I’ve already mentioned the Second World War a few times on this blog and it’s hardly surprising; the estate was built partly as a by-product of the First World War and before the freshly-planted trees and gardens had a chance to mature, the clouds of war were bubbling up once again, and It wouldn’t be too long before their shadows began to fall across the lands and its new estate once more.
I’ll start with a story I came about whilst decorating my hallway a few years back. Back in the day when I used to use Facebook to post pointless personal insights into my daily life I had posted a picture of my wife decorating the stairwell of our newly-acquired, but gaudily-coloured Mile Cross Home. An old school friend of mine had spotted the photo and commented, saying that the picture of my stairs had given her the shivers. Intrigued, I pushed her for a little more detail. I know the colour we’d inherited was nasty (orange walls and an orange ceiling!), but that’s why we were painting it. It turns out that it wasn’t the previous colour palette that was unsettling her, but the layout. She’d grown up in an identical house to mine, just around the corner from where I now live and the picture of our stairs had reminded her of the same stairs in her parents’ house. She went on to tell me that she’d always felt that she had to run up or down the stairs as it always felt like she was being watched from the bathroom door. It got so bad that sometimes she’d be too scared to go downstairs on her own to the loo in the middle of the night. Apparently It wasn’t just her who was experiencing unexplained phenomena in the home, one of her siblings admitting that he also felt uncomfortable at times and even claimed to have been regularly feeling as if he’d be tapped on the shoulder whilst having a shave. On top of this their parents often talked about the ‘phantom light switch’ that could be heard being turned on (or off) at the same time every morning, even though nobody was in that particular bedroom.
My friend went on to tell me that the family believed the house to be haunted by a young man who’s mother, a Mrs Stevens who was the previous tenant, who had lived there from when the house was brand new back in 1927, until she passed away in the early 1980’s. Interestingly, the family that were to take on her life-long home after she died actually knew her as they were only living around the corner at the time.
In an earlier conversation the late Mrs Stevens had made the claim that her son was: “one of the last people to have been killed by a bomb in Norwich”. Now, I don’t really believe in ghost stories but the part about a World War Two fatality really piqued my interest. This was something I could research; I had a name and address and knew where to look, so off I went in search of some facts to add some weight to this interesting local connection.
Sure enough, the surname and address had returned a match for a bomb-related fatality for a young man who was living at that address. His name was Roy Stevens and he was aged just 20. It turns out that the unfortunate Roy was killed on the 29th April, 1942 and he was listed as working for the “Electrical Engineering Arpt” and also as an “ARP”. Firstly, this told me one thing: young Roy wasn’t the last person to be killed by a bomb falling onto Norwich, but he was killed by enemy action. Secondly it told me that poor Roy was most likely killed whilst out that evening, fulfilling his duties as an ARP Warden.
For those of you who don’t know, “ARP” stood for “Air Raid Precautions” and The ARP department was set up by Government in 1937 in anticipation of the ever increasing threat of War with Germany. Each local council across the land would need have to have ARP provisions in place before the inevitable spiral into World War Two and Roy had signed up to help. I know for certain that young Roy wouldn’t have been killed at home as that property wasn’t directly affected by bombs, so it was most likely that he was killed whilst out on duty as the bombs rained down on the streets nearby. I can see that quite a few bombs fell along Drayton Road and at the bottom of Mile Cross Road and maybe poor Roy was killed just around the corner, not far from home.
Maybe the family who live in that house today do still have the spirit of young Roy or his mother to keep them company after all, and who could blame the spirit of a young man who was killed so tragically for wanting to return home to be with his mother? Or for a lady who had lived in that house for most of her life to cling on to her home after death? Who knows; but one thing is for sure, poor Roy left home that fateful evening to do his bit for his community and never came home again – physically at least. When I walk past his home now I can’t help but glance up to the landing window, hoping that maybe one day young Roy or his mum might be looking back at me to prove me wrong about there being no such things as ghosts.
