Reader response: Your memories of wartime Norwich and St Stephens

Oak Street bomb damage

Oak Street bomb damage. Date: 27th April 1942 - Credit: Archant Library

THANK YOU. To all our readers who have been telling us how the photographs and stories in Through the Decades bring back so many memories.

They may be pictures and tales about events they were at or remember, members of their families, friends or places which have a special meaning.

Even memories of sleeping in the back of a lorry to escape the bombs during the Second World War.

Employees of Watlings in 1966

Many of the men who worked for Watlings are on this picture taken in 1966 by A E Coe of a British Road Service gathering to commemorate long service awards. - Credit: Courtesy of Gerald Harkins

Just after Christmas Gerald Hawkins shared some photographs with us of workers and their families at a company with rarely gets a mention nowadays… Charles Watlings (Carriers) and the following companies of P.X. and then British Road Services.

Charles, born in 1871,  was the former stable boy who grew up to become one of our greatest and best-loved citizens. Setting up a groundbreaking and pioneering transport company which moved from horses to lorries and travelled the country.

Gerald’s father George worked for the firm for most of his life and at Christmas time during the war around 40 lorries drove from Surrey Street in the city out to Mulbarton Common in the evening to park up and escape the bombing raids.

Charles and Geoffrey Watling and their men on Mulbarton Common

The wonderful old photograph which caused so much interest. Charles and Geoffrey Watling and their men on Mulbarton Common where they drove to at night during the Second World War. - Credit: Courtesy of Gerald Hawkins

The drivers slept in the lorries and often their families spent the night in the back of the lorries. The common was safer than the city.

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“My brother George (born in 1937) and I (born in 1942) must have endured some rather safe but uncomfortable nights in Mulbarton,” said Gerald.

The story and pictures brought some great memories back.

“Our family loved reading your article on the Watling family, especially to see my grandfather Basil Hirst in front of the lorries on Mulbarton Common,” said Kate Aldred of Thrigby.

And Jean Thompson (Riches) said: “Thank you so much for the piece about the Watling family, at last the story has been told.

“I was one of the youngsters who slept in the lorry on Mulbarton Common along with our neighbours in Avenue Road, Norwich, as my dad Jack Riches worked for Watlings PX British Road Services and then Pickfords which was part of the group,” said Jean.

“Jack Grady was his pal and we also knew the Dennis Foxen.

“I used to go with my dad in the school holidays delivering shoes to a shop in Long Stratton which was our first stop, going to Diss where we ended up taking a delivery of brushes from the factory there, before going back to Norwich,” said Jean.

She recalled how the men would have fishing matches on a Sunday and one Sunday they received a call from the office at Surrey Street to say the drivers had to go to Sea Palling as soon as possible.

This was the time of the terrible East Coast floods in 1953.

“My dad went and did not come home for six weeks as the lorries were based at Butlins Holiday Camp at Skegness. They were carting sand etc,” added Jean.

St Stephens, Norwich, before road widening. c1968. Photograph courtesy Jack Roberts Archive

St Stephens Street in Norwich, before the road was widened. Date: c1968. - Credit: Courtesy Jack Roberts Archive

We also heard from Alan Mallett following our story last week on the life and times of St Stephens in Norwich. It was one that brought back many memories.

In the late 1950s he was articulated to the chartered accountants Larking & Larking and remembers visiting Duff Morgan’s garage where Mr Fish was the company secretary.

He pointed out that in our pictures before the road widening was Parfoot & Co, newsagents which went on to be owned by Russell Colman, the founder of R P Colman & Co, stationers.

And Alan added: “I well remember the demolition of that side of St Stephen’s. One Saturday evening in about 1962/3 I went into town for a pint or three with the late Robin Wiley and on our homeward walk we amazed to see that half the street had vanished whilst we were drinking. It was very sobering!”

Once again thank you… and keep those memories coming in.

Who was Charles Watling?

Charles Frederick Watling was born in Norwich during 1871, the son of William Watling and started life as a stable boy.

By 1890 he was driving a parcel delivery cart in the city and in 1915 he took over his employer’s bankrupt firm Globe Parcels Express with one pony and a two-wheeled cart.

Lord Mayor of Norwich at the time of City Hall's opening in 1938 - Cllr Charles Watling JP.Photo:

Lord Mayor of Norwich at the time of City Hall's opening in 1938 - Cllr Charles Watling JP. - Credit: Supplied

This was the start of the business which became known as F C Watling Ltd., although he was forever faithful to the horse and was said to have never driven a car.

He became a Liberal councillor in 1922, Sheriff of Norwich in 1929 and a magistrate in 1934.

Charles married Martha Fenella Nicholas of Swaffham in 1898 and they had two sons and a daughter.

A brilliant public speaker he was much loved across the city and county. He was particularly active on the Ancient Buildings Committee working on projects such as Elm Hill.

King and Queen arrive at Norwich City Hall for its opening in 1938 Archant pic

King and Queen arrive at Norwich City Hall for its opening in 1938. - Credit: Archant Library

He was the proud Lord Mayor in 1938 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Norwich to open the new City Hall. Thousands of people packed the city centre to watch.

Charles was the stable boy who grew to become one of our best-loved citizens.

Opening of Norwich City Hall by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 29th October 1938.

Opening of Norwich City Hall by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 29th October 1938. - Credit: Archant Library