The Boys are Back in Town! The American Red Cross Service Club, Bishop’s Palace, Norwich

In 1942, General Eisenhower tasked the American Red Cross with establishing a chain of service clubs throughout the United Kingdom to accommodate the masses of US soldiers on leave. Service Clubs were designed as a home-away-from-home with American décor, American-inspired meals, and showers so US troops could have a reprieve from the dreaded British bath.

Whilst many Clubs were established in requisitioned hotels, the Service Club in Norwich had the unconventional setting of the Bishop’s Palace, the residential home of the Bishop of Norwich situated due north of the cathedral. The foundations of the medieval palace were laid by the first Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga (c.1095-1119). The first major alterations came in the early 14th century when Bishop Salmon rebuilt the palace on the original foundations. A drawing-room was added on the first floor above the kitchen by Bishop Walter Hart in the 15th century. This was wainscoted by Bishop Repps a century later with oak panelling from St Benet at Holme. The first major works to be carried out since the 14th century occurred when Bishop John Pelham employed the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ architect to remodel the Palace in 1858-9 CE, which involved moving the entrance to the north elevation, restoring the Bishop’s chapel and dining hall, and refacing the west façade with flintwork (fig. 1).

Fig.1. Bishop’s Palace following the 1858-9 renovations by Bishop Pelham.

Architectural plans of his remodel are held at the Norfolk Record Office and offer great insight into the layout of the building before it was taken over by the American Red Cross. The lower ground floor comprised a sizeable kitchen with spacious vaulted ceiling (fig. 2 – NRO: DN/ADR 10/4). The ground floor had a large dining room to the east. Also on this floor were a library, waiting room, and bedrooms (fig. 3 – NRO: DN/ADR 10/4). The first floor contained sleeping quarters connected by a large drawing room (fig. 4 – NRO: DN/ADR 10/4).

Fig. 2. 1859 plans of Bishop’s Palace lower ground floor (NRO: DN/ADR 10/4).

Fig. 3. 1859 plans of Bishop’s Palace showing layout of ground floor (NRO: DN/ADR 10/4).

Fig. 4. 1859 plans of Bishop’s Palace showing layout of first floor (NRO: DN/ADR 10/4).

From Ecclesiastical Residence to Recreational Club

The Service Club was operational by February 1943, but the official opening did not take place until 10 July 1943. The Eastern Evening News reported on 12 July 1943 that, after speeches of welcome and gratitude delivered by the Lord Mayor of Norwich and Mr. Robert Bondie (chief administrator of American Red Cross Services to American Armed Forces), Bishop Herbert formally handed over the key to the Palace to representatives of the USAAF. Bishop Herbert remarked that “his 67 predecessors…would be astonished at seeing their private residence and the centre of the establishment that marked their high dignity, used for these strange purposes”, but thought “these walls had never been put to better use.” A photograph held by the Norfolk Record Office captures attendees enjoying some entertainment during the opening ceremony (fig. 5 – NRO: MC 371/703, USF 18/3).

Fig. 5. Photograph of a performance at the opening of the ARC Service Club at the Bishop’s Palace, Norwich, July 1943 (NRO: MC 371/703, USF 18/3).

Staff

Mr. W. B. Covington served as Club Director. He was assisted by programme director, Miss Peggy Green, who can be seen alongside Mary Harbage, Polly Poulsen, and Mrs Johnson in a photograph of the ARC ladies from the Bishop’s Palace Club (fig. 6 – NRO: MC 376/330, USF 17/1).

Fig. 6. Photograph of ARC women from the Bishop’s Palace (left to right: Mary Harbage, Peggy Green, Mrs Johnson, and Polly Poulsen) (NRO: MC 376/330, USF 17/1).

