Samson and Hercules: Icons of Norwich

By Wayne Kett

A few weeks ago we were happy to report that our finely carved oak statue Samson had left Norfolk Collections Centre to undergo conservation work. This blog charts the 357 year history of Samson.

Two of Norwich’s most famous characters are these two oak carved statues of Samson and Hercules.

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Samson (left) is holding a small fox in his left hand and the jawbone of an ass in his right held up to his shoulder, he has a moustache and long flowing hair. Hercules (right) is standing holding a large club to his right shoulder, he has a moustache and long flowing hair.

The older of the two, Samson, is 357 years old! For the first time in his life he has left Norfolk, for the bright lights of London to undergo conservation work.

Find out more from our conservation department blog

For most of their lives Samson & Hercules lived in Tombland, the oldest part of Norwich, being the centre of the original Saxon settlement. Samson and Hercules arrived in Tombland in 1657, given the job of supporting the porch of a newly erected building (No 16 Tombland), built opposite the Cathedral by then Norwich Mayor Christopher Jay.

The building was not entirely new; parts of an older structure were incorporated such as the under-croft. The previous building was erected by John Falstoff, a military leader who fought and lost battles against the French during the reign of Henry V. On one famous occasion he was defeated by Joan of Arc and returned to England charged with cowardice. Legend has it the Shakespearean character Falstaff in two of his plays Henry IV and Henry VI is based upon him.

Samson and Hercules enjoyed a prime spot to witness the day to day life of a thriving city. They were perfectly placed to view the annual Guild Day celebrations involving the famous Norwich Snap Dragon. The history books record Snap sometimes breathing fire, if only Samson could talk, we would have a first hand account of this spectacle.

In 1766 they witnessed a riot, caused by the high price and scarcity of grain. Businesses were accused of profiteering and many mills were attacked. A bakers shop on Tombland was among those targeted.

In 1789 they were removed and placed in the rear courtyard. Here they remained, for over a century.

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This drawing of Tombland by John Thirtle is from around 1830, the period that Samson and Hercules were missing. If you look closely at the building on the right hand side you can see they have been replaced by two rather plain looking pillars.

It was over 100 years later when the, then proprietor, an antique dealer by the name of George Cubitt decided to restore the statues to the front of the building.

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Samson and Hercules in the courtyard at the rear of the building. This is possibly the last known photograph of the original Hercules (on the right)

Sadly this is where Hercules’ story ends, Cubitt decided he was in too poor condition and was replaced by a replica. The Hercules we have now is this replica.

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This photograph was taken between 1890 and 1909 and shows Samson restored to the front of the building along with the new replica of Hercules.

In Kelly’s Norfolk directory of 1912 the property is listed as being occupied by Cubitt & Sons antique furniture dealers and auctioneers, but the building had many other uses over the centuries. Examples include a local excise office, a surgeons practice and a wool combing business. It is unclear when Cubit vacated the building, but it must have been before 1924 when the building went through a short lived phase as the local YMCA. It was opened in 1924 by the Duchess of York, better known as the Queen Mother.

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In 1919 Samson and Hercules witnessed people crowding the streets of Tombland to celebrate the unveiling of a statue to celebrate Norfolk War hero Edith Cavell

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Samson & Hercules House, the Sign hanging outside on Augustine Stewart House (to the left) says ‘Be Loyal to the Empire and our good King and Queen’, image was taken between 1910 and 1929

In the 1930s the building opened as the Samson and Hercules ballroom. Around this time my Great-Grandparents were young and living in Norwich, I don’t know if they visited the Samson and Hercules ballroom, but it seems likely, as most youngsters would surely have been attracted to the hottest ballroom in town.

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Inside the Samson & Hercules ballroom in the 1940s

The Samson and Hercules ballroom survived two devastating fires, one in 1937 and another in 1944. The second fire resulted in the loss of the upper floors of the building and part of the roof, it was not fully repaired until the 1950’s. Though thankfully Samson and Hercules were unharmed!