Sadly, young Roy wouldn’t have been the only volunteer from the Estate to die whilst trying to help his neighbours as the bombs were raining down upon Norwich. I can see that a 67 year old Robert Kent, a Shoe Operative and Auxiliary Fireman living at 19 Appleyard Crescent had died two days earlier on the 27th April, presumably whilst out on duty trying to rescue people from the ensuing carnage, or trying to help put out one of the many raging fires caused by the hundreds of incendiaries raining down on Norwich during that fateful week. Not far from Appleyard Crescent, just around the corner at Civic Gardens, lived George Butler (aged 44) a Shoe Operative – and more crucially, a member of the ARP First Aid Team – was killed the very next day, again most likely whilst out amongst the falling bombs, selflessly trying to help others. There is also a George Lamb (aged 49) of Bowers Avenue, again not too far from the two gentleman mentioned above, who also died on the 27th. He was a Corporation Clerk and Firewatcher, another perilous task that most likely led to his untimely demise.
An ARP shelter on Drayton Road:
It wasn’t just the ARP who were being killed by the tonnes of falling explosives raining down upon the city, quite a few Mile Cross residents were to lose their lives too. The majority – if not all – of the Ward Family living at 69 Valpy Avenue (mentioned below) were caught up in a fire and killed on the 28th April 1942. Close neighbours Meta Violet Carter (41) 142 Drayton Road and Alice Wood (56) from two doors down at number 146 were also killed as bombs fell in the vicinity of their homes – again on 28th April 1942. 71 year old Ann Newruck of 47 Aylsham Road was killed on the 2nd May 1942. Albert Smith (51) a foreman painter from 1 Rye Avenue was also killed on the 28th April 1942 along with Charles Woodrow (34) of 43 Junction Road. People from all across the estate had been killed, and these are just the poor souls who I could find with a relatively quick search and no doubt there would have been more fatalities that weren’t mentioned on the Blitz Roll of Honour (an example of which you’ll read about later).
The closest bombs to fall near Roy’s house (and mine) were at a crescent of homes just around the corner on Wheeler Road, just behind what was then the school. I don’t think these particular bombs led to any fatalities, but they did effect the same home on two different nights, firstly bringing down ceilings during an 11th Birthday party, and then two days later completely destroying the home. Luckily, the family were in their Anderson Shelter when it happened, an Anderson Shelter that hadn’t been being used until after the family’s first near-miss a few days earlier.
I’m not sure which which exact house it was, but the scars of those bombs can still be made out in the brickwork and roofing of houses nearby today (see below). These bombs must have also blasted out a lot of the windows out at the rear of school just across the road, but that wasn’t the only damage to be inflicted upon the school. Another bomb, most likely from the same bomb bay of the German bomber fell right into the middle of the playground, scoring a direct hit on the underground shelters. Thankfully the school was closed for the evening and the shelters were empty at the time. Had all the school’s children and staff been sheltering in there when that bomb struck it would have been a different story all together, horrific beyond comprehension. I imagine that in the following weeks the school must have been even draughtier than usual, with it now missing the windows from both the front and the rear. It was draughty enough when I was there in the 1980’s with all the windows intact and modern extensions added to the front!
Bomb damage still visible on Mile Cross homes today:
Unfortunately, not everybody was so lucky and about fifty meters away from that playground a bomb fell or in the vicinity of number 69 Valpy Avenue. This bomb killed five people, four of which were members of the ‘Ward’ family. Joan (10) Richard (18), Olive (20) and Constance (42) were all killed as a 500lb bomb smashed into their home, not all of the bodies could be recovered because of the intense fire that followed. If you look at that house today there is none of the usual, obvious visual evidence of bomb damage to the front of the house and I can only assume that either the rear of the house was devastated or a ruptured gas main caused a deadly fire; either way it’s one of the thousands of tragedies caused by free-falling bombs dropped aimlessly onto areas that had no targets of any military value, both here and in Germany. Edit: Since originally writing this piece, I found out that this house was one of a number of houses destroyed in Mile Cross that was completely rebuilt to the exact same design after the war.
The Norwich Blitz Roll of Honour can be found here and it makes for sombre reading.
Norwich Victims of War Graves at Earlham:
The bombs continued to fall far and wide across Mile Cross and at the bottom end of Junction Road a particularly large bomb weighing 1000kg nicknamed a “Hermann” struck the street, turning a large selection of Victorian Terraced homes into nothing more than a massive, smouldering crater. You can still see where this bomb fell by the conspicuous absence of the Victorian terraced houses which make up the rest of the street, around a small cross roads, with a set of 1960’s flats hastily tagged on to one side and some recently added new-build homes replacing the garages that were built on the post-war wasteland.
