Stanley J Wearing in the opening chapter of his book on the builders of Georgian Norwich said: "Of the Georgian architects in Norwich, Thomas Ivory stands out pre-eminently". John Wesley wrote of the Octagon Chapel in 1757: "... perhaps the most elegant one in all Europe..." His buildings, particularly the Assembly House, are his legacy to Norwich citizens allowing them to experience the grandeur and elegance of his age. His son, William, wrote of him "a public spirited man, with great activity of mind and resolution, and a great knowledge in his business as a master builder".
His early life and where he served his apprenticeship is unknown. His first large commission as a builder and timber merchant was at Thrigby Hall in 1735. In that year also he married Hannah Lacey on 22nd December in the parish church of St Mary-in-the Marsh (This church in Cathedral Close was demolished in 1564, the Parishioners being given the use of St Luke's Chapel in Norwich Cathedral henceforth.).
In June 1744 he advertised in the Norwich Mercury for joinery work, becoming a Freeman on 21st September 1745, which allowed him to trade in the City free of all tolls.
His appointment as carpenter at Norwich's Great Hospital followed in 1751 where he was responsible for maintaining properties belonging to the Trustees, a position he retained throughout his life.
In May 1750 he advertised for sale his "commodious family house" in the parish of St Martin-at-Oak, wishing to move nearer to his business in Bishopgate. He leased some land on the west forecourt of the Great Hospital where he was required to erect a house at a minimum cost of £300. The actual cost must have been nearer £1,000, it being built of "good red brick and with pediment and an orderly range of sash-windows". (He was granted a licence in May 1757 for making the "new invented sash frames".)
He and his wife Hannah moved into the house at The Great Hospital in 1756 with his family, William, aged 20, Sarah 14 and Thomas whose date of birth is unknown, as is the reason he decided later to go to India. When their father died, his considerable estate was divided between Hannah, Sarah and William. Although Thomas junior inherited nothing from his father's estate, when his brother William died in 1801, he left Thomas half of his property.
In 1751 he began building the Methodist Meeting House in Bishopgate, which became known as the Tabernacle, and an adjoining house for the preacher. He encountered trouble with local youths, causing the re-building of some walls. Demolished in 1953, the site of the Tabernacle is commemorated by a plaque set in the wall of a small public garden leading to the Law Courts.
Thomas Ivory secured the commission to build the Octagon Chapel in competition with three other submissions. When Thomas Ivory presented the Committee with a scale model for an octagonal building it gained approval and work began in 1754.
The Assembly House was also begun in 1754 during a time (1750-80) when the City enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Thomas Ivory is said to have designed this grand building with the interiors being by Sir James Burroughs, Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
The building of a theatre adjacent to the Assembly House had been the intention of the proprietors but money was lacking. Thomas Ivory agreed to build it but requiring another £600 to complete the work, he persuaded a group of local gentlemen to invest £20 each, payable in instalments, as work progressed. The "New Theatre", said to be based upon London's Drury Lane, opened in 1758.
As theatre proprietor, he secured, by an Act of Parliament, the Grant of Royal Protection on the 8th March 1768 enabling plays to be performed there legally under this licence, avoiding the necessity to seek local permission for each new play. After eleven years, he sold the majority of his interest in the theatre in shares.
His final assignment was for the second Earl of Buckingham at Blickling Hall for whom he carried out some alterations in the original Jacobean style. He was unable to complete these works as in May 1779 he suffered an injury when a large piece of timber fell upon his leg. He did not recover and died in August of that year. His son William is said to have overseen the completion of the work for the Earl.
Thomas Ivory lived in The Great Hospital house until his death on the 28th August 1779. He and Hannah are buried in Norwich Cathedral, where he was a chorister and had carried out re-modelling of the choir furnishings in the Gothic style. His nephew, John Ivory, stonemason, created his memorial plaque which is on the north wall of the Triforium. A family pew, bearing carved Gothic style script, and a date of 1780 can be seen in St Helen's Church, Bishopgate.
Other buildings attributed to Thomas Ivory are those in Surrey Street, 29-35 (1761-2) and 25-27 (c1771), the latter two having been replaced by a modern building. St Catherine's House in All Saints Green, the former studios of the local BBC Television station, is attributed to him but may have been completed by his son, William. On the opposite side of All Saints Green stands Ivory House, the former Militia Barracks.