A Visit to the Tower


A post written by blog reader and Twitter follower Karen Wallace.


On the 12th August 1916 my Gt-Gt Uncle Herbert (aged 24) died at The Somme and on the 22nd October 1917, his brother, my Gt-Gt Uncle Albert (aged 23) died at Poelcappelle, better known as the battle of Passchendaele.

It was with these two relatives in mind that I felt I had to visit the display at the Tower of London and somehow pay my respects to them and to all of the 888, 246 fallen servicemen of the First World War.

It was dark when we arrived.  There was a bright, almost full-moon and The Tower was illuminated with a soft glow of lights dotted around its perimeter. There was hardly a soul there at 8 o’clock in the evening and the traffic had died down to be a gentle hum.



It was beautifully peaceful and serene and the poppies were there, in the shadow’s, as if resting or sleeping. They weren’t lit up at all, which made it feel slightly eerie and surreal.  None of us said very much – we were in awe. We took some photos but mostly we just felt an air of calm and stillness and we had to drag ourselves away.


The next day, we were blessed with glorious autumn weather and seeing the whole display was an attack on the senses. This stunning visual display was so completely awe-inspiring and beautiful that it almost took my breath away. It truly is an emotional sight.

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The intricateness of the tumbling poppies from the windows and the bank of poppies on the east side of the Tower was so brilliant in their conception and execution that it brought a lump to my throat. The intensity of the red against the pale brick walls was so breath-taking that I could not take enough photos of them.

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When we walked round past the snaking queue waiting to enter The Tower, we were not expecting the sight of so many tourists who had flocked to see them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so busy there before. And then seeing the bank of red in the widest part of the moat was a stunning sight to behold. And everybody was so polite to each other! People waited patiently for others to finish taking their photographs before gently moving into the vacant space to take theirs; people were offering to take photos of each other so they didn’t have to do the dreaded ‘selfie’! We were asked several times and I also offered and likewise, a lovely couple took a picture of us for posterity.


It didn’t take long for us to realise that we were taking part in a piece of history. Nothing like this would happen again, not in our life-time. We needed to drink in the whole atmosphere, to savour the situation and make the most of the event. We couldn’t rush this so we calmly, and slowly made our way round the whole perimeter of The Tower. From every side, from every angle it was beautiful. There were scores of volunteers planting more poppies and being involved in a piece of British artistic and cultural history.

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I most definitely need to travel back and see it again. I need to take my grandchildren and for them to see history in the making, to see a once-in-a-lifetime event that marks such a dreadful part of our history and the futility of war.

When we first saw the poppies, it was hard to comprehend their beauty with such death and destruction, but then you look a bit closer and it clicks into place just how many of our young men died in such a futile conflict.

1 poppy = 1 life.  And two of those poppies are for my Gt-Gt Uncles and I’m so glad I purchased one as I now feel even more connected with this historic event and with Uncle Albert and Uncle Herbert.


One week left to visit the Norfolk in the First World War exhibition!

A moving exhibition commemorating the lives of Norfolk people at home and abroad during the First World War is in the Long Gallery at the Norfolk Record Office for one more week!

Visitors to the free exhibition which runs until 31 October can find out through first hand accounts about the effects of rationing, invasion fears and air raids – Norfolk was the first place in Britain to experience a fatal air attack.

Stories of the war’s impact on Norfolk people’s lives, both those serving on the various war fronts in the army and navy and also of those back at home, are told through photographs, letters, diaries and other documents held by the Norfolk Record Office.

And the exhibition looks at the roles of women in The Great War – those taking on jobs traditionally reserved for men such as engineering and working on the land, and others serving in the over sixty wartime hospitals in the county.

Frank Meeres, Project Archivist and exhibition curator, said: “This is very much a ‘people’s exhibition’ – most of the documents in it are donations made by Norfolk people proud of their family heritage.”

Gresham’s School students joined the Norfolk Record Office to learn about using an archive, handling documents and gaining experience finding and interpreting documents. Using their new skills, they wrote the text for two of the exhibition panels – one on rationing in WWI, the other on the Zeppelin raids – and the students chose the items that would be photographed and/or displayed in the cases.

