“This building endures” marking 25 years since flames ripped through the heart of The Assembly House in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 08:55 12 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:03 12 August 2020
Twenty-five years ago, as afternoon tea was being served, a raging fire broke out at The Assembly House in Norwich just months after another blaze had destroyed Norwich Central Library across the road
From the pavement, staff and onlookers watched in tears as one of Norwich’s best-loved buildings was engulfed in flames.
For the city, it was like reliving a nightmare: less than a year earlier, and just a few steps across the road, Norwich Central Library had been destroyed by fire.
Afternoon tea was being served at The Assembly House as the alarm sounded at around 4.45pm – and staff, including waitress Shelia Brown, quickly led customers outside to safety as firefighters arrived at the scene.
Sheila wept outside as fire crews fought to save the restaurant where she worked: “It’s such a shock,” she told reporters, “it just happened so quickly.”
General manager Ben Russell-Fish, speaking to the Eastern Daily Press at the time said: “lumps of fire were falling from the roof, past the chandeliers and on to the carpets.”
More than 80 firefighters attended the blaze, risking their lives to save the Norwich landmark when they were forced to run for cover as burning roof timbers collapsed just feet from where they were battling to douse the flames.
Low water pressure led to Anglian Water needing to boost supplies to Norwich city centre after the first crews on the scene used 400 gallons of water stored in two fire tenders in a matter of minutes
Theatre Street was cordoned off to traffic and staff at the neighbouring Theatre Royal were evacuated as a precaution, but were later allowed back in as the fire was brought under control.
A Ballet Rambert performance at the Theatre and a Premership football match between Norwich City and Nottingham Forest (Norwich lost 1-0) were allowed to go ahead, the latter requiring police officers from outlying areas to travel in to offer assistance.
Julie Grint was on her way to watch the Rambert Dance Company with her sister at Norwich Theatre Royal when she realised something was wrong.
She recalls from her diary of the day: “Walking down St Stephen’s there were suddenly lots of sirens – we could see flames shooting up. We thought a skip was on fire! Outside M&S we looked up the road and thought that the fire was at the Theatre Royal, our final destination.”
The pair saw people hurriedly taking paintings from The Assembly House and putting them in the boot of a car and by the time they returned for the show, fire engines were still attending, and they had to step over hoses.
“There was the smell of smoke in the theatre,” recalled Julie, “when we were back outside after an amazing programme, we had to step over more hoses. An evening never to be forgotten!”
The majestic 18th century Music Room and the Grand Hall were terribly damaged by the flames along with the restaurant but in a stroke of luck, the oldest part of the building, now used for luxury bedrooms, was undamaged.
Precious paintings and other treasures were carried to safety and the Hobart and Ivory Rooms were saved.
Inside the building, the roof and ceilings to the entrance hall and the Music Room were gone – a lattice of the main wooden beams, charred black and still dripping water, lay on the floor next to mounds of muddy ash and burned timber.
Those that went into the building after the fire remember a terrible smell: of burnt, wet wood.
But large areas of the wood paneling with ornate Georgian plasterwork were largely intact due to the nature of the fire, which had burned most fiercely in the roof.
It took 24 hours to finally reach the last pockets of heat in the house between the brick walls and the wooden panels and firefighters had to return to the building twice in a week when passers-by spotted wisps of smoke in the roof space.
Mr Russell-Fish, who passed away in 2014, told the EDP that as he watched the flames reach skyward from the roof: “I was thinking, ‘All we have got to do now is to get it back. The sooner the fire goes out the sooner we can start repairing it.
“Within two years or less we’ll have it back exactly as it was – but as if it’s been thoroughly spring cleaned from end to end.”
Eric Sexton, chairman of the trustees of The Assembly House Trust, the charity which owns the building on behalf of the people of Norwich, immediately pledged to rebuild the historic house to its former glory.
“There is no point just sitting down and weeping,” said Mr Sexton, “we just have to get on with the job. We are going to restore and we are going to get cracking as soon as possible.”
The day after the fire, the trustees agreed to the restoration and began fundraising.
Remarkably, 22 months later, and two months ahead of schedule, The Assembly House was back in business on St Valentine’s Day 1997.
The efficiency and co-operation from so many people had enabled the restoration to be completed as speedily as possible, Mr Russell-Fish told the EDP.
A total of £400,000 had also been invested in new facilities including £60,000 on facilities for the disabled, £79,000 for a new kitchen and about £130,000 for improved temperature controls to enable paintings to be exhibited.