Facilities

The running of the Club was helped by some much needed facility upgrades that succeeded in transforming the 800-year-old large, chilly residence of the Bishop into a warm, welcoming hostel. An official photographic survey of the Club conducted in 1943 provides extraordinary visual documentation of the operational and recreational facilities in the Club following the interior transformation of the building. The pantry was now filled with boxes, jars, and tins that only hints at the logistical problems of storing and itemising the masses of food needed to feed the men (fig. 7). In the kitchen the British cook, Mrs Babstock, was pictured hard at work making vast numbers of tasty looking doughnuts and pastries for American troops (fig.8).

Fig. 7. Pantry in the ARC Club, Bishop’s Palace.

Fig. 8. Kitchen facilities in the ARC Club, Bishop’s Palace.

The entrance hall had a clothes-mending point (fig. 9). A dormitory was set up in the deconsecrated Bishop’s chapel. Here, a tired serviceman was snapped catching some rest in ‘Elizabeth’s bed’, named after the grave of the daughter of a former Bishop located beneath (fig. 10).

Fig. 9. British women mending US servicemen’s shirts in the entrance hall of the ARC Service Club at the Bishop’s Palace.

Fig. 10. Dormitories at the ARC Service Club, Bishop’s Palace.

The grand dining room was transformed into a cafeteria with the counter buffet service and tables where the men could enjoy a meal and conversation beneath portraits of former Bishops (fig. 11).

Fig. 11. Servicemen enjoying a meal in the cafeteria.

The oak-panelled drawing-room was now a comfortable common lounge where servicemen could enjoy a spot of table tennis, read a newspaper, or write letters to loved-ones back home (figs. 12 & 13).

Fig. 12. Servicemen relaxing in the common room of the ARC Service Club, Bishop’s Palace.

Fig. 13. Writing facilities in the common room, Bishop’s Palace.

A Social Club

The photographs show American servicemen enjoying the quiet tranquillity of the ancient house and its grounds. Yet there were more lively aspects of the Service Club. The sign over the mantelpiece in the lounge reads “Welcome to North and South Dakota, Iowa – Missouri” and refers to a jamboree to be held by men from these states. These ‘State nights’ were hosted every week at the Bishop’s Palace. Other events hosted included garden parties, weekday concerts and theatrical productions, and dance evenings. The Club also produced pamphlets for visiting servicemen which gave a brief history of the Bishop’s Palace, a map of Norwich, and places of interest in the city (figs. 14 & 15 – NRO: MC 371/220, USF 4/6).

Fig. 14. Pamphlet for the American Red Cross Service Club, Norwich (obverse) (NRO: MC 371/220, USF 4/6).

Fig. 15. Pamphlet for the American Red Cross Service Club, Norwich (reverse) (NRO: MC 371/220, USF 4/6).

The State Registers

The American Red Cross’s objective to provide social engagement and welfare is preserved in the men’s own words via a set of four registers once used at the Club and now held at the Norfolk Record Office (MC 371/917-920). Known as the State Registers because entries were filled (more or less) chronologically under pre-inserted tabs labelled and arranged (more or less) alphabetically by US state name, the registers remain the most comprehensive, self-contained list of American servicemen in East Anglia during World War II. The registers were like a written version of the ‘State nights’ in that they encouraged contact between men from the same or neighbouring American states. Along with date, name, and hometown, servicemen regularly added their Army Post Office (APO) number to aid correspondence (fig. 16 – NRO: MC 371/918, USF OVR/8). Many also included their bomb or squadron group numbers, airfield station numbers, Army Service Numbers, and rank.

Fig. 16. A page from State Register (NRO: MC 371/918, USF OVR/8).

There were often also more informal, even whimsical, notes, such as nicknames, preferred names, names of high schools, and even musical talents and athletic achievements (including Joe A. Walery, the holder of the 100-yard dash record at North Dakota State) (figs. 17 & 18 – NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7). Major life events were given occasionally. Here, Louis Ferrone supplemented his entry with a note about his marriage to Willena Norman, along with a note that they were ‘getting along nicely’ (fig. 19 – NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7).

Fig. 17. Nickname ‘Bearcat’ in the registers (NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7).

Fig. 18. Athletic achievements included in the State Registers (NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7).