The large gap in terraced housing on Junction Road where the “Hermann struck”. Note the rebuilt home on the left and the 1960’s flats nearby. This is also the spot from which Joan Banger watched a German plane trying to blow up the Railway bridge:
Another bomb that was most likely destined for the nearby M&GN railway bridge narrowly missed the adjoining Dolphin footbridge, landing close to the bank of the Wensum and next to a dyke, the crater of which can still be made out in the small copse of trees between Marriott’s way and the Dolphin Bridge. The fact that this bomb landed on a marshy patch of land is probably what saved the bridge from any damage.
The circular bomb crater, close to Dolphin Bridge (you can see Anderson’s Meadow in the background):
The enemy plane, which was lit by the bright moon on that evening whilst dropping one of these particular bombs was actually witnessed by Joan Banger as she hurriedly walked with her mother down Junction road (dodging falling bombs as they went) as they perilously made their way home from the Lido on Aylsham Road. As she recalls in her wonderful book entitled ‘Norwich at War’ she could actually see the plane side-on from her lofty position at the top of the hill and because the plane was at a very low altitude whilst trying to hit its target.
On a more tragic note, when Joan and her mother finally made it safely and bravely across the pair of bridges that the German Bomber were trying to destroy, they had tried to seek shelter in an ARP surface shelter on Raynham Street but found it to be full. Pushing on towards their home they eventually found refuge in an empty shelter nearby on Old Palace Road. When the all clear was finally sounded they emerged from their shelter to a scene of devastation all around them and later found out that the packed shelter they couldn’t get in to earlier had taken a direct hit, killing all 12 people cowering inside. If you haven’t already read Joan’s book, I recommend you do. It can be picked up for a few quid online or borrowed from most Norfolk Libraries.
A stick of bombs fell across Mile Cross Road, Hansard Road, Soleme Road, Margaret Paston Avenue and into Oxnead Road creating a trail of destruction as they went. Quite a few homes were burnt out or badly damaged but – miraculously – everybody survived, mostly unharmed; some of which having some very near misses, including one Anderson shelter surviving perilously on the rim of a crater in the back garden of a Soleme Road house.
There’s a line of beautiful Victorian town-houses at the start of Drayton Road that form a triangle with St Martins Road and St Mary’s Road and if you look closely some of them aren’t as old as you think they are. This is because mixed in amongst the older Victorian homes are the semi-sympathetic, later-added copies, rebuilt after the war. Half of St Mary’s Road is now brick garages and from here you can see that the surviving houses here along Drayton Road mostly have rebuilt back walls. The houses along St Martins Road have all been replaced completely and this was because this area was hit particularly badly. One particular family were trapped inside the remains of their St Martins home opposite Wensum Park for hours waiting to be dug out, neck deep in water from a burst water pipe and with the corpse of their dead father. I can’t even begin to imagine how harrowing that set of events must have been for the survivors.
Just down the road from there, the St Augustine’s School had also been completely destroyed along with many of the the surrounding houses being badly damaged or completely destroyed.
During the worst of the Blitz, people were naturally becoming wary about staying over night in the built up parts of the city for fear of being bombed and/or machine-gunned. Most people would have known somebody affected by bomb damage or probably knew of somebody who had been killed, and this led to a daily migration of people taking the long trek out of the city centre and into the seeming safety of surrounding countryside. We have to remember that by the time the three-day Baedeker Blitz (27-29th April, 1942) had finished almost 53% of the city’s entire housing stock had been damaged or destroyed by enemy action, which is a staggering figure when you think about it. The City’s housing stock still hasn’t recovered from these raids some 80 years on. With that in mind it’s hardly surprising to know that Drayton Road would have been one of those migration corridors. I’ve read a few accounts from people who recalled regularly seeing the long train of people trudging out of the city in the early evening, heading Northwest towards the safety of the open countryside whilst carrying or pushing the supplies they’d need for an evening away under the stars (if they were lucky).
The same bedraggled train of people would then be seen trudging back into the city the next morning. I wonder how many people would have came back down Drayton Road in the morning to find their homes had been bombed, or looted, which happened more often then you’d like to think.
Being out in the open countryside didn’t necessarily grant you safety as the bombing was often quite indiscriminate and inaccurate. One day, late in the war had proved this when one of the Nazi’s terrifyingly-massive V2 Bombs narrowly missed the Mile Cross estate and came down close to Boundary Wood, which may have been one of the refuges for the people leaving their homes previously mentioned. Luckily there was nobody there on this occasion. The crater for which can still be walked down into today, that is if it hasn’t been covered up by the new houses now replacing the greenery of the former Golf Course.
