The Assembly House is a Grade I listed building designed by the architect Sir Thomas Ivory. A vast and breath taking piece, the building is set on a much older site – dating from around the 13th century.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries the chapel, cloisters tower were demolished completely which took 35 years to clear! The remainder was sold to the Dean in 1546 as a private house. In 1569 the property was sold to Sir Thomas Cornwallis a supporter of Mary Tudor and a ‘great papist’ who converted the remaining buildings into a town house. In 1609 it was sold to Sir Henry Hobart. However, Chapply Field House, as it was known, was little used except for public assemblies during court sessions and assizes.
The story begins in 1248 when John le Brun founded a hospital and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Very soon the foundation changed in character and a college for priests ,who said masses daily and lived a communal life in the surrounding halls & cloisters, was quickly established. The associated collegiate church was founded in 1278 with John le Brun as its first Dean & Master. The church was constructed from flint, had a tower at its west end, a long north porch, a nave and chancel. There are no remains of the church and cloisters, although some fragments of stone were excavated by archaeologists in 1901.
In 1754 the architect Thomas Ivory designed the existing building and it became an entertainment centre for assemblies, concerts and dances. The main Assembly House is a two storey building, although there are three stories within each of the two side wings. On December 21st 1805 a Ball was held to celebrate ‘Nelson’s glorious victory off Cape Trafalgar’. Some 450 ladies and gentlemen of the city and county attended.
During World War 2, Oliver Messel, the stage and film designer used the main rooms as a Camouflage school. Huge maps worked in various coloured materials on canvas and hessian hung where once tapestries used to be. During the blitz of June 1942 many nearby buildings were bombed and destroyed but although nine incendiary bombs fell on The Assembly House, Messel’s team extinguished them and the building was only scarred. After the war Messel used his gifts as a craftsman and designer to show Norwich the decorative and social possibilities of this rich Georgian House.
Restoration of Ivory’s building came after the Second World War. The work was funded by local shoe manufacturer H J Sexton – he had a dream of returning the building to its former glory and turning it into a centre of culture that the whole community could enjoy. He formed the H. J. Sexton Norwich Arts Trust to do this. The project cost almost £70,000.
Today the Assembly House is a popular meeting place and hosts many clubs & societies. It is the home of the Norwich Society and continues to play an important role in the cultural life of Norwich presenting art exhibitions, concerts, plays and lectures. The House is the current home of The Great Hall Theatre Company, Norwich’s leading theatrical company. Weddings & celebrations are held in its beautiful interiors and the rooms are available for conferences, seminars and similar meetings.