Norfolk and Norwich Festival: The Arms of Sleep

Voice Project

Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2017

The Voice Project: The Arms of Sleep

20th – 26th May

9.30pm – 8.30am

Over five nights, 200 audience members slept overnight in the Noverre Ballroom, experiencing choral performances and art installations.

The Voice Project have a reputation for producing truly unique experiences and this was no exception. The Assembly House Trust are proud to have supported such an exciting project in the City of Norwich.

A huge thank you to Richard Hughes and all The Assembly House staff for tremendous levels of help and support in making the event a huge success.

Here is an online review of the event from Outline Magazine:

By | June 5th, 2017|Event|0 Comments

Exhibition: Phoenix Heritage Project

AHT poster (2)

Phoenix Heritage Project Exhibition                   

April 21st to May 27th 2017

The Assembly House Trust is opening up the archive to uncover the story of our fascinating landmark building, from its earliest foundation to the present day.


Join us in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the building’s regeneration and reopening in 1997 following the devastating fire of 1995.


The Phoenix Heritage Project exhibition follows the story of The Assembly House.

From its beginnings in the 13th Century fields of Norman Norwich to its development by Thomas Ivory, The Assembly House has long been a focal point for people across the county of Norfolk.


A landmark Georgian building, the House has played host to a college, a school, a YWCA hostel and a war office camouflage unit. It has even been used as a warehouse for storing chocolate and bicycles. The building has survived the blitz, been ravaged by fire and been regenerated on more than on occasion.


From grand balls and performances to jugglers and acrobats, its fascinating story is peopled by a long cast of painters, philanthropists, lords and barons.


The exhibition is free and open daily with displays in the corridor gallery.

The Phoenix Heritage Project is a new programme of events celebrating the heritage of The Assembly House.

You can also follow the project on twitter: @AHHeritage

By | May 8th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The Noverre Cinema: Some Like It Hot


On Friday 21st April the ballroom of The Assembly House once again became the Noverre Cinema, holding a public screening for the first time in over twenty years.


The Assembly House Trust worked in partnership with Cinema City Education to revive one of Norwich’s long-lost cinemas for a special screening of Hollywood classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ starring Marilyn Monroe.


Audience members were encouraged to arrive early to browse a small exhibition, with artefacts including original posters and brochures from the Noverre Cinema.


The main feature, along with a selection of local archive films, were introduced by local performer Simon Floyd. Audience members also treated themselves to popcorn and ice cream during the intermission.


It was a fantastic event with a great sense of nostalgia with attendees sharing their fondest memories.

Huge thanks to Elmulgraphic, who produced a stunning 360 image of the event:

Will there be more screenings in the Noverre Cinema? Watch this space!


By | May 2nd, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Take One Picture: Seething and Mundham Primary School


The Assembly House Trust is always excited to work in partnership with local community organisations, especially when it comes to interesting art projects.


This month we were happy to offer exhibition space to Seething & Mundham Primary School:

“Seething and Mundham Primary have been taking part in an exciting project called ‘Take 1 Picture‘, which is coordinated by the National Gallery in London.

Mrs Appleby, the head teacher, was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a teachers’ training day at the gallery and subsequently organised a training session for the school’s teachers at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The school has always used artists’ work to inspire children but this project gave the pupils greater depth of involvement with an artist’s work.

We were fortunate enough to use some exhibition space at the Assembly House Norwich; this was possible with the assistance of the Assembly House Trust who provided the necessary support.”


The exhibition ran until Friday the 14th of April and provided a great opportunity for the children of Seething and Mundham primary school to view their work in a “real life” exhibition space.

By | April 15th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Norwich Makers Market

IMG_7358On Saturday 8th April, The Assembly House Trust welcomed Norwich Makers Market to The Noverre Ballroom for the very first time.


The market is a unique event, dedicated to housing the very best hand-picked designers and illustrators in Norwich and surrounding fairytale wilds of the East.


The ballroom was filled withbespoke homewares, gifts, jewellery, textiles, stationery, prints, clothing and many more individual products.


The Trust is extremely happy to be supporting independent designer makers, offering a twist away from the mass-produced high street, the market was very popular with something on offer for everybody.

Many thanks to the organisers, all who attended as well as the talented artists and designer-makers, we hope to host Norwich Makers Market again in the future.

By | April 12th, 2017|Event|0 Comments


The Assembly House - Glass Plates

The period saw the building in a poor state. No real upkeep having been completed since the 1930s. Of the original consortium Henry Sexton and Sir George Ernest White remained, but sadly Alan Rees Colman died in a flying accident while on active service. Despite the circumstances and the condition of the building Henry Sexton wasn’t put off, and whilst in discussion with another enthusiastic supporter Arnold Kent, they started to imagine a different future for the buildings. One where the Assembly House became a centre of the arts. A Committee was formed chaired by J.B. Hales, with Arnold Kent, Nugent Monck, Reginald Pareezer and Andrew Stephenson representing interested parties from theatre, arts, film, education and entertainment.

