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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Agricultural Hall

The Agricultural Hall - Opened 1882 

For fifty-seven years this building served the City as an agricultural and exhibition hall until the Second World War.  Almost two decades of important but mundane uses followed until the Corporation took ownership in 1957 on the expiry of its 75-year lease. Norwich Corporation decided to re-let the building and the following year a more exciting era began when the Hall's interior was transformed to become the eastern region's Independent Television studios and offices for Anglia Television.  As we shall see, it has been a place of public display and entertainment for many years and it still fulfils that function, albeit indirectly.  Modest in style, this building refers back more to the eighteenth than the late nineteenth century.  

The Architect

J. B Pearce, a local architect, is said to have designed the building in the Italian style. Other buildings of his design are:

  • The Town Hall at Gt. Yarmouth, Queen Anne style, completed in 1882. Four years' later, it showed signs of severe subsidence requiring underpinning. During that process, twelve feet below ground, an ancient dock was discovered;
  • The Royal Hotel, 4 Marine Parade, Gt. Yarmouth, built 1840 with a rear extension of 1880's by J B Pearce in stuccoed red brick.  Noted for Charles Dickens having stayed there between 1848 and 1849 whilst writing "David Copperfield"; 
  • The Alms Houses at East Bilney;
  • Christ Church, Church Avenue, Norwich (1879) by J.H. Brown and J.B. Pearce;
  • The Catholic Chapel (1874) at Norwich Cemetery, Bowthorpe Road.

Laying the foundation stone and the opening in 1882

On 25th March 1882, beneath the foundation stone laid by the The Right Honourable The Earl of Leicester, Lord Lieutenant of the County was placed a bottle containing period coins, local newspapers and a copy of "The Times".  During the ceremony, it was reported that the Earl declared "the faith and hope in the value of such a building for the County and City" and that it was a building to be erected for "the more immediate benefit of those associated with the science of agriculture".

The report also states that several thousand people assembled near the Post Office on that Saturday to witness the ceremony.  As well as the items mentioned, the bottle contained a list of the names of the Directors of the Agricultural Hall Company thus:

E Birkbeck, Esq, MP, Chairman

J.J. Colman, Esq, MP, Vice-Chairman

S. Gurney Buxton, Esq., Clare Sewell Read, Esq., S Grimmer, Esq.,

Henry Overman, Esq., John Youngs, Esq., Harry Bullard, Esq. and

Garrett Taylor, Esq

On 27th April 1882 in the High Court of Justice, an application was made on behalf of Mr Philip Back for an injunction against the Corporation of Norwich and the Agricultural Hall Company Limited, to prevent the erection of the hall on the grounds that "the land has been used since time immemorial for fairs and markets" and so, he reasoned, the Corporation did not have the right to allow building on the site.  On May 20th the Court refused Mr Back's application. Only on the 11th November did Mr Back declare his intention to withdraw his action.  Nevertheless, building work seems to have continued unhindered.

On the 16th November the building was ready for the opening ceremony. It was on the occasion of the Norfolk and Norwich Fat Cattle Show Association's annual exhibition, and the ceremony was to be performed by HRH the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII, who had been patron to the exhibition since its establishment.  He had kindly consented to become President of the Association for that year. 

One newspaper report described the weather on the day as "execrable"; whilst another simply said:  "the morning was dull and cheerless with a slight drizzling of rain".

His Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales announced "I have great pleasure in declaring this Hall is now open, redounding, as it does, so much to the credit of the County and City of Norwich" at which the spectators cheered.

The Architecture and the builders

The present façade appears much as it did on completion in November 1882 by the builders, Messrs J. W Lacey of Norwich. 

The materials used are local red brick; some of it moulded Cosseyware, rusticated at ground floor level, interspersed with a course of red stone from St Bees in Cumberland, which is also used for architectural features such as the pilasters and the window surrounds.  The façade has nine bays, a projecting central section, with ornamented pediment above displaying the City's coat of arms.   Originally there were 2½ storeys with circular lights at the upper half. The roof parapet is punctuated by balustrades.   Fluted pilasters distinguish the edges and central portion of the upper storey.  Additional windows have since been installed to the first floor and the new second floor at the west side of the building, using former blind brick panels and removing some ornamental work 

The carved figures on the keystones above the windows, being of red stone and in Italian style, were said to be a unique feature in the Eastern Counties as was the style of the architecture at that time. They were carved by Walter Allan, sculptor of St Giles Road.  The Prince of Wales plume sits elegantly above the entrance, the other window keystones display heads, possibly connected with agriculture, as are the ornamental swags elsewhere and the bull's head on the west façade.  

