The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century saw an increased desire for a real venue in the heart of the city. Various establishments were used mostly inns including the White Swan in St Peter’s Street and other public houses around Castle Ditches and St Stephens, now Castle Meadow. Nothing was really suitable, either too small, too cramped or just inadequate.
Chapply Field house continued to be let both as rooms and the croft. In 1753 seven Aldermen of the City; William Crowe, William Flemming, Daniel Ganning, John Gay, Jeremiah Ives, Robert Rogers and Samuel Harvey took a lease out for 500 years from the then owner Sir John Hobart III, They had their eye firmly on the prize. A year later with 24 other local notaries they signed a deed of covenant to run a venue for entertainment; a place for assemblies, cards and bowls and balls. These people included Sir John Hobart, Sir William Harbord, The Honourable George Townsend and Sir Randall Ward plus notable local business owners such as Ralph Smith, a Dyer, John Ives and John Woodrow, Worsted weavers, and Joseph Chamberlin, a Grocer. And so the rebuilding began.
The Assembly House is at its heart the work of Thomas Ivory with the interiors additionally credited to James Burroughs of Cambridge. Ivory was a busy man; in 1756 he was working on the Neo-Palladian Octagon Chapel in Colegate. He was also responsible for building the Norwich Theatre, The Methodist Meeting House in Bishopgate, Houses in Surrey Street and the Artillery Barracks, now Ivory House. Forming an impressive portfolio of buildings in the city in addition to his work on extending and developing parts of Blickling Hall.
The central part of the building had been the Hobart’s house. This was believed to have largely been pulled down and rebuilt ‘with elegant bricks in a very grand and polite taste’, with the wings remaining but redeveloped. During some renovations in 1901 when the building was the Girls High School windows were added to the music room and a discovery was made; behind the Georgian brick and stucco plasterwork some of the core of Hobart’s house remained with parts of the main walls which were part of the College still in-situ although heavily masked by these later works. Further evidence was uncovered in the works of the late 1940s.
The main fabric of the building was then much as we see it today, the same detailing and splendour despite the changes and modification made by people over time; The Hobart and Ivory Rooms were card rooms, The Music Room; originally called the Long Room and the Grand Hall the Ball Room, the layout and detailing remains largely consistent with what we see today.
The Assembly Rooms opened in 1755 a year before the Octagon Chapel in Colegate. The newly built and refurbished property included bowling on a newly laid green, plenty of room for assemblies, meetings, cards, dancing, music and guild balls for the local gentry to present themselves.
Over the next 80 Years, the Assembly House became a buzzing centre for activity. There were events to celebrate The Peace in 1802, an evening to celebrate Queen Charlotte’ birthday, and perhaps most impressive of all a ball to celebrate Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar. It was to become the place for civic entertainment and for the notables of the county; the mayors, sheriffs, aldermen and dignitaries, Clergy, MPs and important families from across Norfolk; the Walpoles, Wodehouses, Suffields, Windhams and Bacons graced the balls, danced and ate their fill, the building a social and economic heart for the county.
Activities were not confined to purely prestigious occasions; subscription dances and concerts took place from the mid 1780s. There were gymnastic displays, juggling, strongmen and in 1819 a display by Madame Tussaud’s of waxworks of ‘Princes, queens, princesses, heroes, statesmen, poets and divines’. There were Crape Balls to help raise funds for unemployed weavers in the city.
The building was also used by societies, in particular masons and guilds; One in particular The Union Lodge of Freemasons; was a fixture from 1818 for a period of 15 years. This would have seen the painters of the Norwich School John Sell Cotman and John Crome taking supper with members of the Gurney family and other brethren within the walls of the house. It was in the latter part of this period when the Assemblies were at their peak that Frank Noverre discovered the popularity of Polka Balls, a name which is synonymous with the area still today.
It was during this same period that Sir Thomas Churchman, Mayor of Norwich planted avenues of Elms in Chapelfield and Thomas Ivory took ownership and developed the New Theatre which soon received Royal Assent and become the Theatre Royal. The Theatre was originally nearer Chapelfield gardens but was rebuilt in 1825 on the site closer to the Assembly House we are familiar with. The elms in the parkland have also since been replaced with native limes. The Assembly House with the street line, park and theatre would be a familiar reflection of the streets we see today.
Main Image: Theatre Plaice, James Sillett 1828.
Inset 1: Wall cores of Hobart’s House revealed in 1948/1949 works.
Engraving: A country dance in a long hall; the elegance of the couple, 1753 (Wellcome Images CCBY4.0)
Inset 2: A handbill advertising events at The Assembly House, January 1825. (Assembly House Trust Collection – You can see this item framed next to the reception desk on the right)