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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Samson and Hercules House

Samson and Hercules House

Samson and Hercules House stands on the site of a significantly older building, erected in the fifteenth century. This early mansion was built by the important military captain, Sir John Fastolf (1380-1459). Fastolf led the English army in the campaigns of Henry V in France, where he gained a good reputation as a soldier. However, defeat against Joan of Arc in 1429, at Patay, tainted him with cowardice. He is perhaps the inspiration for Shakespeare's character 'Falstaff', in Henry IV and Henry VI.

After Fastolf's death, Samson and Hercules house was occupied by the Duchess of Suffolk, who often resided there with her family, and later by the Countess of Lincoln. John Pye, a Norwich cordwainer lived here in 1539.

It is thought that the present structure was built in 1656-7, by Christopher Jay to mark the year of his mayoralty. However, it is probable that the building incorporated much of the earlier house rather than being started from scratch - indeed, the undercroft and other fifteenth century walls remained within Jay's house. The building also contained beautiful mantelpieces, panelled walls, an iron knocker and a heavily framed oak doorway.

After the death of Christopher Jay, Samson and Hercules House was sub-divided so that it housed several residences. The building was occupied by numerous people during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; a wool combing business, the local excise offices, and a surgeons practice, are just a few of the diverse uses the building had. 

Some structural changes were made to the building while it was in the hands of Thomas Hancock, the city treasurer. He also ran a grocery business from here. Hancock covered in the courtyard and removed a smaller building attached on the west side. Not long after, the house was acquired by George Cubitt (who also owned Augustine Steward's House next door), a valuer and collector of antiques and art. Cubitt did much to restore the building, including returning the two figures that support the entrance portico.

It is from these two figures that the house takes its name. They represent Samson ('the sturdy'), who is carrying a fox and gripping the jawbone of an ass, and Hercules ('the heavy'), who wears a lion skin and is holding a club. The originals were carved from wood, painted and enamelled. They were placed outside the building in 1656-7 and removed to an inner court in August 1789. 100 years later Cubitt restored them. In the late 1990s, after Samson lost an arm, the statues were removed. Replica statues were installed in 1999 which were made out of more durable material. The original wooden ones are currently undergoing restoration by the Museums Service.

After fears that it was going to be used for commercial purposes, Samson and Hercules house was bought by the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Trust and the YWCA jointly. The YWCA was opened by the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother) in 1924.

During the 1930s the building served as a social centre, a dance hall (frequently used by Allied troops), and a ballroom. There was also an underground swimming pool (100 ft by 35 ft) that was opened in 1935.  

There was a major fire in the building in 1944 which resulted in the loss of the upper floors of half the building as well as the roof. It was reconstructed in 1952-55 by J. P. Chaplin, who restored the interior and exterior to its pre-fire appearance.

During the 1990s it was the home of Ikon nightclub, which closed in 2004. It is currently being redeveloped as flats.

Samson and Hercules House is said to be haunted by 3 monks, who may have been killed by the great plague in 1578. Up to around 5000 victims of the plague were buried beneath the site.

References and further reading:

  • Tillett, Edward A. Norwich Scrapbooks, Volume 11, St George Tombland, c.1905
  • Jones, W. H. Samson and Hercules, and Augustine Steward's houses... a quaint corner in old Norwich: interesting annals and reminiscences from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, published in Norwich, Norfolk Chronicle, 1900
  • Norwich Mercury (N.S.) Samson & Hercules House: Tombland - old and new, 1925, Notes and Queries, vol. 22, published by Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, 1926

Victoria Golden

November 2008