The ‘Music Scene’ in Georgian Norwich

Beggars Opera

Advertisement from The Norwich Gazette, April 1728

At the start of the 18th century, Norwich was the largest British city after London, and it remained a major civic, cultural and manufacturing centre throughout the 1700s. Perhaps because it had achieved the trappings of a major urban centre so early, it retained many of them at a surprisingly high level throughout this time. It was the first provincial city to have its own newspaper (The Norwich Post of 1701). By the start of the century, it had several thriving coffeehouses, six booksellers and the beginnings of a ‘social scene’.

Norwich’s location may well have helped it develop in this way. It was too far from the capital to be overwhelmed by London’s preeminence (some 100 miles, though the roads to the south were surprisingly good for the time); close enough to attract some of the artists, playwrights and musicians north; wealthy enough to provide a suitable clientele of gentry and landowners, substantial merchants, members of the growing professional classes and even manufacturers and successful tradespeople. Their families too, since wealth brought leisure and the need for suitable social venues and diversions.

Suitable Venues

I will set aside purely church music in this post. That is not to say it was not important in the musical life of the city—it was—but in writing of a ‘music scene’, I am using the term in the modern way: as a convenient description for public musical performances of all kinds put on for pleasure and profit. Where the churches played a major part in this type of local music was by providing professional and semi-professional singers and instrumentalists, especially at the start of the century. The same is true of the City Corporation, which employed a band of musicians (the City Waits) to enliven official events and processions. These City Waits also staged their own concerts from time to time, at least until they were eclipsed by larger, more skilled ensembles.

What Norwich also had in good numbers was secular venues. I shall be writing later about the early theatres in the city—those that preceded The Theatre Royal and its palatial proportions. Most of these venues were associated with inns and taverns and had developed from the kinds of all-purpose barns once used by travelling players. Several were soon fitted out as proper theatres, with a stage, a pit and one or more galleries of seats. Some even boasted boxes for the better off and the gentry. All were eminently suitable for small-scale musical performances of every kind, even though most were on the small side for larger groups. As a Mrs Bedingfield wrote to a friend after an evening at The White Swans’s theatre:

The house was too small for the actors; but a trap-door opened and four of the company fell in—one a particular man who was high sheriff last year, fell upon a pretty woman, and liked his situation so well, that they could not get him out.

One of the unintended consequences of the government’s attempt to control the theatre through a system of Royal licences was the inclusion of substantial musical elements as part of what we now think of as serious theatre. An advertisement placed in The Norwich
for December 9 – 16, 1710, reads:

At the Queen’s Arms on Monday next will be acted a Trajedy call’d Mackbeth, with all the Witches, Songs and Dances as they were originally perform’d at the Theatre Royal in London. Beginning at Five a Clock. Vivat Regina.

Although the requirement for a licence for formal theatres performing as such was never strictly enforced, it was common for the many ‘unofficial theatres’ which grew up to claim their patrons were paying for musical performances, and perhaps refreshments, with some ‘free’ theatre thrown in!

Thus we hear of concerts and operatic recitals taking place at The Queen’sArms, The White Swan, The Red Lion, The Angel, and The
Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, near the Chapel Fields. Indeed, theatrical companies like The Norwich Comedians regularly turned their talents to ‘shows’ like The Beggar’s Opera as well as purely spoken entertainments.

The Music Societies

By 1724, Norwich had its first Music Society holding subscription concerts. Such clubs and societies swiftly grew in numbers, adding venues like The Maid’s Head Inn and including “good wine and a hearty welcome” to all music lovers (at least, those wealthy enough to pay the subscription or entrance fee).

Amongst the songs and instrumental pieces (the cathedral organist clearly found many ways to supplement his stipend), you could listen to some of the most famous Italian opera stars from London, especially during the summer months when the London opera houses were shut. Those 100 miles between the two cities were no barrier to their desire to increase their earnings and bolster their ‘super star’ status.

Some of these societies also allowed women to attend their meetings and sit together in a special part of the gallery. One wit of 1739 expressed amazement at the close attention paid by the female component of the audience.

