Photo Gallery: A light ‘popped’ and soon Norwich’s library was an inferno

Norwich Library Fire - TH

Norwich Library Fire - TH - Credit: Archant

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Norwich's library and archives went up in flames. In the first of a series of features, MARK NICHOLLS looks back to that terrible day.

Norwich Library Fire - TH

Norwich Library Fire - TH - Credit: Archant

In the book-lined aisles of Norwich's central library, all seemed well as a team of cleaners turned up for work on a summer morning in 1994.

For a Monday, the streets were still relatively quiet and there was nothing untoward.

But a little after 7.20am, that was to dramatically change as a seemingly innocuous electrical fault in the book-lined aisles of Norwich's Central Library was about to have the most devastating of consequences.

The pop of an exploding strip light was heard by one of the cleaners, who then witnessed flames coming from one of the bookcases.

You may also want to watch:

The alarm was raised but what followed caught all unawares.

Within two minutes, the fire had taken hold with alarming speed and flames were already seen shooting through the roof.

Most Read

This was Norwich's Central Library, not only holding the city's main lending library and the 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial Room, but also in the vaults many of the most treasured documents possessed by the city and the county beyond.

Manuscripts, music scores, ancient books and historic records were stored in the Central Library, a building opened in 1963 by the Queen Mother.

As the eight people inside fled the building, fire crews – the nearest at Bethel Street station virtually opposite – rushed to the scene.

As word spread, so did shocked library and archive staff, acutely aware of the treasures contained within and the devastating threat not only fire, but water from fire hoses posed to the county archive.

Library cleaner Darren Fox, then 23, was the first to raise the alarm, spotting flames leaping out of a bookcase.

He told reporters at the time: 'I was in the back room emptying bins when I heard a bang. It was one of the strip lights in the top of the cabinet in the American room. When I came out through the fire door because the alarm was going off, I went past the America Room and could see flames coming out of one of the book cases.'

Before long, Norwich Central Library and the priceless relics from Norfolk's history past, was ablaze.

At the height of the fire, temperatures exceeded 1,000 degrees centigrade. It was so ferocious that it severely hampered forensic examinations as to the cause.

And speaking in the immediate aftermath Norfolk Chief Fire Officer Bryan Smith conceded: 'We were surprised how fast the fire spread through the building.'

By the time the first fire crews from the Bethel Street arrived at 7.33am the blaze had swept through the first floor. Soon, were 150 firefighters on the scene using turntable ladders and high-powered water jets to attempt to bring the fire under control.

At 8.04am Anglian Water was asked to increase pressure on the mains to help fight the fire. As firefighters battled the flames, the thick pall of smoke climbed higher into the sky over the city as devastated staff looked on from a safe distance.

Flames licked against the walls of the Central Library, every ground floor window ablaze but by 10am – even as the fire raged – a rescue operation began with the first salvage teams entering parts of the building to begin bringing out documents as flames were still being tackled on the first and second floors.

Library and archive staff turning up to see if they could help formed a human chain to load water-soaked documents onto a waiting lorry to be taken away to be freeze-dried in an attempt to save them. Companies, eager to help, were already offering temporary storage points.

Firemen used Marks & Spencer shopping trolleys to transport documents from the basement to a removal van waiting at the side of the library on Bethel Street which would take documents to Oxfordshire to be freeze-dried.

Other historic works were piled in sad heaps outside as the first phase salvage operation, which would eventually take three weeks to complete, swung into operation.

Later in the day, it became clearer what had been lost. Yet it also emerged what had been saved.

By the time the blaze was brought under control, it had destroyed the lending library, the war memorial library and a large number of the historical documents and contents of the Norfolk studies library.

However, many documents were spared the flames, including the city's 800-year-old charter, because they had been stored in the fire-proof basement.

As the smoke cleared, experts were able to get an idea of what was lost and what had been saved from an archive first established in 1857.

US war veterans were dismayed to learn that the 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial Room and its 3,500 books had been destroyed, though within days they had vowed to rebuild, which they duly did within the Forum.

Also lost was the entire contents of the lending library, two-thirds of the Colman collection of 10,000 docu-ments, letters and pamphlets on Norfolk, the Rye Collection of rare 18th-century memorabilia and books; photographs, cuttings and transparencies; early newspapers and rare orchestral scores and documents relating to the Norwich School.

Incredibly, what was saved was the Charter to the City of Norwich in 1194 which bears Richard the Lionheart's seal, archives of the Dean and Chapter going back to the 11th century, County Quarter Sessions records, the Roll of Norwich Freeman rare maps and Nelson memorabilia.

A couple of days later, on August 3, city and county archivist Jean Kennedy disclosed that between two and three million documents in the underground storeroom had been damaged by fire and water.

Later in August, books were transferred to RAF Coltishall with a hangar transformed into a makeshift airing cupboard to preserve 5,000 volumes from the county collection.

A debate rapidly ensued over whether there should have been a sprinkler system fitted or not –Norfolk director of arts and libraries Hilary Hammond defended the decision not to install them – but there was also acknowledgment that it may have done little to hold back such a ferocious blaze.

Amid widespread dismay and shock at the devastation of the fire – caused by faulty wiring – there also emerged a sense of determination and hope. Within a couple of weeks, temporary libraries were being established in Norwich as it emerged the Central Library faced demolition and by October a temporary central library was established in the former Glasswells furniture store in Ber Street. The archives were safely housed nearby in a paper-shredding warehouse known as Warminger's.

But the fight to save the documents, and re-house the archive, and find new and permanent homes for the library and archive was to take considerably longer.

Tomorrow: Rosa McMahon talks to firefighters and staff from the library and record office to discover the stories behind the fire.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter