In 1785 the Corporation of Beccles Fen decided that the building of a Public Room as an Assembly Room and a Playhouse would encourage people of independent means to move to the town. The money for building the room was obtained by selling £25 tontine bonds at 5% interest. The person who bought the bond in his own name, or that of someone else (often a son or grandson) would initially be paid the 5% interest on the £25, but as the bond holders died the total interest was divided between the remaining holders. Eventually when the last bond holder died the property reverted to the Corporation free of all charges.
The aim was to raise £600, but whether this was achieved or not is not clear, but £200 more had to be borrowed to pay for it.
The architect of the Assembly Room was Thomas Fulcher, who was born in 1737 and died in 1803. Like many architects of the period he did not restrict himself to design. He was also a surveyor, builder, carpenter and timber merchant and he lived in Ipswich. His chief claim to fame was that he invented a waterproof composition in imitation of Portland stone, for stuccoing new and old brick and stone buildings. It was used on numerous large houses in Suffolk and also for some of the bas reliefs on Ickworth.
Within four years of completion it was decided that a card room was also required, so at the cost of £105 they built a coach house on the ground floor and a card room above.
After it had been redecorated in 1819 the Corporation prohibited it being used for the Portreeve’s feast. After a year they relented, but the rules made gives some idea of what an orgy these tended to be: “To prevent damage, the floor to be covered with sawdust, the curtains taken down, the covers of the benches removed and the tables not screwed or nailed to the floor.”
The character of the feast was described by John Barber Scott of Bungay who was in Beccles as a fourteen year old boy in 1806.
“At three o’clock the Corporation went in procession to the Assembly Room to dine but did not rise from dinner till half past eight when they went to the King’s Head where there was much noise and confusion created by the gentlemen who were mostly intoxicated. At half past ten the gentlemen then returned to the Assembly Room, and did not entirely break up until 8 the next morning.”
The hall was used for a variety of purposes: as a Theatre, for Balls and Assemblies, the Portreeve’s Feast, as a dancing school, a place for the Masons to play cards, a tea room, as a temporary home for the Independent Church in 1812 while their chapel was being rebuilt, auctions, the gallery was used as the National School from 1822, a practice room for the Beccles juvenile band of musicians, as a library for the Library Institution, and as a place of worship while St Michael’s was being restored in 1858.
The building has changed a great deal in appearance over two hundred years. In a photograph taken about 1900 it had a simple brick facade of three stories. The windows were crowned by pediments of the same height as the roof. In 1903 it underwent a restoration, it was stuccoed along all sides and was given curved Baroque tops on both the Smallgate and the Station Road sides, with a transverse roof at the front parallel with Smallgate. The small pediments over the windows and the rustication date from this time also. By 1920 the Baroque style had gone and triangular pediments replaced the curved top. These in turn disappeared later, along with the transverse roof.
Not much of John Fulcher’s original design has survived.