The front entrance was provided with a cast iron canopy for the protection of visitors alighting from carriages.

The interior was generally thought to be "light and airy", the main exhibition area having a lantern top with skylights.  The assembly hall, over the main entrance at the front of the building, was said to measure 100 ft by 48 ft and to accommodate up to 800 people.  It contained a stage, 18 feet deep, for public meetings and was licensed for theatrical entertainment.

Behind the assembly hall area, the main exhibition hall extended 147 feet in length and 98 feet in width, being able to contain up to 900 people.  There were galleries on three sides and at the east and west ends cranes were installed to move large exhibits.  Elegant iron girders, starting at gallery level, supported the roof, the central span of which was 8 ft over the galleries, which in turn were supported by tall, foliated iron columns.  The décor included a series of chocolate and buff-coloured Renaissance style panels forming an ornamental frieze between the lunettes, with the intervening spaces bearing the President's crest.

The basement contained a kitchen and dining room.  Below the assembly hall, the ground floor was laid out with a buffet, ladies' room, board room, Secretary's and other administrative offices. 

The main contractor for the ironwork was Messrs Butler of Leeds, whilst the ornamental ironwork and the supply and fixing of the hot water system was sub-contracted by Lacey's to Barnards, Bishop and Barnards.  J & J King provided some stained glass and decoration and Trevor Page supplied the furnishings in various suites.

What happened there?

Perhaps as some consolation to Mr Back, when the Easter and Christmas fairs set up their entertainments at the rear of the building on the old Cattle Market, the Hall became an overspill fairground housing dodgem cars and roundabout rides.  Notable events include:

  • Cattle shows: livestock was often brought into the Hall during cattle shows, where iron pens could be erected. As intended, it was an important centre for the region's farmers. When Anglia Television took the building over in 1959, a cattle market continued to be held at the rear of Anglia House on the present car park, until in the 1960's a new cattle market was set up on the outskirts of the City.  (A painting by Frederick Bacon Barwell, painted in 1871, shows the Cattle Market in progress on the site of the Hall, the background showing buildings in Crown Road that remain. Usually displayed in the Bridewell Museum, it can be seen in the art section on the Norfolk Museums website.)
  • 1884 Oscar Wilde gave a lecture entitled "The House Beautiful".
  • 1886 and in May 1890 the great Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone, spoke to the people of Norfolk.
  • January 1894, only two weeks before his 70th birthday, Charles Blondin, the French acrobat, walked a tightrope between two balconies bearing a trumpeter on his back
  • October 1894 Jerome K Jerome, author of "Three Men in a Boat" spoke on "Humour, Old and New".
  • 1896, on Boxing Day, George Gilbert's Circus of Varieties opened its 4th season at the Hall. On January 11th 1897 George Gilbert brought "The Royal Cinematographe - The Animated Photographs - presenting with marvellous accuracy scenes of everyday life".  This was a miscellany of images featuring jugglers, horsemanship, clowns and performing dogs, the highlight being film taken at the request of the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House.
  • During the 1920's and 30's military tattoos and trade fairs were popular events.  Local residents, though young at the time, still remember a fountain being in the centre of the main hall, coloured lights shining upon it, whilst popular melodies were played for the delight of visitors.  It also served as a skating rink, where rubber-wheeled skates could be hired.
  • 1939 the army requisitioned the building for military use and subsequently it became a furniture store for those unfortunate people whose houses had been bombed.
  • 1944 the building was leased as an extension to the General Post Office and used for sorting post.
  • 1957 the 75-year lease expired and the building was handed over, with much ceremony, to Norwich Corporation. (It was set up originally by joint stock-holders at a cost of £15,000.)
  • 1958 The Corporation leased the Hall to Anglia Television as studios and offices.

