by James Anthony

The Forum is often described as a key landmark of Norwich, a grand glass structure which stands alongside City Hall and St. Peter Mancroft Church, overlooking the market. Intended as a building fit to mark the turn of the century, The Forum was opened in November 2001 and has since become one of the main meeting places in the city centre, truly a forum for the people of Norwich.

Many of those meeting there – enjoying pizza, coffee and the various exhibitions hosted within – may not realise the scale of destruction and loss of history that took place twenty-three years ago, pre-dating the grand building we know today.

Often it can be local history that suffers the hardest from disasters, and this is certainly the case with the Norwich library fire. On 1st August 1994, thousands of historic documents were damaged or destroyed in a fire that burned for four hours at Norwich Central Library, which stood where the Forum is located today.

Norwich Central Library held more than two million documents including the 800-year-old Norwich City Charter and manuscripts dating back as far as 1090.

My parents, living in Norwich at the time, still recall smelling the burning books and papers in the city centre, feeling a great sense of loss as hot ash fell on the surrounding area. It  was felt across the city, and the local community were quick to support the rescue effort. Food companies donated refrigerated lorries to freeze-dry waterlogged manuscripts in attempts to save them, and thousands of people donated old books and pictures about Norfolk to replace the damaged records.

Norwich Central Library held more than two million documents including the 800-year-old Norwich City Charter and manuscripts dating back as far as 1090. While such items were kept in fireproof containers in the library, many became soaked and ruined as fire crews put out the blaze. The American Air Division Memorial Library, a part of the building holding records of Norfolk-based US servicemen who were in and around Norwich during the Second World War, was also completely destroyed.

( Norwich Library Fire – TH / EDP )

It is even more significant to consider that much of the history contained at the old Norwich Central Library may well be entirely forgotten now that the original manuscripts and documents have been lost forever. There were copies and records of some of the older documents, but it is hard to imagine just what could’ve been discovered if we looked at the collection as a whole through the lens of current historical study.

These records and documents were irreplaceable parts of history, and the real shame is that they were lost forever, because they only related to a local area and few were kept elsewhere. Norwich history is just as important to so many people, to our city’s culture and past, as much as some national history. Make no mistake – this was a tragedy. The director of Norfolk library services summed up the importance of these documents and the devastation felt by saying that the loss to the people of Norfolk was on the same scale as if the National Gallery in London had gone up in flames.

Make no mistake – this was a tragedy.

It is a fitting tribute that the Forum still contains a library with many local documents from the past as well as a vast collection of books for people to enjoy today. The library fire of 1994 was undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies in recent Norwich memory. The Forum represents the new, the architectural cutting edge and the creative side of Norwich – but we should not forget what stood in its place just over twenty years ago, and what a great loss it was for our fine city.

All images via EDP / TH


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