When the Queen Mother opened a chapter in Norwich history

PUBLISHED: 08:42 29 January 2018 | UPDATED: 08:42 29 January 2018

The Queen Mother during her January 1963 visit to Norwich.

The Queen Mother during her January 1963 visit to Norwich.


Thud, thud, thud... those were the words used to describe the sound of thousands of people trying to keep warm during one of the worst winters on record in Norwich of 55 years ago. Who were they waiting for? Derek James picks up the story.

Brrrr... it was a freezing wait outside City Hall for Norwich's latest Royal visitor.Brrrr... it was a freezing wait outside City Hall for Norwich's latest Royal visitor.

What would tempt the people of Norwich and Norfolk out on the streets on a bitterly cold and snowy Saturday morning in January of 1963? The opportunity to see the much-loved Queen Mother when she arrived to open a controversial building which only survived for a little more than 30 years.

This was the new Central Library in the heart of the city which our “architectural correspondent” said at the time might be taken at first sight for an essay in the cult of “New Brutalism” before adding: “A second and longer look will perhaps suggest a less harsh judgement, though it is certainly a bold and uncompromising statement of its purpose.”

And our correspondent – no name was published – concluded: “Criticism is always easier than creation. The exterior of the building is certainly severe; but it must in fairness be said that the planning is admirable, and all sections of the library will certainly be used with comfort and enjoyment by both the public and the staff.”

Indeed it was and the opening by the Queen Mother was a day to remember for a huge crowd who pulled on their coats and scarves to line the streets, trying to keep warm in a bitter gale by stamping their feet, waiting for the VIP to arrive.

Norwich Central Library: Its Brutalist design was already controversial in 1963. The building was destroyed in the disastrous 1994 fire.Norwich Central Library: Its Brutalist design was already controversial in 1963. The building was destroyed in the disastrous 1994 fire.

We wrote at the time: “Right from the boundary at Drayton Road and down into the city, groups of spectators had gathered at various points to catch a glimpse of the Royal visitor.

“Large groups were concentrated from St Giles Gate along Chapel Field North, Theatre Street and outside the new library and City Hall,” we reported.

The City Hall clock was striking noon when the Rolls Royce arrived. The Queen Mother stepped out to be greeted by a fanfare by the trumpeters of the 1st Battalion, the 1st East Anglian Regiment (Royal Norfolk and Suffolk) and the Lord Lieutenant Sir Edmund Bacon.

She was then welcomed at The Assembly House by a large group of local dignitaries. Lord Mayor Andrew Ryrie spoke about how Norwich had been the first city to adopt the Public Libraries Act of 1850 but by 1937 the Board of Education said more suitable accommodation was urgently required to meet “immediate requirements” in place of the 1857 library.

“I hope your majesty will not chide us too much for having taken 25 years to deal with these ‘immediate requirements’... a world war happened to intervene,” said the mayor.

The Queen Mother replied: “What is a quarter of a century in the life of this great city which, as far back as 1608 had the foresight to establish its first public library in three rooms in the house of the sword bearer?”

And she added: “It is always a very real pleasure to me to visit Norwich, and I am particularly glad that my visit today sees the completion of your Central Library, the fulfilment of many years of careful thought and planning.”

After heading over the road to open the £350,000 library she had lunch at the City Hall. She was also the patron of the Norwich Philharmonic Society and went on to attend a specially-arranged concert at St Andrew’s Hall.

While at the library she was presented with a bouquet of flowers by Janet Durtnall, the youngest member of staff, aged 17.

A feature of the library was the 2nd Air Division American Room which the Americans had donated £30,000 for as a living memorial to the sacrifice and close ties forged during the war. It prompted the Queen Mother to say: “It is a most fitting and imaginative act.”

In a brilliant speech the Queen Mother said: “It has been said that print is our passport to truth. It opens the richest empire man knows, the empire of the human heart and mind.

“Men die, devices change; success and fame run their course. But within the walls of even the smallest library in our lie the treasures, the wisdom and the wonder of man’s greatest adventures on this earth.”

Tom Eaton, chairman of the Libraries Committee, thanked her saying: “For very many years men and women in this city have planned and worked for the day when a new central library would be opened.”

Little did the thousands of people who gathered for the opening on that Saturday in January of 1963 knew that 31 years later fire would destroy the building and today we have The Forum and Millennium Library in a building which has become the beating heart of Norwich life.

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