So come along to see this diverse and informative exhibition. The Norfolk Record Office is located at: The Archive Centre, Martineau Lane, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 2DQ (opposite County Hall)

Opening Hours:
Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 9am – 5pm
Tuesday: 9.30am – 5pm
Thursday: 9am – 7pm

A rare image of an operation taking place at the Norfolk and Norwich War Hospital in 1916

A rare image of an operation taking place at the Norfolk and Norwich War Hospital in 1916

A rare image of an operation taking place at the Norfolk and Norwich War Hospital in 1916

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original posters, photographs, notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)

Remembering a Gresham’s School Old Boy

Remembering Midshipman John Kempson

On 15th October 1914 Midshipman John Kempson went down with his ship HMS Hawke in the North Sea.  He was seventeen years of age.  His old School, Gresham’s, is remembering  John, the first of over 100 ex-pupils to die in the conflict, with a special commemorative service on the anniversary of his death.


John Reginald Kempson was born in Knighton, Leicestershire on 17th June 1897.  By 1892 the family was living in Norfolk in a large house at South Street, Sheringham.  John entered Gresham’s as a day boy in May 1909, but soon obtained a scholarship allowing him to become a boarder in Old School House. Although John was only at the School for three terms the Gresham magazine records that he played cricket for the day boys against one of the boarding houses, Bengal Lodge, and came second in a 500 yard running race in an athletics competition.

At the tender age of thirteen John decided on a career in the Royal Navy and by May 1910 had been accepted as a cadet at Osborne. His training was completed at Dartmouth where he did so well that on his first posting, to HMS Cumberland, he was promoted after only a month and reallocated as Midshipman to the cruiser HMS Hawke in August 1914 as the ship’s crew was brought up to strength in preparation for war.

Hawke had been recommissioned in February 1913 as a training ship, but with the outbreak of war became part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron engaged in blockading duties.  Their mission was to block access to the North Sea for German ships and to ensure that neutral ships were not carrying materials destined for Germany.

On Thursday 15th October HMS Hawke was approximately 60 miles off Aberdeen when she was stopped in order to receive mails and signals from another cruiser, Endymion, via a cutter between the two ships.  The manoeuvre was observed by the commander of a nearby German submarine, Otto Weddingen, and following the delivery of mail, Endymion got away but Hawke was struck by a torpedo on the starboard side causing two simultaneous explosions sending her to the bottom in less than eight minutes at 11 am.

Nearly 600 seamen subsequently found themselves trapped or struggling to survive the freezing waters.  One survivor commented – “I have never been on a ship so well equipped with lifesaving apparatus, but the way the vessel heeled over made it almost impossible to get the boats out,” whilst another stated – “many of the crew had scrambled on to the side of the sinking cruiser as she turned turtle and were sliding and diving into the sea.”  Several rafts had floated clear along with the mailboat cutter, but for the vast majority of the seamen there was little hope.  Hawke’s fate was not realised until later that day, and the first of 70 men to be rescued not picked up until early on Friday morning.

Kempson’s naval record, published in the Gresham magazine in December, stated that he was “killed in action, vessel torpedoed by submarine in the North Sea.”  His name was the first to be carved on the memorial screen in the School Chapel and the first to be listed on Sheringham’s War Memorial.  As one of the earliest and youngest of the Great War casualties his name is also remembered on other memorials including that at Chatham and the Roll of Honour for the City of Norwich.  Dallas Wynne Willson, housemaster of the Old School House, was moved to create his own roll of honour in memory of the little boys in his House who lost their lives.  The vellum document is a treasured part of the Gresham’s School Archive and bears the photograph (above) of young John Kempson as a naval cadet.


This post was written  by Liz Larby,  the Gresham’s School Archivist, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hawke and the loss of the first Gresham’s boy in the Great War 

Remembering Two World Wars Through Fiction

Afternoon tea, cakes and conversation with two authors.

