Search Form
font size: Increase | Decrease | Reset
Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Civil Defence in Norwich

Civil Defence in Norwich

For thirty three years Norwich had a civil defence organisation staffed by hundreds of volunteers whose role was to provide assistance in war and peace. Conceived in response to the threat of German air raids it was resurrected during the Cold War but finally killed off in 1968.

In 1935, with war looming, the Home Office issued advice to local authorities on precautions to be taken in anticipation of air raids, including the recruitment of Air Raid Wardens. Two years later it became compulsory for local authorities to have an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) service using volunteers. After the declaration of war in September 1939 thousands of men and women were recruited by ARP (renamed as Civil Defence General Services). At its peak the service had nearly two million volunteers in its ranks - including boys and girls aged fifteen to eighteen.

They performed sterling service during six years of war, rescuing air raid victims, providing first aid, and as firewatchers, reporting the fall of incendiary bombs. They also acted as wardens, providing advice on air raid precautions and reporting bomb damage. It was dangerous work and nationally over 7,000 volunteers were killed during the war. The younger members carried written messages from warden's posts to the control centres. The role of messenger was an important one - particularly when telephone lines were destroyed in air raids.

The wartime raids gave Norwich its own young hero when fifteen year old messenger John Grix was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery. One evening, when the alert sounded, John rushed to the control centre to receive his orders. In getting there he had to cycle through the heart of the raid, past blazing buildings. At one point he was 'sprayed with acid shooting into the street' from a damaged building. Having spent that night carrying messages and directing fireman from outside the city to fire sites, he spent the next morning helping rescue people from the ruins. The next night followed the same pattern and on several occasions Grix was thrown from his bike by bomb blasts when carrying messages. He was the youngest ever winner of the BEM. When he was introduced to the King , who was making his first war-time visit to Norwich in October 1942, John confessed he had been underage when he joined Civil Defence, and 'had put a year on' to ensure he was accepted.

After a post war lull, tensions between the western powers and the Soviet Union increased - intensified by the fear of nuclear war and its dreadful consequences. Under the Civil Defence Act of 1948 a body know as the Civil Defence Corps was established using the experience gained during the war. It had to face not only the threat of nuclear weapons but also the possibility of biological and chemical warfare.

In Norwich, Civil Defence was administered by the Norwich City Council under the direction of the Town Clerk.  Originally based in Bethel Street, in premises later demolished to make way for the new central library, the organisation moved to imposing headquarters at 23A Cattle Market Street. It also had its own training ground at Heartsease Lane where realistic exercises could be held such as removing people from smoke filled buildings and treating casualties. There were also a number of garages off Hall Road where vehicles were stored.

Like all Civil Defence Corps units Norwich was organised on semi-military lines with the various members wearing insignia appropriate to their rank. It was divided into a number of sections - all based at Cattle Market Street. The Headquarters function was divided into three subsections - intelligence and operations, signals and scientific, and reconnaissance. Most of these required specialist expert knowledge and the senior ranks tended to be ex-officers from the armed services.

The wardens section was described in a 1965 hand book as 'The most vital role in Civil Defence'. Wardens were there to advise and help the people in their neighbourhood in the event of war, and provide advice on precautions in advance of a nuclear attack. After an attack, wardens would be at hand to report on damage and direct help to survivors. They were trained in first aid, fire-fighting, map reading and other useful skills.

The third section was the Rescue Service - headed by the City Engineer - whose role was to rescue people trapped in damaged buildings and administer emergency first aid. It was provided with lifting equipment and hydraulic jacks and each man was trained in rescue techniques and first aid. These skills were developed at the Mousehold training ground where a 'bomb damaged' house existed to make exercises as realistic as possible.

The Ambulance and First Aid Service, which had the largest number of volunteers, was led by the City's Medical Officer of Health and divided into four teams. Its role was to administer first aid and transport those needing further attention to hospital. The training at the Mousehold base included basic first aid, driving one of the twelve ambulances, and leadership skills - useful when taking charge in an emergency. The ambulances were also called into service on occasion to transfer disabled people from the railway station at Great Yarmouth to local holiday camps.

The final section was the Welfare Section, led by the Director of Education. Its role was to support the local authority's Civil Defence functions. In the event of a nuclear attack or a major peacetime emergency it would provide accommodation for people left homeless, organise feeding, and provide information. It would use mobile canteens and Civil Defence volunteers to prepare, cook and serve the meals. Its other functions included the dispersal of refugees left homeless, first aid and home nursing and maintaining morale.

The majority of the Civil Defence staff were volunteers who were encouraged to join by being offered training and the opportunity to provide a public service. Training was 'an hour or two each week' until basic training had been completed and took place at Cattle Market Street or the Mousehold training ground. Once the training had been completed recruits could take a test, which was voluntary, to obtain Class A status, and sign on for a three year term, during which they agreed to spend at least forty five hours a year training or in exercises. A bounty was paid to the Class A volunteers who were the only ones eligible for promotion to officer grades. Those volunteers who failed the test could continue, but as Class B members, or go into the Civil Defence reserve.

There was also the opportunity to learn to drive - but only for those who passed the test and obtained Class A service. Uniforms were provided after training had been completed and a metal badge was available to wear with civilian clothes. Alongside the serious business of preparing for nuclear war Norwich Civil Defence had an active social side. There was a club room at the Cattle Market Street headquarters and according to the 1965 handbook 'Various teams of the Civil Defence Club are anxious to arrange fixtures for badminton, football and angling and most other games.'

Industry was encouraged to take Civil Defence seriously with every work place that had more than 200 employees expected to have a Civil Defence unit. In Norwich most of the large factories and public bodies had one - including Boulton and Paul, Norvic Shoes, British Rail and the Mansfield Box factory in St Saviour's Lane.

By the middle of the 1960s Civil Defence in Norwich was a large organisation. It had around 600 volunteers supported by sixteen permanent staff and a new purpose built control centre underneath the car park at the rear of the City Hall. In the event of a nuclear attack the centre, which had its own generator, could provide power, food and shelter for up to 150 people for three weeks. It would be where the administration of a devastated city would be run from in the event of a nuclear attack. Much of the credit for the healthy state of Civil Defence in the city was due to the efforts of Eric Alley. Since his appointment in 1958 he had doubled the number of volunteers and encouraged twenty of the city's firms to form Civil Defence units. The service also worked in close liaison with the other volunteer emergency services such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Royal Observer Corps.

Toward the end of that decade it was clear the days of Civil Defence were numbered. In February 1966 the five separate sections were replaced by a single all purpose unit, and in September 1967 Civil Defence was re-organised and its numbers reduced to 80,000 as part of cuts in public expenditure. Despite this, its future seemed secure so the announcement in January 1968 that Civil Defence was to be reduced to a care and maintenance basis came as a shock to the organisation. Worse was to follow, as within months the organisation was wound up. Despite demonstrations against the decision Civil Defence was 'stood down' in March 1968. Most of its vehicles and equipment were disposed of, apart from the Green Goddess fire engines which were brought out from time to time during emergencies until they were finally sold off in 2005.

I am grateful to Mike Hurren, a former member of the Rescue Service section of Norwich Civil Defence, who provided much of the material for this article.


  • Introducing Civil Defence in Norwich C1965
  • Eastern Daily Press

Nick Williams

November 2010