Book honours Norwich unsung heroes

Derek James takes a look at a book which celebrates the work of a pioneering city doctor and a social reformer.

Through the centuries Norwich has been famous for some surprising things.

Many people know about the shoes, textiles, canaries and mustard.

Fewer are aware of our city's role in the development of the aeroplane and fewer still of our own anti-slavery campaigner, or of the doctor with an international reputation in bladder stones and freedom of information.

John Green Crosse (1790 to 1850), pictured right, was the senior surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

He gained a reputation for seeing anyone who needed his help, whether or not they could pay, and specialised in removing bladder stones.

He was also renowned for passing on medical knowledge – through his own papers, through giving dissection demonstrations, through starting a library, a medical book club and a group for surgeons and through taking on apprentices who lived in his own house at Orford Hill.

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At the bottom of nearby Timberhill is a blue plaque, commemorating the achievements of this skilful and generous doctor.

He was an early adopter of the freedom-of-information ethos which underpins much of the internet today and realised that if doctors shared information and expertise, patient care could be greatly improved.

Dr Crosse is just one of the many notable people and buildings commemorated in a book highlighting the stories behind the city's blue plaques.

In his book, The Blue Plaques of Norwich, author Nick Williams also tells the story of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, pictured far right. His was a comfortable and privileged background. He married into the Gurney family (fellow social reformer Elizabeth Fry was his sister-in-law.)

His wife was Norwich girl Hannah Gurney of Earlham Hall and he followed the family's lead in helping the poor, starting a system of financial help for unemployed weavers, campaigning against dreadful conditions in prisons and crusading against slavery. When he was elected to Parliament he joined forces with William Wilberforce. Sir Thomas's work was crucial to the final abolition of slavery.

He eventually retired in Northrepps Hall in north Norfolk but his blue plaque is on the wall of the Friends Meeting House in Lower Goat Lane, where he would have worshipped alongside his Quaker wife and in-laws.

The story behind another blue plaque – this one at the junction of London Street and Castle Street begins in an ironmongers shop and ends with the first metal aeroplane. Two shopkeepers and their apprentice set up a small factory making agricultural tools, iron railings and wire netting.

With the outbreak of the First World War the firm, Boulton and Paul, began making aircraft from their Rose Lane factory.

When they needed somewhere to assemble the final product, and fly the planes from, they laid out an airfield on Mousehold Heath. They also had to expand their production site across the river from Rose Lane and it was at the Riverside Works, now part of the new Riverside development, that more than 2,530 war-planes were built. This included a series of all-metal aeroplanes for the RAF.

However, the most ambitious aircraft made in Norwich was the enormous R101 airship.

The great airship was made in sections in Norwich and transported to Bedfordshire to be put together.

When complete she flew back over Norwich and thousands turned out to cheer. Tragically the jubilation turned to tragedy when the largest airship in the world crashed and burned in France – although B&P were cleared .

Tomorrow I will be taking a look at the changing face of Riverside with a fascinating old picture of the way it was.

The Blue Plaques of Norwich, by Nick Williams, brings to life the stories behind the people, places and buildings commemorated on the plaques installed by Norwich Heart (Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust.) This absolutely fascinating book is a must for anyone interested in the history of Norwich and is available from local bookshops.