In 2014, two statues at the entrance of a building on Tombland were painted bright red. The two imposing figures – Samson and Hercules – had stood guard in Tombland longer than living memory, and plans were in place to turn them a hot shade of red from their usual bright white, as their home re-opened as a lobster restaurant.
There was outcry in the city.
Looking at an article on the EDP from October 2014, it was revealed that 72% of people disagreed with the colour change, and comments range from ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrible’, to the more lenient ‘maybe it will blend in when they paint the Cathedral to match’. There were fans of course – some people felt that the red updated the two Norwich icons, who were starting to look more and more dilapidated and forgotten, as Norwich changed all around them and Samson and Hercules continued to battle all weathers, forward facing and solemn.
But perhaps little known and forgotten was the fact that this Samson and Hercules – the pair you can see outside the Samson and Hercules building today – are actually imposters. The real and original statues are being kept safe inside, after Samson’s arm fell off in 1993 and the two statues were deemed too fragile to remain outside their Tombland home. Although the end of an era for this specific pair, this offered historians a rare chance to discover more about these statues, and in the process discover that one of them held a fascinating secret…
Image with kind permission of the EDP/Archant Library
By 2014 (21 years after Samson and Hercules had been removed from the porch of what was then Ritzy’s nightclub and taken into the care of the Norfolk Museums Service), the two statues had dried out, and conservators were able to remove layers of paint from the figures for the first time. In fact, they had dried out so slowly that layers and layers of paint would come off in pieces at a time, almost like a plaster cast or a snake shedding its skin. In Samson’s case, the process revealed that he was covered in 60 layers of paint, including some layers which appear to have been gilded. But what is more impressive is what lies beneath the paint: an intricately carved figure of Samson, complete with sinewy muscles, popping veins and a luscious curly mane of hair. This wooden strongman – saved by his many coats of paint – has been dated back all the way to 1647. Hercules was revealed to be much younger: a replica dating from the Victorian period.
In 17th Century England, literacy was only around 40% across the male population in England. At the same time, Christopher Jay was mayor of Norwich, and lived in a grand house opposite Norwich’s magnificent Cathedral. As a show of power, and to mark his residence as a grand place of business, two magnificent, life-size statues of iconic men – Samson and Hercules – were put at the entrance of the doorway to stand guard. Both figures have a different past: Samson’s story originates from the bible, and Hercules is from Greek Mythology. Both men have one thing in common: their incredible strength.
Samson’s story in the bible is a violent one. He was a Nazarite, blessed by God with an incredible strength that allowed him to perform superhuman feats. According to his story, he killed 1,000 Philistines simply with a Donkey’s jaw (in fact he is holding this jawbone in his statue). After his promised wife married another man, in an act of vengeance he once gathered up 300 foxes, paired them up and tied them together by their tails with a burning torch in between them, and sent them running though his enemies’ crops. It was Delilah who eventually tricked him into admitting the secret of his strength (that it was in his uncut hair), by luring him to sleep ‘in her lap’ and getting a servant to shave his head. Samson lost his strength, was captured by the Philistines and blinded.
Carved eternally as the strong Samson who slayed his enemies, Norwich’s wooden Samson saw the Tombland house – now affectionately known as the Samson and Hercules building – in many different reincarnations over the years. In 1920 when the premises was put up for auction by Antique Dealer George Cubbit, the lot included a large warehouse, gardens, a coach house, a stables, a vinery and the two statues, and was purchased by the Young Women’s Christian Association. Five years later, plans were drawn up to renovate the premises to include a large hall, and in 1934 businessman Teddy Bush purchased the Samson and Hercules Building for £3,000.
Image with kind permission of the EDP/Archant Library
Teddy’s dreams for the building were ambitious, and it was under his watchful eye that the building was transformed. Teddy had secretly been acquiring adjoining premises, and in 1935 opened his remarkable finished article: the Samson and Hercules was now a grand hall containing a swimming pool, which could be converted into a ballroom in the winter months. Teddy had financed the whole scheme himself, in the face of a recession and an uncertain future in the wake of the First World War. The swimming pool was a great success, but the ballroom struggled; ‘ordinary folk’ declared it ‘too posh’ and designed for ‘stuffed shirts’. Teddy galvanised and made changes that saw trade take off, but with the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, the swimming pool was transitioned into a ballroom for the last time.
That isn’t to say though, that things took a downward turn for the ballroom. In fact, after people initially got over their (understandable) reservations about leaving the house under the threat of air raids, the now blacked-out ballroom became immensely popular with service personnel. The RAF and the USAAF all but ‘took over’ the Samson, bringing with them a crowd of ladies…
In her book Norwich at War, Joan Banger explains that ‘many friendships made here were cut short when young Americans were reported missing or killed. Sometimes their girlfriends remained at this haunt and occasionally were happily reunited when boyfriends were picked up in the North Sea or returned from other airfields’. During the war, the building survived a disastrous fire, and in April 1945 Terry Bush – who had facilitated so much hope and joy during an unimaginably awful time – parted ways with the building.
Post war, Samson looked on over something different. After being purchased by the president and chairman of Norwich City Football club – Geoffrey Watling - the building was restored and renovated in 1952 to recreate a 17th-century atmosphere and opened again in 1954 to massive public approval. In the time following, the ballroom grew into a dancehall (complete with palm trees and vines hanging from the ceiling), which grew into Ritzy’s nightclub in 1982, then Ikon in 1999.
Now the Samson and Hercules building is a Mexican restaurant (a good one too – they do excellent tequila cocktails), and the entrance is guarded by two fibreglass replicas of Norwich’s original doormen.
Back to the hero of our story, the real Samson currently lies in storage in London. This Valentine’s Eve, the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring Samson home, and appealled to the public for their help.
Like any lovable strong man, Samson may be hard on the outside, but inside he is very soft. His 350 year-old wooden centre is so fragile that he can no longer stand up unsupported (his feet haven’t fared too well over the years), and his body – without his painterly protection – is open to the elements. In order to display Samson in the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell, a special case must be made for him, and £15,000 raised in order to do so.
We haven’t got long.
The crowdfunding campaign to bring Samson back to Norwich ends on the 22nd of March, and so far (with 25 days left to go as I write this) has only achieved 15% of its target. In exchange for your donation, there are some wonderful gifts and artworks by Leanda Jaine Illustrations on offer, so as well as helping preserve Samson for generations to come, you get a suave tote bag to boot.
You can find out even more about Samson, his lifetime, and his campaign on the artfund website - www.artfund.org/saving-samson The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell are releasing more of his story each week, and to keep you on track they will also share how close we are to saving Norwich’s favourite doorman.
He might be made of wood, but it’s hard not to have a soft spot for Samson. He has seen many lifetimes of people in Norwich come and go. From the outbreak of war to lovers meeting for the first time, Samson was there, tirelessly guarding the city. Now, you can help bring him back home, where we can save him and his memories for the generations to follow - #savingsamson.
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