As the twentieth century began the building was now established as a the Norwich High School for Girls. It had undergone minimal changes. A few extra walls were established to divide large rooms for classrooms, some work had been done to add bring in some more light, but the basic fabric and detailing of the building remained intact. The west wing was still owned and lived in by Frank Noverre, this was bought by the school along with the relatively newly built Noverre Ballroom in 1901.
Theatre Square at the front of the building was open to the road, a busy thoroughfare with a newly built tram line. It also appear to have been the school play ground. After some legal to-and-fro between the school and the city, a concession of a small area was allocated to the highway and the area was fenced off with the railings and gates we see today. The only change is the original lamps which surmounted them were found after renovation work later in the century and fixed on the front of the building.
In 1933 the High School moved to more spacious grounds at Eaton Grove, Newmarket Road, formerly the house of John Harrison Yallop, Alderman and Mayor of Norwich.
The buildings again up for sale, it transpired that the School Trust had made an application to develop the site and a local company registered an interest in buying it, but only if it could be developed, the buildings did not sell. Despite being registered as an ancient monument it was felt further action was needed to ensure the property was adequately protected. A meeting between the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Trust and the Norwich Society in 1935 resulted in a resolution being passed to preserve the Assembly House for the city.
‘the buildings very fine examples of the style of the middle of the eighteenth 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: also this site and the fourteenth century crypt beneath it preserve the memory of the meeting place of one of the earliest Civic Assemblies in the kingdom.’
The building was saved from destruction, but that was all. But still it stood more of less empty, gradually declining. Being mortgaged it was important that the debt was serviced, parts were rented out. The Ivory Rooms became a warehouse for bicycles and other parts of the building were used as stores for Caleys, while the western wing was being used the YMCA as a hostel.
It was in 1938 that a consortium including H.J. Sexton, Sir George White and Alan Rees Colman bought the building with plans for expanding it’s use with the YMCA and YWCA. Boardman and Son were asked to prepare plans. A variety of options were looked at including building a Lecture Hall and Theatre on the car park and proposals to use the Noverre Ballroom and the Music Room as women’s and men’s gymnasiums. These were all promptly shelved as the Second World War loomed. The building remained partially empty and decaying.
By good fortune whilst working for the War Office Oliver Messel, the eminent stage, film set designer, was posted to Norwich. He had a studio in 70 Bishopsgate and a workshop for the unit in the shed behind the former workshop of J Short near the cathedral which had already been requisitioned. He took to exploring the city, and at some time in 1940 chanced upon the Assembly Rooms in a then semi-derelict state. He was apparently rather taken with what he found. It would appear that on his advice the buildings were requisitioned that December and became the Eastern Command Camouflage Office and Camouflage factory. Roland Penrose the surrealist lectured to the officers and men at the Assembly House. It was at Messel’s insistence that Christopher Hussey visited and wrote about the building for Country Life and he also alerted his brother in law at the Georgian Society of the buildings historical importance.
The building changed suddenly under the command of Lieutenant Vivian De Sola Pinto, the poet, literary critic and historian who fought alongside Sassoon during the Great War. The rooms were cleared of bikes and furniture. Paint, canvas and hessian and plaster replaced dust and old school fittings. Camouflage patterns and models laid out on the huge floorspace and along the walls where festoons, drapes and portraits had hung over a century before.
On nights of the 27th/28th and the 19th/30th of April 1942, the Luftwaffe attacked Norwich in earnest. On the first night the Baedeker raids focused on transport, industry and residential properties. After a 24 hour lull the bombing started again, this time moving onto the commercial centre of the city. Dornier’s and Junkers swept in splitting roofs open with high explosives and then dumped incendiaries into the gaps starting a mini-firestorm that raged across the centre of the city. Buntings, Woolworths and Curls burnt out, Caley’s chocolate factory behind The Assembly House was reduced to heat distorted walls and smoking rubble, the smell of burnt sugar mixing with woodsmoke. Fires raged around the Assembly House.
Messel fortunately had noted the lack of any fire watch on the building and had instated one, the men dealt with several incendiaries which hit the main body of the building, there was some damage, but most of it was minor and reparable. Life and work went on.
In 1944 as the South and East of England filled with D-Day troops, Messel organised an event, the building was dressed appropriately using props created using the men’s camouflage skills, theatre design and lighting techniques. Local dignitaries and the military were invited so they may see the beauty and importance of it. By highlighting the building, Messel paved the way, and H. J. Sexton climbed into the driver’s seat and drove it into the post war period.
Feature image – The Girls High School, Banquet room 1922. (AHTPHP collection).
Image 2 – The Girls High School, Banquet room 1922. (AHTPHP collection).
Images 3 – The Assembly House 1940s. (AHTPHP collection).
Image 4 – Oliver Messel by Yvonne Gregory (Wikipedia)
Image 5 – Caleys After the April 1942 attacks (IW collection, believed to be George Swain)
Image 6 – A view from the Castle Mound towards Caleys, the Assembly House and St Stephens across Orford Place, after the April 1942 attacks (IW collection, photographer unknown)