We’re very excited at the Millennium Library to be playing host to two fabulous authors this November as we commemorate Armistice Day.


Anna Hope, who has written a fantastic debut novel called Wake all about the burial of the Unknown Warrior, and Lissa Evans, whose novel Crooked Heart is about the impact of WW2 on people, will be in conversation about their books with Alison Barrow from Transworld publishing.

The event will start at 2pm with tea and cakes and then the authors will talk about their books and take questions from the audience for about an hour.

Tickets to this event are just £2.50 and thanks to the generosity of the publisher the first twenty people to book a place will receive a free hardback novel from one of our guests.

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The Norfolk Regiment on the Somme

We’re very pleased to announce that in November we will be holding two very different events to commemorate Armistice Day at the Millennium Library.

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On Thursday 13th November historian Steve Smith will be giving a talk about the Battle of the Somme from the point of view of the Norfolk Regiment.

The talk will start at 6.00pm and will be fully illustrated as Steve intends to visit the battlefield this month to have the most up to date images possible.

Steve will talk for about an hour and then there will be time for questions.  Steve’s brand new book about Norfolk during WW1 will also be on sale at the event.

Tickets are £2 and can be purchased from the Sound and Vision Desk at the library or by emailing norwich.admin.lib@norfolk.gov.uk

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The Norfolk Regiment in October 1914: The Casualty Book

Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.

The Norfolk Regiment's First World War Casualty Book

The Norfolk Regiment’s First World War Casualty Book

One of the most useful and important records that we have at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum is the regimental Casualty Book. This unique record lists the sickness and injuries of more than 15,000 soldiers who served during the First World War.

As information about casualties from the 1st and 2nd (Regular) and the 7th, 8th and 9th (Service) Battalions arrived at Britannia Barracks, clerks compiled the details into this large leather-bound volume. No other regiments appear to have such a comprehensive record.

Each soldier’s entry contains his service number, battalion, name, details of their injury or sickness, and which hospital they were sent to. A wide variety of wounds, from gun shot to frost bite, and sickness, from tonsillitis to shell shock, are listed. The entries are written in a mixture of abbreviations, acronyms and shorthand, making them quite difficult to decipher.

The Casualty Book before being re-bound.

The Casualty Book before being re-bound.

This picture shows the book as it looked before it was restored by paper conservators at the Norfolk Record Office. They rebound the volume, and took high-quality photographs of each page for use in our transcription project.

We are currently working to digitise the book, through an online crowd-sourcing project. We are going to create a website on which the public will be able to access images pages from the book and tag names, dates, events, types of injury and sickness and so on. Currently, we’re looking for volunteers to help refine our term lists before the website goes live – if you’re interested please email rachel.willis@norfolk.gov.uk.

The book has been indexed by name already, but once it has been transcribed we will be able to search in many different ways, such as by date or battle. For example, we would be able to search for October 1914, and see what was happening to the men of the Norfolk Regiment exactly one hundred years ago.

Casualty Book entry for F. Baker

Casualty Book entry for F. Baker – click to enlarge

We would be able to find entries such as this one for Private F. Baker of the 1st Battalion. It starts with him being wounded and sent to 2 Northern General Hospital at Becket’s Park, Leeds on 29th October 1914.

We know that on this date one company of the 1st Norfolks was sent to help the Devonshire Regiment who were under heavy fire near Festubert and Givenchy. We can assume that it was in this attack that Baker was injured. He is injured again during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and received a “G.S.W.” (gun shot wound) to his left hand.

On February 20th, 1917, it is reported in the Casualty Book that Baker was suffering from “N.Y.D. (Not Yet Diagnosed) Shell Shock.” Millions of men like Baker experienced psychological trauma as a result of their war experiences, but the condition was not yet fully understood and treatment was often harsh.

We would love to be able to make this record more accessible for researchers. If you’d like to be involved with our Casualty Book project please contact rachel.willis@norfolk.gov.uk for more information or click the link below for more information.

Information for Volunteers