In 1958 Norwich City Council decided it would be a good idea to move their entire labour force to a brand new and centralised depot named The “Norwich City Works Department”. The new depot was to be located Just off Mile Cross Road, opposite Harmers Clothing Factory and the junction of Havers Road and it was to be built on 6.5 acres of former allotments and farmland situated in the fairly wide depression here at the bottom of the Wensum Valley.
The new depot officially opened its gates to its workforce in 1965, although most of the workers would have already being there for some time already, considering it was their job to construct their new premises. The marshy ground of the valley floor had been being steadily firmed-up since the Second World War when the area had was increasingly being used as a dumping ground for landfill and hard-core, most of being transferred here from the destroyed buildings of the nearby bomb sites around the St Benedict’s and Dereham Road area.
You can see it slowly taking over the allotment space as it’s being flattened out by a Corporation Steam Roller in this 1948 Britain From Above image of the area:
Note the Corporation steamroller, levelling out the base on the right.
Before being centralised into this new depot the Council had had various depots dotted about the place including locations at Fishergate, Westwick Street, Barker Street (with its own railway siding), Nelson Street and Swanton Road, and this is a reflection of the industrial nature of this particular slice of Norwich as the Wensum heads in from the countryside on the Western side of the City. Andersons Meadow, just across the road was also being used as a site for landfill, including the storage/dumping of old road surfacing, and as a dump for the USAAF as part of their post-war winding down operations. If you look closely you’ll see that today’s ‘Meadow’ is really just an odd-shaped bulge between the old railway line and the river (see top-right corner of image above). As with the modern landfill sites of today, it was simply covered over with a little bit of nature to help hide away yesterday’s litter.
The Council’s new depot was situated on the Southern edge of Mile Cross and was flanked by Sloughbottom Park to the West, the Railway to the South and Vale Green/Valpey Avenue, to the North and could only be accessed from the Eastern side and through its main gates at Mile Cross Road, just before the road heads upwards and over the railway bridge. I remember this area being particularly busy when trying to cross the road here as a child in the 1980’s, particularly if you happened to be trying navigate your way through when the worforce from Harmers – opposite – were also leaving off. You’d have to dodge the City Council’s variety green-livered vehicles that were constantly entering or exiting the site through its fairly narrow entrance.
The rare sight of the entrance being used in 2018
The newly built and substantial Works depot were home to four separate sections: General Works, Building, Plant and Stores (text borrowed from the Milestones to Mile Cross Page):
The General Works Section would be concerned with day to day repairs of Council municipal properties and public buildings. Cleansing operations were also carried out with a fleet of mechanical road vehicles to clean the city roads and empty gutters. It also included for the Sewer, Trench and Highways Inspectors who would arrange for emergency repair and maintenance works.
The Building Section was divided into two sub-sections: Erection and Maintenance. The prior concerned itself with new build projects such as Council houses, flats, garages and old peoples’ homes. A large labour force would be employed to carry out these works. They included labourers, carpenters. bricklayers and other skilled tradesmen – as mentioned earlier – many of whom were instrumental in the building of the New Central Depot.
The Maintenance Section undertook alteration and maintenance work of Council owned properties. Gangs of painters would be required to continuously repaint the many thousands of Council houses. Check details regarding what the Council used to do for its tenants.
The Plant Section housed the Maintenance Garage, and Fitting and Turning shop, the Electrical and Public Lighting section, and what was then referred to as the Blacksmith and Sheet Metal workers shop.
The Blacksmith and Sheet Metal workers shop would repair small items of tools such as chisels, picks and flag stands, in addition to the
construction of any new items of plant. They were also involved in the construction and maintenance of steel barriers, railings and gates.
The Garage serviced and maintained the City Council’s large fleet of
vehicles and items of plant such as road rollers, concrete mixers and
water pumps. It also provided vehicle testing to Ministry of Transport (MOT) standards for it’s own and public owned vehicles.
The Fitting and Turning Shop undertook the repairs and maintenance of plant ranging from lawnmowers for the Parks Department to large items of machinery used in civil engineering and pumping stations. It also undertook precision work for other departments.
The Electrical and Street Lighting Section provided a number of services concerned with street lighting and road signing. It employed a number of electricians that undertook the maintenance of all Council buildings and properties including schools, parks, markets and swimming pools.
The Stores Section held and distributed the many and wide range of tools and materials required by the other three sections. The advantage of having three sections situated together are easily recognised as this made for easier and more efficient working practices.
Working in conjunction with the Building and Woodworking Shop, the Joinery and Woodworking Shop would produce a wide range of items for the maintenance and upkeep such as window sashes and doors. Desk, tables and special types of furniture for the schools would also be crafted. They were also involved in the construction and maintenance of steel barriers, railings and gates.
Stories abound from the early days of the New Depot, some of which give us a valuable insight into the daily lives of the work force. The following accounts have been related by older employees who look back with some fondness on those early years.
Back in 1965 most of the work force would have been recruited from the Mile Cross and surrounding City areas. Given that different -members
of families could be working together there was a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of local pride.