A preliminary report was presented in June 1943. The initial aims were to acquire and restore the Assembly Rooms, add a theatre and cinema, with the premises given to trustees for the use of the City of Norwich’s a centre for the arts. Part of the original plan was to transfer the Norwich Players from the Maddermarket Theatre to the Theatre in the centre, with the Maddermarket Theatre Trust running it  with the assistance of the council. The Theatre was planned for the Noverre Ballroom. The centre would also be made available for concerts, recitals and art exhibitions. One proposal was for a gallery for the collection of Norwich School paintings held by the Colman family.

There were negotiations due to the differing views on how the Trust should be comprised and whether it should be presented to and run by the city or if it would fair better as an Independent Trust. Sir Ernest sold his share to Henry Sexton. In March 1945 The H.J.Sexton Norwich Arts Trust was formed. The members were Henry Sand Eric Sexton, Herbert Gowen, Charles Hammond, Percy Jewson MP, Frederick Jex, Arnold Kent, Walter Nugent Monck, and Edward Williamson the Lord Mayor of Norwich. Architects Charles Holloway James and Sir Stephen Roland Pierce who had designed City Hall were appointed to prepare plans, although Pierce solely completed them.

The Assembly House - Glass Plates

boy fountain 1200pxThe state of the building was also a problem with Pierce commenting he had to ‘battle with decay, dry rot beetles, neglect and blitz’.  Rot appeared everywhere, foundations had been sliced into for previous alterations, there were areas that required underpinning, ceilings falling in and damp. On the plus side, the two story section added to the Noverre Ballroom to house classrooms made a perfect projection room at the exact height required for raked seating. The theatre had to be abandoned due to conversion costs, a disappointment give the original vision of it extending the work of the Maddermarket.

Some areas of the original Ivory house had vanished forever, the stairs in particular had been removed a century before. Caball had made few changes in his tenure and the High School had made a few but nothing dramatic; partitioning in the Music Room was removed. The organ gallery was altered, the school had added a few areas such as laboratories which were repurposed. The Steward’s house was demolished to make way for cloakrooms. The east wing which retains elements of its Elizabethan structure was repaired and renovated part of which now forming the managers house. Outside the drive was resurfaced and the thicket of shrubs removed, the ironwork cleaned and repaired with the details picked out in gilt.

Programme 1980sFinally the rooms were named, commemorating people connected with the building’s heritage and history. Ivory, Bacon, Pierce, Kent, Messel and Sexton, with the Noverre Cinema replacing the ballroom. On the 23rd of November 1950, the Assembly House was finally presented to the people of Norwich as a centre for the arts. The final piece of the puzzle was put in place in 1954, The pool in the forecourt was instated and completed with James Woodford’s sculpture of a boy, his work already visible across the road at City Hall showing a series of reliefs on the main doors unwittingly perhaps tying the relationship between the city’s crafts, guilds and trades; the people that make the city and their shared history to the Assembly House.

For the next 45 years, the Assembly House played host to events, films and performances, dinners and meetings. Local arts groups using the spaces, with regular exhibitions, The Assembly House had again cemented it’s place in the city as a place to meet and get involved. and then on April 12th 1995 something terrible happened.

Noverre cinema 1

Noverre cinema 2



By | March 20th, 2017|heritage blogs|0 Comments

A High School, a warehouse and the advent of war.

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.

Scan 15

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.

Scan 12b

by Gordon Anthony, bromide print, 1937

by Gordon Anthony, bromide print, 1937

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.

Blitz Caleys 1942

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.

Norwich blitz from castle 1942

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.


Scan 13d

Scan 13a

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)

By | March 17th, 2017|heritage blogs|0 Comments

The decline of the Assembly

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



By | March 9th, 2017|heritage blogs|0 Comments

Dementia UK: Time for a Cuppa


The Assembly House Trust was recently contacted by Dementia UK about getting involved in their ‘Time for a Cuppa’ event.


The Trust was extremely happy to support such a great cause, raising awareness and raising money for people with dementia and their carers.


The event featured a display of over 18,000 crocheted forget-me-not flowers, each representing one person in Norfolk facing dementia.


The Assembly House Trust worked with Richard Hughes and his team to provide tea, coffee and cake for the event.


The event also featured an Admiral Nurse Clinic, providing help and support to those with dementia and their carers.


Over the next few months The Assembly House Trust will be working with Dementia UK and other organisations to improve our accessibility to those with dementia.

For more information on ‘Time for a Cuppa’ visit

By | March 7th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Moving on: The early Assembly House

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 Assembly House - Glass Plates

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.

V0049213 A country dance in a long hall; the elegance of the couple o Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A country dance in a long hall; the elegance of the couple on the left contrasts with the ridiculous poses of the more rustic figures beyond representing "unidealized" humanity; straight, angular and round shapes. Engraving by William Hogarth. By: William HogarthPublished: 5 March 1753 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

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.

1800s smallerActivities 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, Hogarth, 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)


By | March 6th, 2017|heritage blogs|0 Comments