The blast from this particular V2 caused considerable damage to nearby homes and the shock-wave was felt throughout the city, killing at least one person. Part of that V2 rocket was actually dragged home along Boundary Road by a Mile Cross youngster to her Spynke Road home. Imagine that now. “What you got there, Beryl?”, Oh, just a bit of rocket that killed a man and damaged 400 homes”. It was all slightly different back then that’s for sure.
Later on in the war, tragedy was to fall upon the estate once again when the stricken American Bomber, “Lassie Come Home” crashed into the rear gardens of homes along Spynke Road, killing two local children and eight airmen. It was only about a mile away from the airport when the damage made the aircraft uncontrollable.
The fascinating and tragic story about that particular incident can be found in this piece, told form the view-point of one of the surviving children to witness the plane come down on his home.
If you know where to look there are still a few remnants of the war dotted around the Estate. There’s an Anderson Shelter completely intact in the front garden on Burgess Road and this is still used to show school children how people took cover back during the Second World War as part of their history lessons, there are also the remains of a few Anderson Shelters on the allotments and there are probably lots of bits of recycled shelters in a lot of the large Mile Cross gardens. Even I found the sheeting for the one that would have been used by the wartime occupants of my own home, one afternoon whilst clearing the end of my garden a couple of years ago. Up until recently my dad’s neighbours (at 279 Drayton Road) had a massive WW2-era Nissen hut in the corner of their back garden with a large flagpole that would have been visible from Drayton Road, I can only assume that this would have been a warden’s hut or maybe a make-shift medical centre (if anybody knows, please let me know). It was about 20 foot by 10 foot with a full-sized door and some windows and if my memory serves me right and it was painted green, very similar to the sort of hut you’d find dotted about Rackheath Airbase a few years ago. Maybe young Roy would have been a regular visitor to this hut on his ARP duties. I’d like to think so anyway.
Surviving Anderson shelter, Margaret Paston Avenue in the background:
It wasn’t all bad news for the plucky residents of the estate during the Second World War, the parents of the ‘Piggin’ Family who lived at Valpy Avenue watched as seven of their nine children left home to go off and fight in World War Two. Amazingly they got to see all seven of those children make it back home alive:
It was more than homes being battered by bombs falling across Mile Cross; Industry and recreation were also taking a beating. The massive Edward and Holmes shoe factory next to Wensum Park was reduced to smouldering rubble after it was successfully targeted by a German air raid and the Park next door was also hit, destroying the picturesque fountain and its brass frogs photographed here by George Plunkett before the war) that stood where the dilapidated-looking maze now sits. The bombs also caused severe damaged to a full-sized, open-air swimming pool that hadn’t been completely finished and not yet officially opened. Because of the costs to repair it, the pool never did open officially, falling into disrepair and eventually being filled in with river-dredge a few decades later. You can read more about that by clicking this link.
Edward and Holmes before it was destroyed:The replacement Edward and Holmes factory being built after the war and just above it next to the river, the abandoned swimming pool:
A patch of Mile Cross farmland opposite Old Farm Lane was acquired for emergency measures after the Harmer’s factory on St Andrews Street was destroyed by enemy action. A temporary factory was quickly erected along Havers Road out of massive Nissen-style huts to help the factory get back to work as soon as possible. This factory being vital to the supply of uniforms to the British Armed Forces and being ‘temporary’ it stayed there until the 1990’s!
On a lighter note… We should spare a thought for the poor Wensum Park ducks who were doing their bit for the War effort buy cutting back on their bread intake. One evening a bomb with a delayed fuse fell into the duck pond that is still there today, serving as an important nesting area for a pair of swans. The ducks were probably quite shocked when a massive lump of German metal made an unwelcome entrance to their pond from hundreds of feet above with a mighty splash. They were probably even more shocked a few hours later when that bomb finally decided to detonate, sending up a plume of water hundreds of feet into the air.
I’ll end this blog entry with another insight into growing up on the Mile Cross Estate as a young lad during the War years. Written by a man called Stanley Copland who lived on Drayton Road, close to where Lidl and the later-added roundabout now sits. I wholly recommend that you read his fascinating story here.
Thanks once again for reading this stuff,