The Home Front in Norwich

I’ve been looking very close to home for my next contribution to the blog, and found some fascinating clues about the effects that war had on Norwich Library between 1914 and 1920. The Norfolk Heritage Centre has a set of the Public Library Committee’s annual reports to the Town Council, and these contain all sorts of information…


                 Norwich Public Library, Duke Street early 20th century

 The 1914-15 annual report includes very little reference to the war, and it appears that life and work carried on with few changes. I was interested to see that ‘Some progress has been made with the Norfolk and Norwich Photographic Survey, which was inaugurated in January 1913,’ and amused that ‘it was deemed inadvisable to hold Survey Committee meetings and exhibitions during war time.’ The following year’s report notes that ‘it is hoped that a section can be devoted to the pictorial representation of Norfolk’s share in the Great War, and … donations of photographs of Norfolk regiments, portraits of officers, and portraits of men who have obtained distinction in the war’ were requested.

The chairman of the Library Committee also noted in March 1915 that since the outbreak of war, attendances in the News and Reading Rooms (where a wide range of newspapers and magazines were available) had ‘decreased by about 150 daily’ – a drop of about 12% in comparison with the previous year. The only other impact of war is recorded in the paragraphs about staff, where the Senior Assistant in the Lending Department Mr F T Bussey’s request in March 1915 for permission to enlist in His Majesty’s Forces for the period of the war is noted.

The 1915-16 report clearly indicates that war is now having an impact – it starts with a section headed The Library in War-Time, which begins ‘The Committee realised that there are special national functions which the Library can fulfil during the present period of stress and strain’. Activities undertaken included distributing leaflets issued by the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organizations which examined the causes of the war, and the purchase of a number of books and pamphlets about the origins, causes and history of the war and the countries involved. Many soldiers were billeted in Norwich, and they were given access to all the Library facilities, including being allowed to borrow books. The City Librarian contributed notes to the local papers on ‘What soldiers read’ – the Annual Report notes that ‘their reading was very varied in character, and embraced all branches of knowledge – an interesting illustration of the high mental quality of the great British Army.’!

Another innovation prompted by the war was the creation of the Camps Library, which provided a service for British Army camps at home and abroad. Public Libraries were asked for assistance and Norwich Library supplied the best of the discarded books from the Lending Library and also acted as a collection point for public donations of books and magazines to be sent on to the Camps Library.

Elsewhere in this report a small drop in book issues is noted, with the information that this is common in most other public libraries, due to ‘the enlistment of borrowers and the many national demands on the spare time of others’ although ‘the surprisingly small decrease in this Library’s issues is partly due to its use by soldiers billeted in Norwich.’

The main impact of the war on the Library by this time was its effect on the staffing. The report points out that it had been ‘anticipated that the reorganization of the Reference Library, including the compilation of a catalogue, could be commenced, but the enlistment of the trained members of the staff has caused the postponement of this very necessary work.’ Elsewhere we find that ‘The enlistment of the Sub-Librarian… necessitated the constant attendance of the City Librarian during Library hours, and it was therefore decided to close the Library at 9pm instead of 10pm on week-days and not to open the Reading Room on Sundays.’ And the picture becomes clearer when we read ‘The war has seriously depleted the staff, three members having been granted permission to enlist in H M Forces, with the promise of their positions being retained. In April Mr F T Bussey, the Senior Assistant in the Lending Department, enlisted in the Norfolk Division of the Royal Engineers, and is now in France; in October Mr Charles Nowell, the Sub-Librarian, enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles OTC; and in January Mr R A Nobbs enlisted in the Royal Navy. … Temporary lady assistants have been engaged to carry on the routine work of the Library.’


