This centrally situated Georgian house is one of the glories of Norwich. Although it was built by the architect Thomas Ivory as a public building (but surely not there for anyone to enter as it is now) it had long since ceased to be a place of resort for the local gentry when I was born. After a period from the last quarter of the 19th century when it was home to the Norwich High School for Girls it spent the Second World War as the home of the War Office camouflage unit. It briefly hosted some famous artists during this time.
After the war it was generously donated to the city by the shoe manufacturer H. J. Sexton. The renovations were undertaken and it was reopened to the public in the summer of 1950, during my Great Aunt Ruth’s period of office as Lord Mayor. The accompanying ceremonies were among the first she was involved in as Mayor. The Queen (as she then was – she is better known to my generation as the late Queen Mother) was a visitor to the newly reopened Assembly House. Although she was proud of her Socialist credentials you can see by her smile how thoroughly Aunt Ruth was enjoying welcoming Royalty to Norwich! In 1959 the Music Room on the ground floor of the Assembly House was used for my eldest sister Christine’s wedding reception. The wedding service was held at St Stephen’s church which could not have been more convenient. As those who are familiar with the city will know it is only a few steps down Theatre Street from the Assembly House.
The Noverre family’s association with the Assembly House began in the 18th century when Augustine Noverre arrived in Norwich from France via London and he held his first ballet performance there. The family worshipped at St Stephen’s for generations and are remembered by a plaque in the church. The Noverre Cinema occupied a large hall at the Assembly House, a room that had originally been the Noverre Ballroom. The cinema was opened in 1950 and for over 40 years screened films that were not always available on the commercial circuit. It finally closed at the end of 1992.
There was a disastrous fire in 1995 which destroyed the roof and ceilings, but the wooden panelling mostly survived. This happened only a year after the even more distressing fire across Theatre Street at Norwich Central Library. In the case of the Assembly House, within two years it had been restored and reopened.
I used to be a frequent visitor to the Assembly House. I patronised the restaurant for morning coffee and often went to the art exhibitions that were always being held there. I even had an exhibition of my own paintings in the days when I fancied myself as an artist. I went to meetings of the local branch of the Historical Association and to concerts in the Music Room and we sometimes hired one of the smaller upstairs rooms for meetings of the Norfolk Nautical Research Society. In fact I was there more often than I went to the next door Theatre Royal or the equally close Central Library.
What was particularly pleasant about the Assembly House was that, if you didn’t want to buy anything, attendance was free. Obviously if you wished to drink a cup of tea some payment was involved, but if you simply wanted to look at the pictures on display there was no charge. I must admit that many of the people I met at the Assembly House were considerably older than I was when I was a regular there. The clientele was mostly middle class and middle aged, and I am sure it still is.
JOSEPH MASON j