Norwich as it approached the Second World War had a certain serenity about it and perhaps a little complacency. The inter-war years were a time of great change in the City, the building of new housing estates allowing the movement of people from crowded and rather unsanitary properties in the inner city to places such as Lakenham and Mile Cross constituted a great improvement. New parks and gardens made for beauty and fine recreational facilities. The new City Hall, whatever the criticisms of its architecture, usually from outside the City, nevertheless was a potent symbol of a burgeoning civic pride.
Complacency may have been present to some degree in the retail establishment. The names of the main stores still ring familiarly in the ears of the true 'Norwicher': Bonds, Buntings, Chamberlins, Garlands, Jarrolds - and Curls. A mighty Woolworths store stood in Rampant Horse Street but there was no Marks and Spencers and, even after the war, people spoke rather darkly about "the multiples". Bonds, between All Saints' Green and Ber Street was a large store born out of an aggregation of small shops. Like Topsy it seemed to have "just growed". Buntings stood very proudly at the junction of St. Stephen's and Rampant Horse Streets with a fine facade that has outlasted the rigours of war and many changes and today lives on as the walls of the Marks and Spencer Store.
Buntings looked across Rampant Horse Street to what seemed to be the very core of the Norwich shopping centre - the great establishment of Curl Brothers. It filled most of the block formed by Rampant Horse Street, Red Lion Street, Brigg Street and Orford Place. In many ways it seemed the very heart of the City, traffic moved all round it, buses coming through Orford Place with an island at its junction with Red Lion Street on which was a hut housing the omnibus regulator. Until 1935, this had been an important control point for trams in the City. It certainly all tended to happen around Curl Brothers. All was to change, very dramatically on a night in April, 1942 and it was to take the city a very long time to recover from the disastrous happenings.
Before dealing with the savage interruption in its history of service to Norwich and its area, let us consider the origins of 'Curls'. About 1860 three brothers came from West Norfolk to Norwich intending to go into business there. They bought one of the oldest inns in the City, "The Rampant Horse" and converted it into warehouses and shops. The inn had seen a colourful slice of Norwich life, its name had a connection, expressed heraldically, with the thirteenth century horse market held in the street. At times of strife, Irish soldiers had been billeted in the inn, and Will Kemp was said to have danced past it as he concluded his epic dance from London. The departure point for the Ipswich and Norwich Despatch Coach was nearby. The store prospered and gradually took in nearby properties. In 1900, the store was a major player on the Norwich scene and in that year published a large page advertising feature ( a copy of which may be seen in the Heritage Library in the Forum). In the early 1900s, the Chairman of Curl Brothers, Ltd, was Henley Curl, born at East Winch, a Justice of the Peace, Alderman of the City and Governor of the Edward VI Grammar School. Henley was one of six members of the family, the others being Edward, Jacob, Ernest, Harry and Percy given prominence in a publication of 1956, to mark the recovery of Curl Brothers store from its war-time traumas.
In 1929, the directors of the firm were Harry Curl and Percy Curl, together with Messrs H. Smith and R. Pretty. By this time the store had 51,000 square feet of floor-space, a big store indeed. The previous year had seen the opening of a restaurant/café on the first floor where a six-course lunch was on offer for two shillings and six pence! All of this gives an idea of what was lost to Norwich on that night in 1942. The morning saw firemen working on a smoking ruin with girders twisted by the heat - the surface of Rampant Horse Street bore witness for years after where burning planks had fallen. Other stores in the block such as R.G. Pilch, the sports specialists, had also gone. Across Rampant Horse Street, the great store of Buntings and the large F.W. Woolworths were also reduced to ruin, burnt out in what was to become known as the 'fire-blitz' This was the start of the years when citizens, remembering what had been, had to contemplate a void in the very heart of the city with a great hole in the ground where the basement of Curls store had been, an ugly reminder of war even after peace came. The 'hole' did duty as a static water tank and as a car-park but nothing healed the hurt the city had suffered. At this time too, Bonds' store was lost through bombing, to add to the enormity of what Norwich had had to endure. There was certainly no comparable loss in any other East Anglian town.
Perhaps Norwich and its retail trade has received insufficient acknowledgement for the way in which it coped at this time. There was great co-operation between retailers who, until the bombing, had regarded themselves as competitors. Floors in other stores were made available for the 'bombed-out' Norwich shook itself and carried on. Curls found itself in Westlegate in property made available by the Norwich Union, where it became a much smaller but favourite store of many people.
It seemed the 'hole' would never be filled but it was, in the early 1950s work started, and gradually a great skeleton of steel girders appeared. Woolworths was already rebuilt, Buntings had been the site of a large NAAFI Services Club and gave way to the arrival of Marks & Spencer, but it was the rebuilding of Curls that seemed to crown the Norwich retail recovery. In the spring of 1956, the new store was ready and opened with no less than 97,000 square feet of floor-space. It had entrances on four thoroughfares, Brigg Street, Orford Place, Red Lion Street and, of course, Rampant Horse Street where it had all began. In due time Curls' became Debenhams' and later still the trading name of Curls gave way to the new owners. Nothing should make us forget that the enterprise of some brothers from West Winch gave us something of which the city may be very proud.