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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich City Hall

Norwich City Hall

Norwich City Hall was built to the north of the market, as a response to a growth in local government duties. The arrangements within the Guildhall had proved to be impossible, and municipal premises were cramped and unworkable. By the beginning of the 20th century, the situation had deteriorated to the extent that some civic business was being carried out in local disused public houses and shops.

New civic offices

Although the calls in 1908 to demolish the Guildhall were annulled, still nothing was decided concerning the expansion of civic offices until after the First World War. It was then that the decision was made to build a new city hall. It remains today the home of Norwich City Council. City Hall boasts the longest balcony in England (at 111m / 365ft long) and the largest clock bell in the United Kingdom, with the deepest tone in East Anglia.

After claims by the council that officials were working in rat infested, unsuitable places, the Ministry of Health eventually agreed to a loan of £226,000 to contribute to the construction.

Norwich City Council applied to the Royal Institute of British Architects regarding possible plans for a new municipal building - Robert Atkinson was put forward to supervise the scheme, and he quickly drew up preliminary plans for a 'city hall'. Through a competition, architects Charles Holloway James and Stephen Rowland Pierce were chosen to assist the project.

Civic centre scheme

The City Hall project became part of a larger civic centre scheme costing a total of £384,000, and included the redevelopment of the market and the creation of the Garden of Remembrance. St Giles Street, Bethel Street, St Peters Street and Gentleman's Walk were widened at the same time.

City Hall was made from solid brick walls, not from steel frames; it was considered that a civic building of such importance deserved firm, solid foundations - to ensure its permanence and to eliminate noise. Clipsham stone from Rutland was used for the lowest storey, while Ketton stone from Stamford was used for the majority of the remaining outside work.

A flight of stone steps lead up to the main entrance to City Hall from St. Peters Street. It is flanked by Ketton stone podiums topped by a pair of stylised bronze lions from the city's coat of arms, sculpted by Alfred Hardiman, whose signature can be spotted on each of the lions. One of these lions had been exhibited by Hardiman at the British Empire Exhibition of 1936. The architects of the City Hall had seen it there and commissioned its twin.

Trades and industries

The three pairs of bronze doors leading into the entrance hall contain 18 plaques. The two outer entrances have relief panels illustrating trades connected with the City; chocolate; mustard; agriculture (two plaques); boots and shoes; aeroplanes; brewing; soda-water syphon filling; silk looms; wine bottling; wire netting and the construction of City Hall. The six plaques on the central doors illustrate the City's history. The plaques were designed and sculpted by James Woodford and executed by J. Starkie Gardner Ltd. of Putney.

The Bethel Street façade contains the entrance to the Rates Hall which has a stone relief panel depicting the arms and supporters above it (by Eric Aumonier, who was also responsible for sculptures at London's underground stations during the 1930s). The former entrance to the Police Station has an ornate bronze lantern above it and relief stone panels depicting police helmets, sculpted by H. Wilson Parker.

The Council chamber

The main point of interest to the rear elevation is the Council Chamber, which projects into the courtyard. It is lit by three long lights on its north and south elevations, whilst the west façade has three niches in its blind brickwork, each containing a sculpted figure by Alfred Hardiman. These depict 'Recreation', 'Wisdom' and 'Education', (the central figure was originally to be called 'Legislation').

The hall has an art deco interior, which is spread over five floors. The Council Chamber is a classic example of this design style, and projects out onto a courtyard. It is found on the first floor - which is almost entirely devoted to ceremonial suite.

The walls of the ground floor entrance hall (which are inscribed with a list of mayors since 1403) and the main landing on the first floor were lined with Italian 'Bianca del Mare' and 'Nabresina' marbles, while many of the rooms were panelled with rich mahoganies and other quality woods.

The top floor has a superb cupola - a dome shaped ceiling that floods the building with light. The stairwell to the first floor has retained much of its original detail. Its ceiling displays an interesting painting of a flying duck. This was designed by Eric Clarke and painted by James Michie, who was, in turn, assisted by students from the Royal Academy. The image is part of a series which depicts Norfolk wildlife and the city's coat of arms.

Royal opening

King George VI opened City Hall in 1938 to the largest gathering of citizens the city had ever seen. There had been huge demand by people to have a place at the ceremony.

On October 24th 1958 a freak accident occurred at City Hall while some repairs were being carried out. A man fell more than 150ft to his death from the top of the tower, and landed on the metal top of a bus shelter.

The site formerly housed a closely packed cluster of dwellings which were pulled down in order to accommodate City Hall. Perhaps of most significance was that of James Smith, who set up his shoe making business on the site in 1792. Over time the firm developed into that of 'Start-rite' - the firm retained this factory site until the 1930s.

References and further reading:

  • Pevsner, Nikolaus,The buildings of England: North East Norfolk and Norwich, 1997
  • Eastern Daily Press: 17/02/1966 Rowland Pierce
  • Eastern Daily Press: 17/10/1938 City Hall
  • Nobbs, George, Norwich City Hall, 1988
  • Norwich City Hall and its police offices, Architectural review, November 1938
  • Ayers, Brian, Norwich: A Fine City, 1994