Thursday, 26 April 2012
WW2 Norwich: every tag tells a story
LET me introduce you to the Norwich Bomb Map, an amazing piece of Second World War history with a big story to tell. It’s fully six-foot square, a yellowing chart set within a wooden frame showing the greater Norwich area in quite some detail. But it’s not the map itself which is important, it’s what’s on it. Because during the war it hung in the city council’s planning department in Ber Street. And every time a bomb went off, the location was recorded on a tiny tag which gave the weight of the explosive in kilogrammes and then the date. To my knowledge, even 70 years after the Baedeker raids, it remains the best geographical representation of the impact the war had on Norwich. At a glance you can see which parts were most affected, at a glance it pretty much confirmed my theory that the Heigham area of the city was particularly badly-hit.
For years this gem lay all but forgotten in the basement of City Hall. But these days it’s being much more carefully looked after by specialist staff at the Norfolk Record Office. You can get to see it, but only if you make an appointment a few days in advance. I did that last Friday and was guided through the building’s state of the art facilities to a conservation studio where the map had been wheeled out specially for me. There, senior conservator Nick Sellwood explained the problems his team face when it comes to ensuring the map’s survival:
“The pins are ferrous, so they’re rusting,” he told me. “The cardboard tags are likely to be of pretty poor quality because most stuff was during the war and if you look closely you can see how dirty the map itself is – we’ve experimented a bit by just cleaning up the odd field on the outskirts. You can see they’re a lot lighter.
“Now we could change the pins, we could change the map, we could replace just about everything, but then it would no longer be what it is, so we’ve got this massive ethical dilemma about what to do with it.”
The other irony is that the more people want to look at the map, the more fragile it will become – even with much TLC from the NRO. Among the possible answers, detailed photos which could be accessed via the web. My mind immediately raced ahead to an online digital map where you could click onto a tag which could be cross-referenced to other surviving documents together with contemporary and modern photos. (Nick Stone and his Blitz Ghosts would love that wouldn’t he?) But in the current financial climate I suspect such an idea would be way too ambitious. So for now let’s appreciate what we’ve got. A complete overview of the Norwich as targeted by the Luftwaffe.
* A big thank you to Nick Sellwood for a great insight into the world of the conservator …and 1940s Norwich. Thanks also to the County Archivist of Norfolk for permission to reproduce the photos of the map. And for the record, the map is from the Norfolk Record Office, ACC 2007/195. Click on the individual maps to bring them up full-frame.