Prior to moving to The New Central Depot all operatives would be require to commence work by “clocking on”. It has to be noted that, whether by design or default, shortly before the relocation took place the dreaded clock was demolished by the rear end of a lorry, under the guidance of an employee at the Westwick Street Depot. The clock system was never reintroduced. It does, however, count for some compensation to the
“clocking on” system that the Joinery Shop would commence work on the sounding of a loud bell for many years to come.
In the mid sixties the ongoing road programmes, including the massive and devisive project that was the construction of the inner-link road within the City were well under
way. These works were carried out by Road Gangs and the average size of each road gang was around fourteen to fifteen men, who at any one time could be located at various sites around the
One story which stands out and shows what different times we live in, concerns the method of payment for these scattered gangs. Employees’ wages would be delivered to site in cash and this operation would be carried out on a weekly basis by the Wages clerk, who would travel to each site in the relative comfort of a taxi cab.
On hot summer days these road gangs were kept suitably cooled by copious amounts of barley water administered to them from a large metal vessel. For that portion of the workers who were not overly fond of barley water piping hot tea was also on offer. The preparation and supply of these beverages was entrusted to the care of a tea boy.
The Joinery and Woodworking Section
In this present day and age when health and safety procedures are paramount in our working lives it has to be remembered that in the early years many of the operatives working in the Joinery Shop had fingers or parts of fingers missing. Far from hindering the operatives these losses were looked upon with pride and most considered their first injury as acceptance into the “brotherhood of joinery”.
In modern days of automated gritting of icy roads, where sand and grit are mixed to the right proportions and sprayed out onto the tarmac, it may be prudent to spare a thought for the gritting crews of 1965. The crew members were required to stand on the back of a flatbed lorry, with their boots bedded firmly into sand to maintain support. From this point they would shovel their load manually from the moving vehicle, often in harsh weather conditions.
Apart from safety issues it is apparent that welfare amenities have also changed dramatically. Compared with the present day of microwaves and
takeaways the early canteen facilities were of a very basic nature. The provision of food from a canteen was not yet available but the work force were supplied with tea for the sum of one old penny per cup. However, the customer was required to supply his own cup or mug!
Today we look upon women in any industry as acceptable practice but in 1965 women were not a prominent feature. with only one female employee, who worked in the Administration Department. After the initial shock of employing a female worker in a male dominated industry the barriers quickly fell.
Soon women would begin to contribute more an more to the effective running of all departments. Women can now be found working successfully across the board on all fronts of the City Works Department.
The growth and development of the Depot since those early days included the amalgamation of three further Sections, namely the Building Cleaning Section and the Refuse and Grounds Maintenance departments.
The Building Cleaning Section provided cleaning services for all public buildings and public conveniences.
The Refuse Section carried out the collection of waste, both domestic and trade. It also undertook all of the pest control operations.
The Grounds Maintenance Department were responsible for the upkeep of parks and gardens, with tree care specialists for felling and pruning.
When operations were at their largest, The Mile Cross Depot had to add a further six sub-depots based across the City, each serving their local housing areas and the importance of the Central Depot could also be gauged by the role played by Norwich City Works Department becoming recognised as an emergency centre for natural catastrophes such as gales, flooding and other seasonal conditions.
From those early years the City Works Department had evolved into a department in its own right. Owing to the massive political and financial changes within local authorities it was found it necessary to compete in a financially demanding market place, something that the department was becoming quite successful at, winning more contracts for work as they became as competitive as any rival company within the private sector, but unfortunately this was to be the department and depot’s ultimate downfall.
In 1995 Norwich City Works Department proudly celebrated its 30th Anniversary in Mile Cross and was as busy as it had ever been but these were t be the depot’s twilight years and sadly this success story wasn’t going to last for much longer. With further political upheaval and budgets about to be slashed year on year each section was to be slowly privatised – and not always successfully – leading to the various sections being split up and moving out of the once-busy depot and away to their respective private premises. As a result the sprawling depot slowly began to wind down and started to become untidy-looking and eerily quiet, a former shadow of how it all was from the 1960’s to the 1990’s.
CityCare were controversially awarded a 10 year contract to carry out works on the City Council’s behalf from the former Council Depot and when that contract ended in 2010 a new company called Connaught were bought in to take over, although their time on contract was brief, going into administration 2011.
I remember chatting to a Connaught employee who was carrying out some maintenance work in my home, just after he’d heard that it was very likely he was about to made redundant. He told me he’d worked most of his life out of the Mile Cross Council Depot, first being employed by Norwich City Council and then sold off to CityCare for 10 years before being sold off again to the brief and disastrous employer that was Connaught. With a glint in his eye he recalled the good-old-days of working for Norwich City Council, but you could sense the air of resignation in his manner about his now uncertain employment future. I hope for his sake that he got out while he could, or took early retirement – as he said he was contemplating – so that he didn’t have to go through it all again under another brief spell of false-hope that occured when Connaught Environmental were ‘saved’ and rebranded as “Fountains”, situated (very briefly) nearby on Whiffler Road. They went bust in 2012.