The restoration included new colour schemes throughout, which were created by Nicholas Herbert, who left work at Windsor Castle to advise at the Assembly House. The Georgian plasterwork on ceilings and walls had been recreated by hand with the help of craftspeople who worked on site to replicate what had been lost from extensive paintings and photographs provided by The Assembly House Trust.
Today, the only visible sign that The Assembly House was the victim of a terrible blaze is a series of scorch marks on the wooden floors.
Richard Hughes, along with business partner Iain Wilson, lease The Assembly House from The Assembly House Trust and run a hospitality business including a restaurant, events and wedding space, cookery school and l1 luxury bedrooms.
He said: “With the Trust’s help, we recently had all the wooden floors refurbished and carpet removed. This gave us the opportunity to ‘polish out’ the scorch marks left when the 18th century chandeliers fell to the ground in the fire – but we decided against it.
“We feel it is important to remember our history and the fire is part of that – those scorches have earned their place here.
“This is a building which has endured and which has been brought back to life time and time again. We felt that very keenly when we reopened after lockdown – this is a place which was left to the people of Norwich. It’s the heart of the city, the phoenix that rose from the ashes.”
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* Find out more about The Assembly House’s heritage at www.assemblyhousetrust.org.uk.
Norwich Evening News Arts Writer Neville Miller writes in 1995…
A salvation and a solace, that was The Assembly House to me. As a newcomer to Norwich in 1970, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms after leaving a pally part of South Wales.
The functional qualities of our offices at Prospect House, the only building I knew then, were something I learned to appreciate. But affection grew more for the inhabitants than the building.
With The Assembly House, which I discovered one wet, despairing Monday, it was love at first sight.
The design and colours had a gentle, sunny grace which dictated the atmos[here. The building was grand enough to be inspiring, small enough to be human.
As I sat there, having a cup of tea, the building seemed to embody in its artistry all the good things in life and later I discovered that it did so, in fact.
It was a place for all kinds of remarkable events: Liszt once played the piano there. It was built in 1756 by Thomas Ivory and its chequered history from which it had such a long and brilliant recovery in recent years is a comfort now.
It was for a time a shoe warehouse, a school and the headquarters of an army camouflage school.
But it was rescued from decay by Henry Sexton, who restored the building at a cost of £70,000 and reopened it in 1950 under the administration of a trust.
The building has endured. No doubt it will do so now. Let us hope the present shock will make the world appreciate it even more.
EDP Arts editor Charles Roberts writes the day after the fire…
There was a kind of despair when, only a few months ago, I watched the Central Library engulfed in flames.
Yesterday, it was nearer heartbreak, as I saw The Assembly House consumed.
For all of us who love this place, it is much more than a building. It is a living part of the city’s history, a place of beauty and grace with a heartbeat of its own.
To step into that grand foyer, with its chandeliers, splendid plasterwork, pictures and handsome furniture, was to be transported back to the era of periwigs and powder, of cards and conversazione, of evening balls where genteel liaisons blossomed.
It was for such scenes that The Assembly House was built, nearly 250 years ago, replacing a grand town house raised in Henry VIII’s reign by the lordly Hobarts of Blickling who demolished a monastic college to make way for it…
The elegant rooms were constructed with removable doors so that (as Stacey’s Norfolk observed in 1808) the eye might “then command a suite of 143 feet, illuminated by 10 brnaches holding 150 candles and the company forming into one row may dance the whole length of the building and then is presented such a scene of beauty and splendor as has no equals.”
As I watched the flames roar through the Georgian roof timbers yesterday, those words filtered through my mind.
Our pleasures today may be simpler: tea in that most patrician of public dining rooms, a concert in the galleried music room, a walk round a couple of exhibitions, a meeting upstairs, seated round a magnificent old table mellowed by a century of use.
Pray that all is not lost and that we can look forward to those pleasures again.
The history of the Assembly House
* The foundations of the building date from 1248 but the current building was opened in 1755 as a “place of public entertainment”
* Liszt performed in 1840 and Madame Tussaud exhibited waxworks at the building
* The west wing was converted to a ballroom in the mid-19th century and later it became a cinema
* In August 1844, Frank Noverre gave the first “polka ball” at the Assembly House
* In 1933, Norwich City Corporation wanted to demolish the building but the move was opposed by the Norwich Society and others
* The Assembly House has been used as a banana warehouse and even a military camouflage school after being requisitioned during World War Two
* A rococo framed mirror over the fireplace given by Norwich High School Girls’ Association to commemorate the school’s residence in the Assembly House between 1878 and 1933 escaped the fire when the roof crashed down
* The Assembly House is owned by a charitable trust, The Assembly House Trust, which has an arts remit and is charged with keeping the House accessible to the people of Norwich
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