 Arthur R Nobbs, Royal Navy

 Subsequent reports during the war years and just after continue to include paragraphs on The Library in War-Time and mention, amongst other things, the purchase of books on ’subjects of national importance’ such as Child Welfare; the making of munitions; thrift and economy; and vegetable gardening. The use of the Library by soldiers is recorded in each report, together with the information that the Library held ‘all the important books recommended in the official syllabus issued by the Army in connexion with the scheme of educational training for young soldiers.’ The City Librarian was asked by the military authorities to arrange educational lectures for the soldiers, and many were delivered in the later years of the war, on a range of subjects and mostly illustrated with lantern slides. Official thanks from commanding officers for these and the access to the Library for soldiers are noted in the reports, as well as individual letters of thanks from officers and men. One of these is reproduced in the 1917-18 report, as it accompanied the presentation to the Library by Lieut. Colonel W A J O’Meara of a wax model of part of the Somme Battlefields. He wrote that it represented ‘a small thankoffering’ for the assistance and facilities of the Library that he’d enjoyed during the time he’d been in Norwich.

The 1918-19 report sees the first mention of a ‘Norfolk and Norwich Roll of Honour of the natives and residents who have fallen in the War’, which the Committee agreed should be compiled under the supervision of the City Librarian. By the time the 1919-20 report was compiled, it was estimated that 11,500 names had been recorded, of which 2,600 were Norwich men.

In the 1916-17 report we learn that ‘With the view of preserving a local record of Norfolk’s share in the great war, the Committee has begun to collect suitable items, and would welcome donations of printed or written material which would in any way help to further this object.’ Items requested included portraits of the fallen, press notices of regiments and of individuals, letters describing the experiences of men at the Front, maps, posters and items relating to local branches of the British Red Cross, Volunteers, Special Constables and other war organisations. Later reports record considerable numbers of additions of this type of material, and the 1919-20 report states that ‘nearly all the additions of prints, as in the two previous years, were photographs of men who fell in the War.’ In the summer of 1919 the Library Committee co-operated with the Castle Museum Committee in putting on a Local War Exhibition in the Halls; many local war photos from the Library’s collection were displayed, and ‘an important feature was a collection of photographs of fallen heroes, exhibited in an ante-room.’ These war portraits are now held at the Norfolk Heritage Centre; they have been digitised and are accessible on Picture Norfolk .


picture norfolk screen grab

It’s very revealing to trace the Library’s staffing situation through all the reports from 1914-15 to 1919-20. In 1915-16 three members of staff were given permission to enlist and temporary lady assistants were employed in order to carry on the day to day routines. A year later the report notes that ‘the work of the Library has been carried on with considerable difficulty, owing to further changes in the staff, which had already been seriously depleted. The Committee has had to dispense with the services of two junior assistants with three years’ experience: Mr C C Dye resigned in December and entered a munition factory, and Mr F W Oakes was called to the colours in February. During the year there have been five changes in the temporary staff of lady assistants. Four members of staff are now serving in H M Forces. The Sub-Librarian, Sec.-Lieut. Chas. Nowell (22nd London Regiment), was wounded in France in September, but he was able to return to his military duties in December.’

The news improves in 1919, when the Committee reports that they ‘were glad to welcome the Sub-Librarian, Lieut. Charles Nowell, on his return to the Library in March, after three and a half years’ service in the Army in France and at home.’ And also that they were ‘pleased to record that Sapper Frank T Bussey, the Chief Assistant in the Lending Library, was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty in the offensive in July 1918.’ The story continues in the report for 1919-20, where it is noted that ‘the reorganisation of the Reference Library was begun soon after the return of the Sub-Librarian from military service’ and that as soon as the work was completed, ‘a card catalogue of the Library will be prepared.’ The end of the saga is recorded here too, when the Committee ‘were pleased to welcome the Chief Assistant, Sapper Frank T Bussey, MM, on his return to the Library in June, after four years’ service in France.’

And what of Mr Oakes and Mr Nobbs? A quick check of various databases on Ancestry (available on all Norfolk Library Service computers) leads me to suggest that Arthur Nobbs served as a Sick Berth Attendant at Pembroke I (Royal Navy barracks at Chatham) and Pembroke II, the Royal Oak and at Chatham Hospital. He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal and was paid a War gratuity of £64 in 1922, the year that he was discharged from the service. It appears that he married Ellen Patience Lamb towards the end of 1921 and they both lived to a good age – she died 1971 in Hampshire and he lived until 1973, dying in Surrey. But F W Oakes is more elusive, and I’m still trying to find basic information such as his full name, so that I can search for his war record.


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Millennium Library