Man who helped Norwich’s Assembly House rise from the ashes dies aged 81

PUBLISHED: 14:47 24 January 2014 | UPDATED: 14:47 24 January 2014

Flames leap from the roof of the Assembly House during the fire in 1995.

Flames leap from the roof of the Assembly House during the fire in 1995.

A former general manager of Norwich’s Assembly House, Ben Russell-Fish, who has died aged 81, masterminded the reconstruction after the disastrous fire.

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 in 1926.

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 Rooms.

In 1933, Norwich City Corporation wanted to demolish the building but it was opposed by the Norwich Society and others.

The Assembly House has been used as a banana warehouse and even a military camouflage school.

In the early 1990s, about 5,000 people a week visited the Assembly House.

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 entire flaming roof crashed down.

The kitchens are placed exactly as they had been more than 500 years ago.

As he watched the destruction of a jewel in the city’s crown on April 12, 1995, he was already determined to recreate the glory of the Assembly House. The very next day, the trustees agreed to the restoration and started fundraising.

Remarkably, 22 months later, and two months ahead of schedule, the Assembly House was back in business on St Valentine’s Day 1997, to the evident delight of the general manager. It had been a massive undertaking as fire had ripped through the Grade I-listed building, leading to the collapse of the roof, which destroyed old carvings and original plasterwork.

While many bystanders were in tears, watching the plume of smoke rise high about the building, which dates from 1754, Mr Russell-Fish was starting to look ahead.

“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,’” he added.

As general manager before, during and after the fire until his retirement in July 1998, his experience of infrastructure hotel projects in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia was invaluable.

The efficiency and co-operation from so many people had enabled the restoration to be completed as speedily as possible, he said.

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.

A Norfolk man, Benjamin Russell-Fish was born in Albemarle Street, Great Yarmouth. His father, who was a chemist in the town, moved during the Second World War to Ormesby, where he bought the Eels Foot Hotel.

After Framlingham College, where he had enjoyed sports, he applied to join the Army. Having been accepted by Sandhurst, he failed a final medical because of lack of perfect vision despite being a crack shot and shooting for his school. His father suggested that he did a five-year management course with Trust Houses Ltd, in the days before Forte took over the company. This training included two years at the Hotel Ambassador, Paris.

Later, he opened and ran three coffee bars in London’s West End and also managed his late father’s Broadland hotel before entering the world of the big companies. He became personnel and training manager for Thistle Hotels.

Then he worked in Nigeria, setting up a hotel training school in the former residence of the British governor. He became chief executive of the government’s Central States Hotel Board, which led to the development of eight motels while his wife and young family also lived at Kudna in central Nigeria.

A move to Saudi Arabia followed, where he was responsible for 4,000 workers from 29 nations building the industrial city of Al Jubail in the middle of the desert. As general manager of the project’s life support system, he was responsible for housing, feeding and entertainment of the entire workforce. “We needed such a big deep freeze unit that we had to drive a truck through it. You could not walk because you wouldn’t be able to stand the temperature that long,” he said later.

When that contract ended, he went to Jeddah on the western side of Saudi Arabia to start from scratch a restaurant and catering company for a family business, where he stayed for seven years.

He decided to return to Norfolk and on June 1, 1990, took charge as general manager of the Assembly House in his favourite city in his native county. A keen fisherman, who lived at Lingwood, he was a founder member of the Broadlands Lions Club, which was also a big interest. He was also a Freemason.

Last year, he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with a big family party.

He leaves a widow, Margaret, and three children, Christopher, Sarah and Penny, and three grandsons and three granddaughters.

• A funeral service will be held at Great Yarmouth Crematorium, Gorleston, on January 29 at 12.40pm.

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