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The Norwich department store that rose from the ashes of the Blitz

PUBLISHED: 13:27 04 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:04 04 March 2016

Picture of the new Curls store in Norwich being rebuilt in 1955 after the old store was bombed in April 1942.

Picture of the new Curls store in Norwich being rebuilt in 1955 after the old store was bombed in April 1942.

Archant © 2005

It had taken 14 years in coming. Curls had been blown to pieces in the Norwich Blitz of 1942 but now the plush new shop, the most modern department store in East Anglia, was about to open.

Damping down the fires in the ruins of Curls Store,
Rampant Horse Street in April 1942Damping down the fires in the ruins of Curls Store, Rampant Horse Street in April 1942

Sixty years ago the city centre was buzzing with excitement. The building site in the heart of Norwich was nearing completion. The scars of war were finally being removed and a brave new world was emerging.

Curls of Norwich were back.

The story of this grand shop began with three brothers from West Norfolk who came to Norwich more than 150 years ago, founded the store and turned this part of Norwich into a prosperous shopping centre.

The brothers bought one of the oldest inns in Norwich, the Rampant Horse, and converted it into warehouses and shops which stood on the site of Curls which is now Debenhams.

Already their business premises covered half an acre and front on to three streets. This was an area rich in reminders of the city’s long and distinguished past. Here, in the 13th century, the horse market was held and the inn itself had a long and curious history.

Will Kemp, the actor, ended his famous ‘Nine Daies Wonder’ dance from London to Norwich by capering past it on his way to the Market Place. Irish soldiers were billeted there during the Great Rebellion and in the 18th century it was the starting point of the Ipswich and Norwich Dispatch coach.

The old wholesale department was a spacious affair, covered by a large dome glass roof. Just after the turn of the century great extensions were built which included a handsome brass shop front, lit at night by ‘Ediswan’ lamps in wrought iron brackets.

Away from the vast shopping areas a large staff of clerks poured over massive ledgers in the counting house: in the dressmaking department scores of needlewomen and milliners bent over their work. Staff lived in, and apprentices were not allowed to speak to customers for their first two years.

There was the time a whole train loads of goods arrived from the Potteries and were taken through the city in a succession of trucks labelled “Pottery for Curls” and it was reported that live bears were once used in a window display of furs!

Hundreds of bound books were sold at a few pence each and became the foundation of nearly every village library in Norfolk.

Then, one night in April of 1942, the shop was destroyed in the Baedeker raids – which so much death and destruction to the city - and Curls was forced to operate out of premises in Westlegate and Exchange Street before the sparkling new store finally opened in the spring of 1956.

It was described as the largest store in Norfolk, and boasted air conditioning, an escalator (said to be four times safer than stairs), accommodation for 400 staff, staff welfare supervision, a floor space of 97,000 sq ft and a lift service – especially useful for prams and invalid chairs to all floors.

Curls announced: “In line with today’s ‘Do-It-Yourself’ movement, every department which sells tools of any kind is under the charge of an expert assistant who can not only advise customers what to buy but how to use it.

“This service applies to paints and wallpapers, dress materials and patterns, knitting wool and curtain fabrics.”

The shop, which had been bought by the Debenhams group some time before, finally changed its name in 1973. The days of shopping in Curls were finally over. It is now Debenhams and continues to play a leading role in the city centre life.

Next time you are passing, take a look at down as you enter Debenhams from Rampant Horse Street and you will see a mosaic of the dear old horse in the floor. A symbol of forgotten days.

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