Stephen Snelling

Author

All roads lead to the Cathedral…

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Strange how things happen. A call out of the blue opens up a whole new avenue of research. And then, lo and behold, it opens another door leading to fresh discoveries in a former avenue of research.

Well, that’s what’s just happened with my never-ending study of the Norwich Blitz, and I’ve got one man’s highly developed collecting instincts to thank for it all.

Owen Thompson is an inveterate ‘car-booter’ and a while back he came across a brown wallet at Banham. Nothing unusual in that, except that this one contained something far more valuable than money – a letter that harked back to the Second World War and, in particular, the June 1942 Baedeker raid on Norwich. Written by a wife to her husband, presumably serving overseas, it was a description of the events in their street, Aldryche Road, just off Plumstead Road (and incidentally, a stone’s throw from the first house my wife and I bought, in Hilary Avenue). It tells of the homes that were struck by incendiaries and of the efforts to fight the myriad fires that took hold. It is a wonderfully candid account, full of the kind of small human details that bring the past alive, and I shall be writing about it more fully in due course, so, watch this space.

As a result of Owen’s discovery and initial contact, via the good old EDP, I was able to invite him along to the book launch. But things were too busy there to talk properly and so we emailed one another and chatted on the telephone and at some point in our conversations he mentioned his interest in the Cathedral. Well, that’s under-stating it a bit. Obsession might be putting it a bit too strong, but his fascination for the city’s most magnificent building is deep and unbounded. He has been researching and lecturing about it for more years than he cared to mention (or, at least, if he did, I’ve forgotten how many he said!) All of which, naturally, brought us to our mutual interest in the Cathedral’s fortunate survival during that same raid, so graphically described in the letter he had found.

Norwich Cathedral during the war with air raid shelter visible

He, like me, had struggled to decipher Arthur Whittingham’s spidery hand-writing in reports held at the county records office. And he shared my view of Whittingham as one of the (previously) great unsung heroes of the Norwich Blitz. To me, the surveyor to the fabric of the Cathedral and its senior fireguard was the man chiefly responsible for its survival on that June night when incendiaries set fire to the north transept. Meeting yesterday we were able to share our research. Owen had not seen the account held in the National Archives and I had not seen some of the photographs of the Cathedral in wartime, fascinating pictures that showed air raid shelters that I never knew existed.

More than that he was also able to correct an error I had made in my chapter on the Cathedral. In citing the various bomb incidents that had taken place in and around The Close prior to the June raid, I stated that the Cathedral had escaped damage during the two April raids. Well, it turns out that it did not. In fact, one window was smashed, presumably the result of blast damage, during the second raid on April 29. More details about this are promised in due course which will allow me to revise that section of the book for any future editions. As I said earlier, the research doesn’t stop. It goes on and on, constantly throwing up fresh surprises and revealing new insights into the raids.

Another photo of Norwich Cathedral showing a public shelter

So, if you spot something that you don’t think is quite right or you think you can shed more light on any of the incidents described in the book, don’t hesitate to get in touch, either via the response button on my website or by contacting me via email at sjsnelling@sky.com or by telephoning 01603 435624. And remember also, I’m still on the lookout for more personal memories of the Blitz and any further photographs related to the bombing.

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2 Comments

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