The contract for the works were then awarded to Norwich Norse Environmental, a joint venture between Norse Commercial Services and Norwich City Council which started from their Fifers Lane depot on April 2nd 2012 and from then on it was downhill for the once thriving City Council Depot in Mile Cross.
Looking back across the vast site from the Sloughbottom Park end.
With the buildings emptying one by one and with the site becoming an expensive burden the Council could really do without, Parts of The Mile Cross Depot were now being let out with 5 year leases to local businesses in an effort to turn the site into a business opportuntity (of sorts) called the “Mile Cross Business Center” but the reality was that it needed a lot of work to live up to that grand name and to attract business en-masse. A few small businesses take up residency but the site still looked quiet and unwelcoming.
An announcement was released to the press in 2017 that the large site was to be finally closed for good and sold off by Norwich City Council so that it could all make way for some much-needed housing. The Land Release Fund/OPE (One Public Estate) came up with £980,000 from a nationwide pot of £5,800,000 to help prepare the site so that it could used to safely build around 250 new homes. As with any site of this nature, there will be substantial amounts of asbestos to be cleared away along with the underground fuel tanks and related ground contamination across the entire site, but the aim is to have the site developed by 2020 when Mile Cross will become that little bit larger, slowly getting closer to its river boundary to the South.
In an interview with the local press about the sale of the site, Councillor Mike Stonard, (Cabinet member for sustainable and inclusive growth at Norwich City Council) said: “This is a really important development site for us so we were delighted to secure the largest amount of funding in the eastern region for what was the council’s former Mile Cross depot.
“This signals a great step forward in the site’s future development and a firm move towards delivering more homes in Norwich.”
After reading up about the site’s imminent closure and being an inquisitive (nosey) sort of chap, I decided to contact Norwich City Council’s Mike Stonard to see if he would grant me access to site to photograph what I could and write a piece about the history about it before the bulldozers moved in. I’ve always wondered what went on behind those gates and being such a large place that I’d grown up close to but had never been into I was eager to take a look for myself. Thankfully, he agreed and I was given a guided tour by a friendly and patient chap from Norse. The site was eerily quiet and it was hard to imagine what a vibrant and busy place it would have been in its heyday. Some of the smaller offices had already been demolished and the massive workshops now stood passive and quiet. When we entered the main building I was surprised at some of the architecture inside, with its massive concrete roof supports and its maze of corridors.
Parts of the sites interior locations had gotten so bad that it we could no longer enter them safely, but the parts I could explore looked as if they’d only recently been closed and the walls were adorned with the old signage, giving fascinating little glimpses into what was going on inside here in the past. It seemed like the Stores Department were very strictly monitored due to the value and quantity of various tools and fixtures they were holding and only a select few would have been allowed to access these particular parts of the site.
In one large building there were a selction of massive bays for servicing and MOT’ing a multitude of vehicles, only now they were being used for storing some really random items. I found the entire collection of original 1930’s wooden furniture that had come out of the City Hall after it was obviously given an update at some point over the last 70 years and I even found the Gurney Clock hidden under a bit of tarp.
Former City Hall furniture from 1938
Empty corridors, locked offices, dusty shelves and cavernous, echoing storage areas could be found at every turn along with the odd, retired trolley here and there. Outside and round the back of the site were empty painted parking bays for various trade vehicles, you could make out words such as “Joinery vehicles only” and “Blacksmiths Only” in amongst the weeds now breaking through the concrete roadways, I also came across a set of fuel pumps now covered in weeds, a massive structure for washing large vehicles, storage bays for grit and various platforms for unloading a multitude of Council Vehicles.
A variety of odd little buildings were dotted about all over the place and one in particular caught my eye, the rather sorry-looking canteen:
Note the site’s close proximity to Vale Green in the background.
In one particular open area between a few of the buildings I was advised by my guide to stick close to the walls as we made our way towards the stores building and it soon became obvious why he was so eager to take cover as we were dive-bombed by dozens of angry, nesting Gulls who’d taken up residency in the ventilation chimneys of one of the empty buildings.
All in all it was an interesting hour and I was glad to finally get to go in and explore this interesting and sprawling site before it is all swept away in the name of progress. It’s sad that privatisation leads to places like this becoming redundant, but on a positive note it will lead to some much-needed housing being built. How affordable it’ll end being for the future residents of Mile Cross, I don’t know; we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes and I’ll look forward to going back in armed with my camera once the new homes have been completed. For now I’ll lave you with a few more images of the site as it is at the moment:
Former Security lodge.
Signage adorning the walls.
Empty shelves and garages.
An end of indsutry.
Gull alley, note the distant Gull lining up another attack run!
Closed Stores shutters.
MOT parking bays.
An interesting spiral staircase.
An abandoned trolley.
UPDATE: It now seems that I may have published this entry at the worst (or best) time as it appears that Norwich City Council have announced that they are to end their four contracts with Norse and bring all of the work back in-house and under the jurisdiction of the Council once more. If and when this happens, where will they all be based?
I know a really handy site that is just around the corner and currently laying empty! Here’s a link to the recent story about it in the EDP. Maybe this story isn’t quite finished just yet, so watch this space…
Thanks once again for reading,