How Norwich's Assembly House was saved from potential demolition

The Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich

The Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich. - Credit: Archant

It is more than a building. It is an architectural treasure which has survived against all the odds. Derek James reports from the Assembly House in Norwich

Sitting back from the busy street, you walk through the stylish entrance into a world of timeless charm, a place to relax, to meet and eat, or attend a host of events taking place.

And consider its unique history and how fortunate we are to have this architectural jewel in the Norwich crown.

It has the perfect name, The Assembly House, where people assemble, but  70 years ago it was known as The Festival Club.

This was the headquarters for the events taking place for the Festival of Britain in 1951 when Norwich was chosen as one of a handful of venues across the country for major happenings.


Outside the Assembly House in 1950 - Credit: Archant Library

It had been restored just in time thanks in the main to shoe baron Henry Sexton, members of the Norwich Arts Trust, and Captain Oliver Messel, the stage and film designer, who ran his camouflage school from the Assembly House during the Second World War…and may well have saved it from destruction.

Surrounding buildings were destroyed during the Norwich Blitz of 1942 but Messel made sure that fire guards were posted at night and when incendiary bombs fell on the building they were swiftly dealt with.

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When peace came, the future of the building, in such poor repair, concerned Messel and he organised a ball and invited leading city citizens to take a look at the building for themselves.

He outlined what could be achieved by restoring this Georgian possession which had been had been the Norwich High School for Girls for many years before the war.

In fact there were plans to flatten the buildings in the 1930s which prompted, thank goodness, The Norwich and Norwich Archaeological Society and The Norwich Society, to step in and save them.

They asked the Ancient Monument Board to oppose the proposal to demolish the old Assembly Rooms (late Girls High School) and to urged the Ancient Monument Board to made a Preservation Order to stop plans.


Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, arrives at the Assembly House on June 18, 1951 - Credit: Archant Library

“We consider the buildings very fine examples of the style of the middle of the 18th century and of local (if not national) importance being the work of the architect Thomas Ivory and being connected since its erection in 1754 with the history of the city,” was the message and the powers-that-be listened.

In his book A History of The Assembly House by Andrew Stevenson, former Head of Norwich School, and edited by Jan King in 2004 he wrote: “It was saved from destruction, but that was all.

“It stood, unwanted in its fading loveliness: moreover, it was heavily mortgaged and eventually Ivory’s rooms were rented as a warehouse for storing bicycles and the western wing by the YMCA as a hostel.”

Renovations were put on hold during the war and it was allowed to rot and decay but the H J Sexton Arts Trust was formed, which today is arts charity The Assembly House Trust.

The Assembly House was restored. Given the dignity it deserved. In 1950 it was presented to the people of Norwich and the following year it became the Festival Club – a place which the city proudly displayed to the rest of the world.

As John Bracking wrote at the time: “Norwich will proudly exhibit during the 1951 Festival Fortnight – and let us hope for long afterwards – an architectural gem which escaped violent destruction almost by a miracle.”

Yes, it survived and it also rose from the ashes following that terrible fire in 1995.


Inside the Assembly House in 1950 - Credit: Archant Library

Today the Assembly House, now with 11 (soon to be 15) splendid bedrooms, is looking better than ever thanks to chef director Richard Hughes and his team.

The food is fantastic and the welcome warm.

Sexton’s legacy remains in the form of a lively arts programme from The Assembly House Trust which includes the return of large-scale art exhibitions, classical music concerts, poetry readings, workshops and performances in addition to the continued upkeep and renovation of the House.

The Trust will soon introduce tours for the public to highlight the House’s history and delve into the Georgian splendour in this corner of Norwich which can be seen in the streets nearby.

We can all be proud of this wonderful building.  Why not go and have a look for yourself.