By the time the 1830s had arrived, changes in economic circumstances in Norfolk were changing as the whole country moved further and further into industrialisation it impacted on the local cloth and textiles industries. The growth of the railways also had an effect on the ease with which people could travel with London became much more of a focus for society families combined with Sessions Week started to lessen in importance. Norwich started to lose its central importance to the area and with it came a fall in income for the Assembly House as a venue.

Fanny_KembleDespite this decline, concerts, performances and dinners continued, but the guilds and political dinners were as often at St Andrew’s Hall or at popular inns in the city as they were at The Assembly House. Ticket prices for subscription dances were increased due falling attendance to cover the costs of subscription dances which gradually led to inevitable fall in demand.

Performances received a mixed reception. A Liszt concert in 1840 received very poor reviews across the country. While in January 1847 Fanny Kemble; the famous actress, diarist and abolitionist, latterly a friend of Amelia Opie; received some adulation for her performances of Shakespeares King John and Much ado about nothing. She appeared again in 1854 and April 1855.

In September 1851 The opening of the Norwich Waterworks was publicly celebrated.  The band of the Coldstream Guards played in the Market Place, 220 guests dined at the Assembly Rooms under the presidency of Mr. Samuel Bignold, the evening finished with Fireworks over the city with an estimate of 22,000 people attending.

Other performances included Walter Montgomery, ‘the son of a local man who repeated from memory his recital of Othello.’ In March 1856 a Peace Ball was held to celebrate the end of the war in the Crimea with a firework display in the Market Place and Castle Meadow. While in June ‘A panorama, with the present form of variety entertainment, was exhibited for the first time at the Assembly Rooms, Norwich, by Mr. J. Batchelder.’ The German Reeds also appeared regularly, favourite well known performers with shows such as  ‘After the Ball’ and ‘The Unfinished Opera’ and ‘Seaside studies’.


The rooms also continued to be used for meetings. There are various recorded examples. In 1851 there was a fiery Protestant meeting under the presidency of Mr. Samuel Bignold, ‘at which were adopted addresses to the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, protesting against the aggression of the Pope, and condemning the Tractarian movement in the Church of England.’ another in 1858 was to determine ‘the advantages afforded by the Cambridge Middle Class examinations.  Sir J. P. Boileau presided.  The first examination was held at the Free Library, on December 14th, by Mr. H. M. Butler, when 31 boys were presented.’

Whilst the performances continued things were changing behind the scenes. In December 1855 the proprietors appointed new trustees to fill holes in the board. The property was transferred to a new Trust including Sir Robert John Harvey, Sir William Foster and Samuel Dalton. They were given the power to sell if required or to buy the freehold and hold it. And if it were sold the proceeds were to be divided between the proprietors.

William Schomberg Robert Kerr, the Marquess of Lothian owned many properties as part of various hereditary titles including Blickling Hall held the freehold. In June 1856  he sold this to the Trustees for £200. In September the Chapel Field Estate was put up for sale at a public auction in the Royal Hotel in Norwich Market Place. It did not immediately sell, so in 1857 the estate was broken up and sold in more manageable lots. The west wing with the garden to the west and north were sold to Frank Noverre. He in turn sold the garden to the north a year later. The Assembly Rooms and east wing were sold to Benjamin Bond Cabell. The documents dated June 22nd 1861 is the first which uses the name ‘Assembly House’. The Noverre family story is a particularly remarkable one which deserves a blog of its own.

Cabell was eighty years old when he bought the property. An interesting man educated at Westminster and Oxford, called to the Bar. He bcame deputy Lieutenant for Middlesex and Norfolk, represented St Albans and Boston as an MP a fellow of the Royal Society and was an acknowledged philanthropist and Freemason. All the Norwich lodges, except ironically the Union which had previously used Chapply Field House, met in these new rooms for free, And for the next 15 years the Assembly House was referred to as the Masonic hall or occasionally Freemasons’ Hall. Cabell lived in Cromer Hall and was qute well known for his local good works which included financing the building of Cromer lifeboat station and the building of a new lifeboat. As a result he has the distinction of having both the fourth and fifth lifeboats named after him.


In the autumn of 1872 the building was closed for repairs for nearly a year, these were apparently quite extensive and were probably due to lack of general upkeep over the previous decades. Cabell died in 1874 at the age of 92. He left the building to his cousin John Bond Cabell. Who in 1876 sold it, this time to the Girls Public Day Schools Trust. A new phase in the building’s history had begun.


Andrew Stephenson
Norfolk Annals , A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the Nineteeth Century, Vol. 2 , Charles Mackie

The Cromer Lifeboats, by Bob Malster & Peter Stibbons: Poppyland Publishing
The Peerage.

1.Feature image (and above): Print, ‘The Assembly House, Norwich’ by Mary Lyle, etching on paper, undated (assumed first quarter 20th century) Artist: Mary Lyle (NWHCM : 1971.700.2 – Norfolk Museums Collections)
2. Fanny Kemble, Portrait – Library of Congress collection
3. German Reed (in top hat) with his wife and John Parry and Susan Galton in A Dream in Venice at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, April 1867
4. The Benjamin Bond Cabell II Lifeboat