How Norwich escaped terror of the Zeppelin air attacks
PUBLISHED: 13:26 19 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:26 19 January 2015
A century ago Norwich was described as a “City of Dreadful Night” as it was plunged into darkness... making it an offence to even strike a match in the street.
The police and the military agreed that the only way to keep Norwich safe from the Zeppelins causing death and destruction in the First World War was to switch off the lights.
All of them.
The impact of living in a dark city was told at the end of the war by W G Clarke, a journalist with the Norwich Mercury and Eastern Daily Press who also wrote a string of books on Norfolk.
He wrote: “Norwich became the darkest and best protected city in the country.”
In the pre-war days the glow from the lights of Norwich at night could be seen out at sea between Great Yarmouth and Palling.
At the end of 1914 Norwich police received a complaint from lifeboat authority Trinity House saying the lights could be spotted 25 miles away – making Norwich a clear target for Zeppelins. Urgent action was needed.
Circulars were issued by the police to all shopkeepers pointing out the dangers and suggesting lights be extinguished or shaded.
There was little response. So the request became an order - from the military. Trams travelled at night with blinds drawn. Lights outside shops were painted black.
“At this time,” wrote Clarke, “no reduction had been made in the lighting of Ipswich and the Norwich authorities deserve commendation for their prescience, which probably saved the city from disaster at the time of the first Zeppelin raid on January 19 1915.”
But there were still lights shining and further, more intensive raids over Norfolk, were feared.
On January 23 1915, 6,000 lighting order handbills were printed and distributed by special constables to householders across the city. This was probably the first time the Specials were paraded at short notice.
Three days later Brigadier-General Daniell issued a more stringent order, forbidding that all lights, other than those not visible from the outside of any building, were out between 5.30pm and 7am. Church services at night were abandoned as it was difficult to shade large church windows.
Electric light was cut off at the power station and householders were advised to turn off gas at the meter.
The military and the police agreed the best way to protect Norwich from the attacks of hostile aircraft was the strict observance of drastic lighting regulations... it was going to be a long, cold and dark war at home.
Shine a light – and you’d be fined.
The trams ran in darkness, factories covered their windows with tarpaulins. Getting about was difficult. In order to distinguished pavements from roads, the kerbs were whitewashed by a spraying machine fixed on a motor tractor. No lights on cars, motorcycles or bicycles.
In November 1915 the Officer Commanding the Royal Flying Corps at Mousehold Aerodrome, flew over the city at night and reported there were still more lights visible. More action was needed and as a result Norwich became the darkest city in the land.
But there was a lighter side, even in war. “On nights of extreme darkness the conditions were not without a comic aspect,” wrote Clarke. “Sober and respected citizens were unable to find their own homes, or feeling sure they could not be mistaken, boldly walked into someone else’s house. Ladies who took two or three turns in by-streets, lost their bearings, and had to inquire of passers-by where they were.
“Pedestrians walked into trees, lamp posts and street orderly bins, and any obstructions in the highway, sometimes with serious results to themselves,” said W G.
He went on: “Nervous people of both sexes shrieked out every time they heard footsteps and thoughtless people did much execution with umbrella-ribs. Some protected themselves from collisions by a luminous disc pinned to their clothing in some prominent position. Never was there so little traffic in Norwich streets after nightfall.”
From March 1915 to the end of the year, 1,028 summonses were dealt with by the magistrates and fines inflicted amounted to £379.6s. Before the end of the war the total number of people brought before the courts came to 4,042 and the fines added up to a hefty £1,357, 10s. 7d.
On 60 separate occasions “air raid action” was taken in Norwich, and though various parts of the county were hit, the “darkest city in the land” became invisible from the air although citizens reported hearing the Zeppelins above them.
And so Norwich escaped air attacks. In the next war it would not be so lucky.
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