefighters battling the blaze.

'It was one of the biggest fires that I have been to in my 29 years,' he said.

Temperatures were so high that firefighters could not enter the burning building, instead tackling the flames by surrounding it.

Book cases with plastic feet could be see falling to the floor, melting under the heat.

Mr Ashworth, now Norfolk fire's area manager, said the blaze spread quickly because of heating and ventilation ducts as well as the heavy wood panelling. Fire crews spent three days battling the fire.

'It was upsetting to see. But what really brought it home was the impact on the library and archive staff,' he said.

'They were totally distraught by the devastation.'

But Mr Ashworth conceded if the library had been open to the public, the tragedy could have been a lot worse.


It was speed of action and cutting-edge technology which saved thousands of precious Norfolk books and documents from total destruction.

And, seemingly against all the odds, Norfolk's heritage had been brought back from the brink.

While fire- or smoke-damaged books were sent to a specialist restorer in Scotland, around ten per cent of the local collections went to Oxfordshire instead.

These were 57 cubic metres of books and documents worst affected by the thousands of gallons of water which flooded into the library basement as firefighters desperately tried to quell the 1,000-degree inferno above.

To avoid the growth of bacteria, mould and fungus the soaked documents were immediately put into cold storage at minus 18 degrees Celsius.

They were then sent off to AEA Technology, a world-leading business which had grown out of the nuclear research carried out at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

The items were taken through the restoration process, which involved defrosting them and putting them in drying chambers.

Air was pumped out to create a vacuum, which meant the water could boil at a lower temperature and be removed without the use of damaging excessive heat.

Each batch took between

a week and ten days to process in what was the largest rescue mission of its kind ever undertaken in Britain.

The reference library moved to Shirehall before moving to Anglia Square.

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