From horse market to Curls: A history of the Debenhams building

Scout Week on the blitzed Curls site at Norwich. Dated: 1942-1955

Scout Week on the blitzed Curls site at Norwich. Dated: 1942-1955 - Credit: Archant Library

It has been a horse market, one of the oldest inns in Norwich called the Rampant Horse, a huge shop, a large hole, a playground, a car park, a place for public events and now… time will tell.

Today the site is where the former Debenhams stands. Empty and boarded up. A sad sight.

While the future is in doubt… this site has a rich and colourful history.

The view along Red Lion Street towards  Orford Place with Norwich Castle in the background on March 28, 1957. 

The view along Red Lion Street towards Orford Place with Norwich Castle in the background on March 28, 1957. - Credit: Archant Library

Will Kemp, the actor, ended his famous dance from London to Norwich by capering past it on his way to the Market Place.

It was a horse market, the site of the Rampant Horse Hotel. Irish soldiers were billeted there during the Great Rebellion and in the 18th century it was the starting point of the Ipswich and Norwich Dispatch coach.

The Curls building in Norwich in 1937

This view of Orford Place taken just before the war with the tram regulating building in the centre. The Curl Brothers building in the background was blitzed during the war and the site was used as a large static water tank. The Curls building was rebuilt around 1959 and later changed its name to Debenhams. Date: 1937-8. - Credit: Archant Library

Then, in the 1850s, three Curl brothers, Edward, Jacob and Henley from West Norfolk arrived in Norwich and went on to transform this part of the city into a prosperous shopping centre.

Pass me that cup! Sale time at Curls department store in Norwich on January 1, 1965.

Pass me that cup! Sale time at Curls department store in Norwich on January 1, 1965. - Credit: Archant Library

Just after the turn of the century in 1902, the shop was rebuilt and extended. It had a handsome brass shop front, lit at night with eleven Ediswan lamps… and, inside, a high-tech electric lift no less.

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It employed more than 500 people. In those days staff lived in and apprentices were not allowed to talk to customers.

The relationship between Curls and Buntings (Marks & Spencer) opposite was often fairly cut-throat.

Curls was destroyed on a single night in April of 1942 during the Baedeker Raids. Gone.

Damping down the fires in the ruins of Curls Store, Rampant Horse Street during the Norwich Blitz. Dated: April 30, 1942.

Damping down the fires in the ruins of Curls Store, Rampant Horse Street during the Norwich Blitz. Dated: April 30, 1942. - Credit: Archant Library

A busy Orford Place, Norwich, showing Curls Department store which was in the process of being rebuilt. Dated August 6, 1954.

A busy Orford Place, Norwich, showing Curls Department store which was in the process of being rebuilt. Dated August 6, 1954. - Credit: Archant Library

The site, once cleared, was used for various purposes, events, car parking and the like, until the builders moved in and what was described as the most modern comprehensive department store in East Anglia opened in the Spring of 1956.

The new Curls store on Orford Place, Norwich. Date: February 19, 1955.

The new Curls store on Orford Place, Norwich. Date: February 19, 1955. - Credit: Archant Library

Did you know?

  • At the Rampant Horse Hotel in 1785 one of the star attractions was the “learned pig” which, it was said, was able to spell out words and numbers from letters and figures put in front of it.
  • In the early days of Curls it was reported that live bears were used in a window display of furs.

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