Search Form
font size: Increase | Decrease | Reset
Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Noverre family and the Assembly Rooms

The Noverre Family and The Assembly House

It was in 1755 that Jean George Noverre brought his ballet company to England from France to perform his "Les Fetes chinoise" at Drury Lane, London. He had been invited by David Garrick the renowned theatrical entrepreneur and artiste. Jean George had a notable reputation in the dance world and was heralded as the "Shakespeare of Dance", his most prestigious position being that of dance master to the French Court of Louise XVIth and to Marie Antoinette in particular.

Fleeing from London

The visit to London however was not a success. Despite being of Swiss origin he and his family, (he brought with him members of his extended family), was thought to be French and being so in 1755 and in London was risky. War had broken out between England & France and despite Mr.Garrick‘s assurances that the family were Swiss and Protestants; little heed was paid to this explanation. When the ballet opened there were riots in the theatre and the mob climbed onto the stage drawing their swords in threat. Augustin Noverre, Jean-Georges‘ younger brother, responded, drew his rapier and thrust it through the shoulder of a rioter. Although the rioter was not killed, in fact he later recovered; Augustin thought it best if he took refuge outside of London and in so doing travelled to Norwich. At the time the Huguenot silk weavers were established in Norwich and they provided Augustin and his family with sympathy, shelter & refuge. It is believed that Augustin stayed in Norwich for about two years and despite his brother Jean George returning to France, Augustin decided to stay in England.

After this date his connection with Norwich diminishes for a period. It was later in 1762 that records show him as a ballet master in London and later as "dividing his time between London & Norwich". There is certainly some proof that he re-established himself in Norwich in the late 1790‘s or early 1800‘s and that about this time he came to live with his son Francis in Assembly House Yard. Quite where that yard might have been is not clear but it was probably either off Chantry Lane (now called The Chantry) or similarly off Theatre Square. (Now the enclosed courtyard of the Assembly House.)  Similarly there is no clear proof to show that he conducted ballet/dance classes in Norwich although it is clear that his son Francis did establish a dance school at the then New Assembly Rooms. What is known is that Augustin died in Norwich on the 23rd August 1805 aged 76 and that he is buried in St. Stephen‘s churchyard.

A dance academy

It was Augustin‘s son Francis that created and established the Noverre name in Norwich. It was he that at the age of 20 in 1793 opened his dance academy at The Assembly Rooms (as they were then called). The room that he used is now part of St.Mary‘s House, The Assembly House manager‘s grace & favour house, and it still exhibits a magnificent vaulted ceiling.  It was through his enterprise and talents that Francis was to become a leading & recognised figure in Norwich society.  He was one of the original founding directors of the Norwich Union and continued in this enterprising manner until his retirement in 1837 at which time the dance "business" was handed on to his son Frank. Francis died on the 5th January 1840 and he too is buried in the family area at St. Stephen‘s Church.

For many years the Noverre family had established their dance business in The Assembly Rooms so when in 1857 The Assembly House was sold being divided into two lots Frank Noverre bought the west wing with the gardens to the north & west for £1130. He then commenced with the building of a grand dance hall and studio, known today as The Noverre Suite (or until 1993 the hall that housed The Noverre Cinema). Frank however named it The Noverre Assembly Rooms. This might have caused confusion at the time for despite the fact that Benjamin Bond Cabell had purchased the other buildings and had started to use it as a meeting place for Freemasons (it was for a period of some 15 years referred to as the Masonic Hall or the Freemasons Hall) the main building was still referred to as The Assembly Rooms or Assembly House.

Frank Noverre

Frank continued with the dance academy until his death in 1878 aged seventy-one leaving his property to his wife Sophia who on her death bequeathed the property to her two sons Frank William Bianchi and Richard Percival. It was Frank W.B. who continued with the business of dance although he was also recognised as a fine violin player and violin teacher. He was also a leading orchestral musician and played in the leading local orchestras of the time. He eventually bought his brothers share of the property and continued at the Noverre Assembly Rooms until 1901. Unfortunately a dispute had broken out between the Norwich Corporation, the newly formed Girls Public Day School (later to be known as Norwich High School for Girls) and the Noverre family to do with the request of the Girls school to enclose Theatre Square by railings so it could be used as a safe and secure school playground . The headmistress of the School had expressed concerns about the trams which had recently been introduced to Theatre Street and beyond. She feared for her girls‘ safety and the possibility of them mixing with the "locals"!! F.W.B. Noverre objected strongly but his protests fell on deaf ears so he decided to sell the property and raised £3000 by passing the deeds to the school.

Thus ended the Noverre family‘s long association with The Assembly House, although Frank W.B. continued with his dance school at new premises on Unthank Road.

It is interesting to note just what an influence the Noverre‘s had Norwich‘s cultural life and the list below demonstrates just some of the institutions and societies that they helped to form.

The Norwich Union Assurance Company

The Norwich Choral society

The Norwich Triennial Music Festival

The Norwich Philharmonic Society

The Norwich Ladies Orchestral Society

Sources/Further Reading

  • History of The Assembly House Norwich - Andrew Stephenson, Edited by Jan King - The Larks Press  ISBN 1 9404006  22 1
  • Mr.Noverre‘s Academy - Maggie Marsh- Norwich Early Dance Group/Running Angel
  • Jean Georges Noverre - Levain de la danse - Maurice Cheruzel, St. Germain
  • Life & work of Chevalier Noverre - C.E. Noverre (1882)  Jarrold

Mike King

October 2007