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Thursday, April 15, 2010
In 1995, fire tore through the Assembly House in Norwich. It was a setback for the great Georgian building, but it turned out to be just another chapter in 750 years of triumph and disaster.
The present form we see is Georgian, but as with so many modern city landmarks one generation builds on, or pulls down, the work of another and we must dig deep into the past to fill in the whole picture.
This tale begins in 1248. John le Brun founded a hospital on the site dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Just 30 years later it became a college for secular priests. The College of St Mary in the Fields became popular in the city. This was no enclosed order of monks or friars, but priests who took a part in the everyday life of Norwich and its people. From 1404, when the city was granted the right to govern itself in the form of a corporation, assemblies were held in which citizens chose bailiffs, the officials who were to govern the city for the following year. It was also the base for the Feast of Corpus Christi, an important annual festival in which the trade guilds would march in procession. The guilds were very important in forming social and economic loyalties, as well as taking their religious role seriously. St Marys got the seal of royal approval in 1487 when Henry VII visited Norwich and lodged at the chapel. But the story entered a new chapter following the upheavals of the mid-16th century.
Like most religious houses, the college was suppressed by Henry VIII. In 1544 the site was surrendered by its dean, Miles Spencer, to the king at the Dissolution. Although the great chapel was destroyed during the Reformation, the college buildings survived. The brickvaulted cellar remains, and behind the Georgian facade we see today, the core of the medieval edifice remains. Henry sold or granted religious sites to his supporters among the gentry, and in 1569 the site came into the hands of the Cornwallis family, before being left to the Hobarts early in the following century.
The Hobarts were a Norfolk family who prospered in the legal profession, made a fortune and bought Blickling Hall, building the magnificent Jacobean mansion near Aylsham. They also created a town house at Chapel Fields but, being busy with their country home, leased the Norwich site to tenants, who maintained the tradition of public assemblies. In 1753 John Hobart, the Duke of Buckingham, granted a 500-year lease of Chapel Field House estate (as it was then known) to some aldermen of Norwich for 1800 plus an annual rent of 5. Now the site began to take on its modern appearance.
The city fathers unveiled plans for public places of entertainment for the county and the city. They set architect Thomas Ivory, who also built the Octagon Chapel, to work. Helped by enthusiastic amateur Sir James Burrough, Ivory demolished the central section and created a two-storey structure of five bays with a central projecting bay. They wanted to make an even more grandiose construction, but lack of money meant the wings of the old house were never rebuilt, merely given a facelift.
The new Assembly House opened in the summer of 1755, beginning a golden age of public balls and other festivities. The Noverre family, of Franco/Swiss origin, arrived later. Expert dance masters, they became forever associated with the Assembly House over the next few generations. For a hundred years it was the place to be in Norwich. Franz Liszt played there (although he got bad reviews) and the venue hosted the Norfolk debut of such dances as the polka and waltz. In December, 1805, a Grand Ball and Celebration was held to mark Nelsons victory at Trafalgar; this followed two months of mourning for the Norfolk hero. Flags and banners hung from the balcony on a night to remember. Other famous names to visit included Madame Tussaud, who brought her waxwork display of Sovereigns, Princes and Princesses, Heroes and Statesmen, Poets and Divines. Renowned actress Fanny Kemple impressed a large audience with her readings from Shakespeare in 1851 but in truth the Assembly House was in decline by then.
Public tastes were changing, and its grand assemblies at 5s for tea, wine and cards along with morning concerts were out of favour. A public auction in 1856 failed to find a buyer, so the estate was split up. Frank Noverre, of the third generation of Noverres in Norwich, bought the west wing and built his own ballroom which operated until 1901. Meanwhile, the Assembly Rooms were bought by Freemason Benjamin Bond Cabell, who allowed Norwich lodges to meet there.
Then the Norwich High School for Girls was housed there from 1876 until 1933, after which it suffered the indignity of becoming a warehouse. The second world war brought unexpected redemption. Capt Oliver Messel, a well-known stage designer, turned it into a camouflage school. Messel brought in a number of artists and craftsmen, such as Edward Seago, Roland Penrose, Norman Hartnell and John Cavanagh whose dedicated work helped restore the interior to some of its previous glory.
The old building took on a new lease of life as the Noverre Cinema. Architect S Rowland Pierce, creator of City Hall, took on the task of renovating the Assembly House, despite lack of money an echo of the 1750s! Norwich shoe manufacturer Mr HJ Sexton reopened the house as an arts centre for the people of Norwich in 1951. The fire of April 1995 was a terrible blow, but within two years the building reopened with a fanfare of publicity. Today it has a restaurant, hosts weddings and events while the old Noverre ballroom is a regular blood donor session venue.
Assembly House, Norwich, telephone 01603 626402 or log on to www.assemblyhousenorwich.co.uk