During the Second World War the Samson and Hercules became popular with American soldiers stationed in Norwich. From time to time special entertainment was provided. In the 1940s musicians did not come much bigger than Glenn Miller, he produced swing music and was very much a pop music star of his day. For one night only on the 18th August 1944 he passed Samson and Hercules and entered the ballroom to play a set to American soldiers. Rumour has it, earlier in the day he played an impromptu set at Chapelfield Gardens in the bandstand.

In the 1950s and 1960s famous acts of the day continued to play including Jack Parnell, Count Basie, Mick Mulligan, Gracie Cole, Beryl Brydon, George Melley and Humphrey Lyttelton.

Count Basie & his Orchestra playing in 1964

Samson & Hercules

Advert for the Samson and Hercules ballroom placed in a tourist guide to Norwich in the 1960’s, notice the offer of tea dances in the afternoon!

It was in the early 1960s that my grandparents became accustomed with Samson and Hercules, frequently visiting the ballroom and dancing to the music of the day. Though my Grandfather informs me rather than dance he would prefer to stand at the bar with a beer (which is exactly what I did in the days I was young enough to go clubbing)

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Samson and Hercules in the 1960’s

By the 1980s ballrooms were out of fashion and Samson and Hercules morphed into a nightclub, becoming Ritzy’s. Keeping up family tradition, in the second part of the 1980s my parents regularly passed Samson and Hercules to party the night away in Ritzys nightclub.

In 1993 Samson suffered an accident when his arm fell off, the past 60 years of partying with generations of youngsters had obviously taken its toll on poor Samson. Both he and Hercules were removed for their own protection and for the second time they were absent from Tombland. Thankfully not for 100 years this time, new fibre glass replica’s were installed in 1999 and these are the figures that remain today.

About a year or so later I became old enough to enjoy the bright lights, pubs and clubs of Norwich and started going clubbing at what was by then named Ikon nightclub (Ikon being a rather fitting description for Samson and Hercules). By now the club was a little rough around the edges, but I still remember it affectionately.

The club closed its doors permanently in 2003 and the building has remained unused ever since. This is a shame, but this is merely a momentary pause in a story that begun 357 years ago. Samson and Hercules live on and I can only imagine what they will witness over the next 100 years!!

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10 Responses to Samson and Hercules: Icons of Norwich

  1. Cathy Terry says:

    I keep meaning to check whether there have ever been any suggestions that the Sampson and Hercules could originally have been processional giants (before they were associated with a building), as still found today in use in various continental – and related to the Salisbury giant, still to be seen in Salisbury and S Wiltshire museum. Any thoughts?

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  2. Owen Thompson says:

    Great page, thanks, but it should be “Fastolf” not “Falstoff” as you have it – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fastolf (OK, I know Wiki is not always right, but in this case it is).

    Like

  3. Charlie says:

    Where are the originals stored?
    The building is now going to be a restaurant, and they’ve painted the replicas a horrible red colour, it looks disgusting and almost ridiculing to the originals, and their sculptor(s).

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  4. Pingback: Conservation of Samson – Further Revealed by Amy Anderson, Senior Conservator | Conservation at NMS

  5. historicalwritings says:

    The thought of the current statues being painted red, horrifies me… I thought Norwich was supposed to be a city of culture. Imagine coming out of the Cathedral Gate and being faced by those statues…

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  6. Pingback: Revealing Samson’s Colours Through Paint Sampling and Analysis | Conservation at NMS

  7. Matt says:

    Hi Wayne, just stumbled across this piece and read with interest, not least due to having a familial connection to the building with my great grandfather (I believe) owning it at the point it was opened in the 30s as a ballroom, adding an extension and the swimming pool to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. maurice english says:

    During my stay in the UK ,1953-55,I attended the Samson on several occasions I saw Ted
    Heath, Gracie Cole, Jack Parnell, Ray Ellington and Cleo Lane also numerous dances

    Liked by 1 person

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