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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Military in Norwich

The Military in Norwich  -  A Tale of Two Barracks

The iconic buildings of Norwich are very well-known: the two Cathedrals. The Castle, the larger of the many Parish Churches, the City Hall.............   All can be viewed from Mousehold Heath, particularly from St. James‘ Hill by the Mottram memorial, a marvellous spot overlooking what is surely one of the best urban landscapes in provincial England.  There is another fine building closer to the viewer, long with an imposing clock-tower, visible not only from Mousehold Heath but from many places in the central city, not least from the Ber Street ridge. 

Britannia Baracks

This is Britannia Barracks, built between 1885 and 1887 in what Sir Nicolaus Pevsner says is, "...the Norman Shaw style, which is a surprising thing for barracks".    Whatever its style, the reason for its construction is to be found in important changes taking place in the British Army in the late Victorian period.  The infantry regiments of the line had tended to have distinct territorial areas from which they recruited their men:   the 9th of Foot‘s area had been East Norfolk.  The year 1881 saw the culmination of what are often referred to as the Cardwell reforms, named after the Liberal Secretary of State for War, Edward Cardwell   - although it was a successor, Hugh Childers, who took the final step in 1881.   The essential need, in Cardwell‘s view, was better recruitment through a stronger identification with local areas, Infantry regiments would have two linked battalions, associated with those of militia and volunteers. New homes for the regiments would be built, known as ‘Depots‘ with a permanent staff.    Such was Britannia Barracks, the headquarters and depot of the Norfolk Regiment, the 9th of Foot and now the county regiment.  After the first World War, the regiment was to become The Royal Norfolk Regiment.

The barracks took its name from the badge of the regiment, that of Britannia, as did the road in front of the barracks.  This was officially confirmed as the regiment‘s badge in 1799, but was reputed to have been granted for service during the war of the Spanish Succession, with particular reference to the battle of Almanza in 1707.    The regiment enjoyed the nickname of "The Holy Boys".  It is said that during the Penisular War, the Catholic Spaniards thought the Britannia figure on the Regiment‘s colours was that of the Virgin Mary.

The main gate of the barracks gave access, past the guard-room on the left, to the barrack-square.  The front range of buildings on the right culminated in the officers‘ mess by the clock-tower.To the left of the entrance, another range of buildings which included the medical wing ran along Britannia Road until meeting the playing-field.    The barrack-square was enclosed by married quarters on the playing-field side, looking across the square to another range of buildings which included the sergeants‘ mess.   Completing the enclosure on the side opposite the main entrance were the barrack-room blocks.   Near to the junction of Britannia Road with Gurney Road, is a side road with the houses which formed the residences of the Commanding Officer of the Depot, the Second-in-Command and the Depot Adjutant.   The great facade of the barracks along Britannia Road remains although the barrack-square is bisected by a security wall, so the former main entrance of the barracks no longer gives access to the former barrack-blocks beyond.  This is consequent upon the barracks having become part of H.M. Prison, Norwich.   There is another high security wall at the eastern side of the playing-field but, rather charmingly, some steps cut into the bank of the playing-field and used by the Commanding Officer and his assistants as a short-cut from their residences to their offices, survive in place as a small reminder of a former military presence.   The houses, named after battles, also survive and are now in private hands.

Training Centre

During the Second World War and for some years after, Britannia Barracks, together with some huts behind Nelson Barracks, (of which more later) became an Initial Training Centre for recruits to the Army.  After initial training, those recruits destined for the Royal Norfolk Regiment moved to Nelson Barracks for what was known as ‘Corps Training‘ and were housed in what had been the cavalry barrack-blocks.  In the years immediately after the end of the War, the training staff for both initial and corps training were drawn from both the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the Dorset Regiment.  There was a close association between the two regiments and the Dorset Regiment, the 39th and 54th of Foot, had through the 54th had its origins in the West Norfolk Regiment of 1782.

Nelson Barracks

Of Nelson Barracks nothing remains except a wall at the corner of Gurney Road and Barrack Street, but those remaining of the men who served there can still sense the guard-room entrance, roughly opposite the Cow Tower.  Built as the Cavalry Barracks in 1791, the Nelson title came later with the great man‘s fame, this was a considerable place.  The material was red brick with the barrack-blocks on the western side of the square. These were constructed with the horse-stables on the ground floor and the men accommodated above. During the later infantry days the stables were used for the men before they ‘graduated‘ to the more comfortable quarters above! In the centre was the officers‘ mess, a nine bay house of two and a half storeys, with a doorway with "rather rustic Adamish capitals" (Pevsner). To the east was the riding school with a low range of administrative buildings behind the Barrack Street wall.

It can be claimed that most if not all of the cavalry regiments of the British Army, with the exception of the Household Cavalry, were at Norwich at some time or other.   One regiment, here on several occasions, was the 7th (Princess Royal‘s) Dragoon Guards.  Indeed it tended to see Norwich as its spiritual home.  There is evidence of this affection between city and regiment in memorials to be found in the north transept and north aisle of the nave of Norwich Cathedral.  Church parades invariably meant the Cathedral and the Lancer or the Dragoon Guard processing between Barracks and The Close must have provided quite a picture on Sunday mornings.   Needless to say, there were many personal and individual links between soldiers and Norwich girls.  Cavalrymen settled in Norwich when their years with the colours were over and, as late as the 1950s, one could meet with elderly but still smart and upright men in Norwich streets, living reminders of the days when Norwich was truly a garrison town.

The Cavalry Drill Ground

The infantry at Britannia Barracks and the cavalrymen at Nelson Barracks alike were close to Mousehold Heath and the opportunities it provided for training: many a soldier has marched or ridden over its broad acres.  The cavalry had the Cavalry Drill Ground, now occupied by the houses of the Heartease Estate and before that, between the two World Wars, the Norwich Civil Airport.  Some maps, including quite recent ‘A to Z‘s of Norwich, still show ‘Dragoon Street‘ which gave the cavalry regiments an alternative access to the Heath rather than using the Barrack Street and Gurney Road junction.  They would have ridden into Barrack Street, gone to the right on leaving the main entrance and then into what is now St James‘ Close but formerly Barrack Loke.  At the top, now marked by a set of steps, was the start of Dragoon Street.  The other end was near the Ranger‘s House near Gurney Road and the Britannia Road junction.  Here, on the city side of the house, may still be detected a tree and shrub-covered defile, all that is discernible of a cavalry way.  Time and change has tended to obscure the rest but what remains is a link to soldiering in Victorian and Edwardian times.

If old infantrymen are looking for reminder of days past, other than Britannia Barracks itself, then perhaps the present-day Zaks Restaurant, opposite the Fountain Ground, is as good as any.   Here many a squad has fallen out and escaped for a short time from the lash of the sergeant‘s tongue, with a well-earned mid-morning cup of tea.

Such were the Norwich barracks, both near to the Heath where the volunteer bodies had also assembled in their time to deal with the threat of Napoleonic France.  The presence of these two barracks , and all the people who passed through their gates,  make for  a colourful chapter in the story of Norwich.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • Barnett, Corelli.     Britain and Her Army, London, 1970
  • Money Barnes, Major R   The British Army of 1914, London, 1968
  • Pevsner, Sir Nikolaus    The Buildings of England     North-East Norfolk & Norwich,  Harmondsworth, 1973

Andy Anderson    

February 2010