The fascinating past of Norwich's 'Clubbing Capital'

The grand Electric Cinema which once stood in Prince of Wales Road. 

The grand Electric Cinema which once stood in Prince of Wales Road. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

What a story this once grand approach into the City of Norwich from the railway station has to tell.

Today it is the clubbing capital. 

Looking back over the years, here are a few things you might not know about this part of Norwich.

1. Vernon Castle, the father of modern dancing in America, lived at the Great Eastern Hotel now the Premier Inn.

2. The Beatles played the wonderful old Grosvenor in 1963 but before that it was a great jazz venue where our very own Queen of the Blues Beryl Bryden played.

3. Not forgetting Norwich-born Tony Sheridan, who the Fab Four called “The Teacher” when they shared a stage with him in Germany.

4. Prince of Wales Road has never been a dull place. It's always been a magnet for those on a night out. It was in 1957 that a trendy espresso bar opened selling what was called a Wimpy Hamburger. And when the first Chinese restaurant, the Soo Chow, opened two years later the owner declared: “There will be no jukebox and if trouble does arise several of the staff, highly trained in the art of Chinese fighting, will be on hand.”

Heavy traffic on Prince of Wales Road, Norwich.Dated 20 July 1957

Heavy traffic on Prince of Wales Road, Norwich. Dated 20 July 1957 - Credit: Archant Library

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If proof were needed there was the time PS Ted Mileham was standing outside the notorious Milk Bar opposite the restaurant. All of a sudden, the glass door exploded and a local chap hurtled through, staggered on the pavement and made a run for it…chased by staff. He should have paid his bill!

One man who does remember those times well is the former head of Norfolk CID, Maurice Morson, who was a young bobby on the beat…and actually held his wedding reception at the Grosvenor in 1959.

Prince of Wales Road looking towards Thorpe Station from Agricultural Hall Plain

Prince of Wales Road looking towards Thorpe Station from Agricultural Hall Plain . No Date - Credit: Archant Library

John Lennon, left with other members of The Beatles at the Grosvenor Rooms in Norwich in 1963

John Lennon, left with other members of The Beatles at the Grosvenor Rooms in Norwich in 1963 - Credit: Supplied

“As a teenager I knew the road as the ‘chicken run,’ girls on one side and boys on the other, but kept moving because the police did not allow you to dwell.

“As a policeman I did the moving,” he recalled.

There was a police box outside Thorpe Station and a pillar phone at Bank Plain. One side was a Beat from A Division and the other side was the responsibility of B Division.

“The street was sedate during the day and boisterous in the evening and night but not quite like today. A night club was a stick in the dark in those days,” he said.

“The Duke of Connaught public house was favoured by Americans much taken with winning the war and in the extreme, while locals of a doubtful reputation favoured The Milk Bar,” added Maurice.

And I suspect some of you reading this will remember that rough and tumble pub on the corner and the Milk Bar where there was always something going on.

“You could have bought a pedal cycle at one end of the road and a Morris Oxford or Sunbeam Rapier at the other end,” he said.

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

“The Regent Cinema and the Electric catered for the non-television public with the Regent queues marshalled by the uniformed figure of Mr Sillett, his long coat making him look like a Russian general,” added Maurice.

I think many of will remember the cinema doormen with their posh uniforms in earlier times. They made sure everyone behaved themselves.

Another famous Norwich policeman who became the first Crime Prevention Officer was Basil Kybird was a great writer and often wrote of his time on PoW road.

“The Milk Bar,” he declared, “was a den of iniquity, frequented by prostitutes, petty thieves, missing persons, absconders, you name it and they would be found within or loitering outside.

And I couldn’t resist sharing this little story from Basil’s booklet Thirty Years with Norwich Police 1950-1980.

“On nights, a favourite ‘hide up’ place of mine was the boiler room in the basement of the Bishop’s Palace which I believe was built in the 1300s.

“It had electric light, was warm, had a chair and not generally known to my colleagues – an ideal place in which to sit, have a coffee from my flask, smoke and write a report perhaps.”

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