Norfolk has a dazzling and delightful history of theatrical wonders, the Georgian Theatre Royal of Norwich, the Edwardian Circus of Great Yarmouth, the popular fairground entertainment of King’s Lynn. The theatre is a very powerful place for bringing people together and this links beautifully with Norfolk’s warm sense of community.
In Tudor times, Norwich welcomed the Strangers, talented weavers from countries overseas, though they didn’t stay strangers for long and became friends in the community. They stayed at the museum we know as Strangers’ Hall. In 1578, Queen Elizabeth 1st met the Strangers and congratulated them on their weaving skills. Her Majesty’s visit was an occasion of great pomp and theatricality - people gathered together on the streets to watch the Queen ride a horse through St Stephen’s Gate on to St Stephen’s Street, playing the role of the mighty monarch for this sensational scene.
In Georgian times, The Theatre Royal was an exciting time for people from all walks of life to visit for such musicals and comedies as ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and ‘Wit’s Last Stake.’ Needless to say it was a very lively, noisy place where drinks and merriment flowed.
In Victorian times, the arrival of the railways made Great Yarmouth a popular place for families to visit for seaside fun and entertainment attractions. One such venue was the Hippodrome on St George’s Road, built for the showman George Gilbert in Edwardian times, the Hippodrome hosted a feast of spell-binding circus shows with music and magic spilling out from the doors on to the streets.
The Savage Brothers of King’s Lynn designed popular fairground designs in Victorian times. Elegant fairground horses known as ‘Gallopers’ made for a fun family day out at The Mart. And of course, it just wouldn’t be Norfolk history without a mention of…dragons! Norfolk is famous for these mythical creatures that decorate signs and historic buildings throughout the region. At Dragon Hall, Norwich, a medieval dragon can be seen to this day in a spandrel in the beams. During medieval times, it would have been one of many dragons that decorated the room. The Great Hall was a trading hall for a successful merchant and the decorative dragons were perhaps used as a sign of magnificence to impress customers. On a busy day, the trading hall was packed with visitors buying cloth and spices and the merchant would, no doubt, have made some smooth sales whilst the dragons watched over them all. Such events and entertainments are the heart of Norwich’s very unique and fascinating history of bringing people together.
For all the dragons, fairgrounds and circus fun we might explore as inspiration for fictional children’s stories, it is of course, evident and important to note that history is interweaved with difficult and complicated times. Magnificent venues and intriguing objects are one thing but it’s the people that really interest us as writers. Ordinary people, muddling through, finding themselves in all sorts of circumstances - the extraordinary, exciting, difficult, troublesome, challenging - life throws all such situations our way and we do our best to navigate. That’s where writers step in and make up stories about imaginary characters, overcoming obstacles, usually with a little help from their friends, so that the reader can look back in time and relate. It’s the small, every-day objects that are perhaps the most interesting as they bring to mind the real lives of people in days gone by. A copy of The Norfolk Chronicle, a newspaper from the Georgian era, advertises a show at The Theatre Royal and one wonders who would have read it? Did they attend the show? Did they go with friends? Did they enjoy it? Was it their cup of tea? Such questions are vital to us writers for conjuring up ideas and characters and from such seemingly trivial objects, we discover the magic in the mundane. Throughout history, love and friendship keep us connected and I think, in Norfolk’s rich history of theatrical wonders, love and friendship take centre stage.
By Isabelle King