Our Concert real we may justly say,
Has wrought superior Miracles today,
Such fond Attention on the Music hung,
That One and Twenty Ladies—held their Tongue!


Another growing source of musical entertainment in the city were the concerts put on by those who taught singing or gave lessons on various instruments. The Dancing-masters active at that time also promoted evenings of entertainment to show off their talent and the progress of their pupils—both adults and children.

NHD at King's Lynn

Reconstruction of 18th century dancing at King’s Lynn Assembly Hall

Skills in musical performance or singing were a major part of the ‘accomplishments’ necessary to fit daughters to find a suitable husband at the time. The fashionable dances were complex to perform and hard to learn. Yet to be suitably polished in the art of dancing, whether at balls or assemblies, was vital for young people of both sexes. Some of the Dancing-masters even fitted up their own rooms for teaching and performances.

That first meeting of a Music Society in Norwich in 1724 was held in “Mr Freemoult’s Long Room by Black-Friers-Bridge”. Slightly earlier, a benefit concert for a Mr Dahuron was held in “Mr Boseley’s dancing room”. Such venues were more or less totally eclipsed by the city’s own Assembly Room from 1750.

Larger Scale Performances

There were several possible venues for large-scale works demanding scores or hundreds of performers. These included the great church of St. Peter Mancroft in the Market Place, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral itself. Many such concerts were organised in support of charitable causes, such as the newly established Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Attendance could then provide for your social and entertainment needs, while adding a comfortable feeling of philanthropy as well.


Advertisement for Thomas Arne’s “Musical Entertainment” Thomas & Sally

Concerts might also be used to raise money to support promising local musicians. James Hook took lessons from the cathedral organist and was composing songs and playing public concerts on the keyboard by the time he was eight. At age ten, in 1757, a concert was held to give him additional musical training, followed by others for the same purpose in 1759 and 1760. As a result, he was launched on a career as first a music teacher, then organist and resident composer in London’s Vauxhall Gardens.

Once larger-scale music making was seen to be successful, Norwich, like several other provincial cities, organised its own Music Festivals on a grand scale in 1788 and 1790. The performances were held in September in St. Peter Mancroft, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral. Parson Woodforde noted in his diary for 25th September, 1788:

The Concert was very fine indeed, and Madame Mara, the famous Singer, sung delightfully. I never heard so fine a voice—Her Notes so high. The Kettle Drums from Westminster Abbey sounded charmingly, beat by a Mr. Ashbridge. Near 100 performers in the Orchestra.

As well as Handel’s instrumental works and oratorios like Judas Maccabeus and Messiah, the programmes over those years included operatic pieces, various concerti and songs. Composers mentioned in the programmes ranged from Handel (of course) and Haydn, through Purcell, Cimarosa and Pleyel, to Ditterdorf and J. C. Bach. Enthusiasm seemed to have waned, however, for this particular festival was not repeated after 1790.

This post has merely dipped the smallest of toes into the huge lake of information about music in Norwich during these years. Norwich’s pleasure Gardens (more of them than in any other city outside London) and theatres all had an extensive range of music available, from excerpts from grand opera, through many comic and ballad operas, as well as songs, dances and glees.

Concerts were also held in many other Norfolk towns, often to coincide with local holidays or events like the horse-racing in Holt or the Quarter Sessions. King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Thetford, Holt, Fakenham, Dereham and others can be shown from newspaper advertisements to have offered music-making on a fairly regular basis. To this list must be added the ballad and comic operas, songs, operatic arias, instrumental musical interludes and dancing that formed a significant part of most theatrical performances of the time.

I hope to be able to return to look at some or all of these topics too in future postings.

A Note to Readers

I shall be taking a short break from writing new blog posts while I complete final revisions on the latest book in my series of historical murder mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom. “A Shortcut to Murder” picks up from the point where ‘The Code for Killing” ended and sees the good doctor back in his more usual haunts around Aylsham and the coastal villages of north Norfolk. It will, I hope, be available on Kindle well before Christmas.

To learn about all my books currently available, please click here.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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