Anglia Television's alterations

On 27th October 1959 Anglia Television began broadcasting to the East of England from its studios at Anglia House (the former Agricultural Hall). 

The architects for the alterations and new studios were George Trew and Dunn, the builder being R G Carter Ltd.  Designs were drawn up in August 1958 and building work started in December, being completed by July 1959.  Over the next three months, recruitment of staff took place and technical equipment was installed and prepared for the opening transmission.

Only minor changes were made to the exterior of the building as explained, but the interior of the main exhibition hall was stripped for the erection of a new reinforced concrete building within, but separate from, the Hall's structure to form the soundproofing that studios required.  Three studios were created; one of 3,350 sq ft, one of 1,000 sq ft and a smaller one for news reports and commentaries. 

The assembly hall at the front of the building was divided into two floors. The elegant Victorian supporting ironwork was retained, re-painted in blue and gold.

The space between the roof of the new studios and the original roof provided a large storage area for props and scenery.  One prominent addition to the exterior of the building was a tall brick tower at the rear east side to accommodate the boiler flue and provide a suitably tall site for mounting communication links with other stations.

The Archaeology beneath the site

When digging test holes in the basement for the foundations of the new studio building in 1958, the remains of at least three human skeletons, buried west to east, were disturbed some 7-8 ft below the level of Crown Road.  It was believed those burials surrounded a late Saxon church nearby, demolished by the Normans at the same time and for the same reason as the church discovered in 1979, referred to below. 

The archaeological survey of 1979 occurred prior to the building of extra Anglia Television office space on an area being used as a car park.  The excavation revealed the presence a small timber Saxon church that had burnt down about 1,000 AD and subsequently re-built. Following the Norman Conquest, that church also was probably destroyed to clear the way for the construction of the north-east Castle bailey. Some 130 burials in the area around that church were found, the bones revealing information about the working lives, diet and other surprising details of that population.  An indication of Bronze Age activity in the form of a barbed-and-tanged arrowhead was also discovered at that time.

Further burials associated with the first church mentioned were discovered beneath Hardwick House, disturbed during its conversion to studios, and below the site now occupied by the metal and glass building linking it to Anglia House.

Past, Present and Future

As the Agricultural Hall, it represented farming as a science and as a source of the County's prosperity, an industry which remains of great importance to the Eastern Counties.   Perhaps as a reminder of that, an old motto displayed upon the brick gable of the assembly room below the Royal Coat of Arms read: "Tickle the earth with a hoe and it will laugh with a harvest".

Though still a production centre for the eastern region's Independent Television output, a time may come for yet another change in its career.  Nevertheless, as a listed building, it is likely to remain an icon of the Plain to which it gave its original name.


  • "Norwich a Fine City" by Brian Ayres
  • "The Buildings of England: Norfolk 1: Norwich and the North-East" by Nikolas Pevsner and Bill Wilson
  • "The Plains of Norwich" by Richard Lane
  • "Norwich Street by Street" by Pamela Brooks
  • "A History of Norwich" by Frank Meeres
  • "Anglia Television - the first Twenty-One Years" an Anglia Television publication
  • "The Picture House in East Anglia" by Steve Peart


Norfolk Archive Centre:

  • BR35/2/36/10 Alterations 1924-1937, Agricultural Hall plans dated 20th March 1882

Norwich Millennium Library:

  • "Anglia House, Norwich Headquarters and Studios of Anglia Television" - Anglia Television publication, by Ian Nairn, drawings by Gordon Cullen.  N725.23 store-room.
  • "East Anglian Archaeology No 28 - Excavations Within the North-East Bailey of Norwich Castle" 1970 - 1985 L942.615 open shelves
  • "Anglia Television Supplement (May 4th 1982 Agricultural Hall) EDP article by Geoffrey Goreham.  EA791.45 store-room.
  • "Anglia TV Service Inauguration October 26th - 27th 1959", EDP EA791.45 store-room.
  • Norfolk Chronicle, 1st April and 16th November 1882 "The Agricultural Hall" - microfilm
  • The Norwich Mercury, 15th & 18th November 1882, microfilm
  • Eastern Daily Press, Monday, 27th March 1882 - Laying the Foundation Stone, 17th November 1882 - The Opening microfilm

Kirsty Way

April 2009