Fig. 19. Marriage of Louis Ferrone mentioned in the State Registers (NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7).

We can date the official photographical survey of the Service Club to the weekend of the 9th and 10th of August 1943 (shortly after its official opening) by comparing the men’s names from the photographic records to their entries in the State Registers. We also learn from their entries that Corporal E. Williams’ forename was George (fig. 12), and, through a study of the APO numbers, that he and Staff Sergeant Arnold James (fig. 13) were with support units associated with Fighter Wings of the 8th Air Force, and the man sleeping in ‘Elizabeth’s bed’ (fig. 10) was a Staff Sergeant with the 20 Command Bomb Wing of the 2nd Bomb Division.

Here, the State Registers show themselves as more than a list of visitors to the Club. They become a valuable resource for uncovering personal and service history of the men, in a manner not typically seen in military documentation. In these pages we see not official records making objective observations about the military careers of the men, but a work fashioned by the men themselves that captures the mateship the American Red Cross strove so ardently to support during the hardship of war. It was heart-warming to discover in the archives of the Norfolk Record Office this brief moment in the long history of the residence of the county’s highest ecclesiastical office when it was transformed into a home for frivolity and friendship by American servicemen during World War II.

Written by Rebecca Feakes.

Bibliography

Atherton, Ian (1996) Norwich Cathedral: Church, city and diocese 1096-1996 (London: Hambledon).

Bowman, Martin W. (1997) USAAF Handbook 1939-1945 (Stroud: Sutton).

Freeman, Roger A. (2000) The Mighty Eighth: A History of the Units, Men and Machines of the Us 8th Air Force (London: Cassell).

Holland, Malcolm A. (2010) Sweatin’ Out the Mission: 8th Air Force Ground Support in World War Two (Cheltenham: History Press).

Martin, Robert J. (ed.) (1994) Second Air Division, 8th Air Force, USAAF (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company).

Meeres, Frank (2012) Norfolk at War: Wings of Friendship (Stroud: Amberley Publishing).

Reynolds, D. (2000) Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain 1942-1945 (Phoenix Publishing).

Snelling, Stephen (1996) Over Here: The Americans in Norfolk during World War Two (Derby: Breedon Books).

Storey, Neil R. (2010) Norfolk in the Second World War: A Pictorial History 1939-1945 (Wellington: Halsgrove).

Woolnough, John H. (1981) 8th Air Force Yearbook: The current status of 8th A.F. US associations (Hollywood: The 8th AF News).

Image credits

Fig. 1. Sarah A. Tooley, ‘The Lord Bishop of Norwich’, fig. p. 717.

Fig. 2. NRO: DN/ADR 10/4.

Fig. 3. NRO: DN/ADR 10/4.

Fig. 4. NRO: DN/ADR 10/4.

Fig. 5. NRO: MC 371/703, USF 18/3.

Fig. 6. NRO: MC 376/330, USF 17/1.

Fig. 7. IMW (D 15831) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 8. IMW D 15832) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 9. IWM (D 15823) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 10. IWM (D 15838) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 11. IWM (D 15834) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 12. IWM (D 15825) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 13. IWM (D 15843) AMERICAN RED CROSS SERVICE CLUB, NORWICH: LIFE AT THE CLUB AT THE BISHOP’S PALACE, NORFOLK, ENGLAND, UK, 1943 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Fig. 14. NRO: MC 371/220, USF 4/6.

Fig. 15. NRO: MC 371/220, USF 4/6.

Fig. 16. NRO: MC 371/918, USF OVR/8.

Fig. 17. NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7.

Fig. 18. NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7.

Fig. 19. NRO: MC 371/917, USF OVR/7.

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1 Response to The Boys are Back in Town! The American Red Cross Service Club, Bishop’s Palace, Norwich

  1. Kevin Lee says:

    Thanks for a fascinating insight into what the British had to go through to provide a home from home to the pampered UD service men. I hope that they appreciated it.

    Like

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