Originally, a hall house in Old Barge Yard, Norwich, Dragon Hall was remodelled and extended during the 15th century by successful merchant, alderman and member of Norwich’s Guild of St George, Robert Toppes (c.1405-1467). Toppes wanted a building that was both a showroom and a warehouse with easy access to the River Wensum. This striking timber-framed building was known then as Splytts and the main showroom was the magnificent first floor hall (85ft by 21ft). Here merchant Toppes would have laid out his fine woollen cloth, the famous worsted wool, to be traded and exported to Europe. And, at the same time he would have set out his recent imports from the Continent to sell to his Norwich clients.
The showroom was made impressive by a high crown-post roof displaying arched braces and tie-beams. And, in the spandrel of one tie-beam we can still see the fearsome carved dragon (top photograph) showing traces of medieval coloured paint. Some of the roof timbers we see today are original 15th-century beams and these too would have been painted. The showroom/hall was lit by three projecting full-height windows on the west side and one similar large window on the east, river side, of the building. This would have been a bright, innovative, outstanding commercial space in its heyday.
Away from the showy hall the rib-vaulted, brick undercroft provided warehouse space.
Nowadays visiting Dragon Hall you can see the sensitive restoration (1979-1988) which has peeled back centuries of patchwork remodelling and, interestingly, at the same time leaves some very early reworking detail in place such as a three times altered doorway.
Community traditions are subject to the vagueries of fashion just as any other aspects of human society. A month ago I mentioned Mummers and a rural tradition that eventually became part of a Royal Christmas for Edward III. This Christmas tradition has ebbed and flowed in popularity across the centuries. It had been widely practised across England through the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely faded as a regular community activity with the onset of the First World War.
So it was with curiosity I went to Dragon Hall in Norwich to see some contemporary mummers. Local volunteer/supporters of the restored medieval hall, now a museum and tourist attraction, decided to revive some mumming entertainment. They performed a light-hearted, rhyming version of St George and the Dragon, a popular theme at Christmas for a mummers’ play. I expect this theme would no doubt have found favour with the successful merchant and alderman, Robert Toppes who had funded the building of the 15th-century Splytts (Dragon Hall) and had been a member of the Guild of St George.
The old village traditions of mummers’ plays were based on the death and re-birth theme. This theme was incorporated here not by the dragon being killed by St George, but by the death of St George. Having fought the dragon, poor old St George then has to fight a bully of a knight called, Slasher, who cheats and kills him with a much bigger sword. Luckily for St George, working within the traditional re-birth theme, a doctor armed with a magical potion brings him back to life. The play is introduced by ‘Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back’ and along with St George, Slasher and the Quack Doctor are all traditional mummers’ characters portrayed in Christmas shows from 18th-century Southern England. Often acted in disguise these performances allowed poorer members of the community to earn extra money during the festive season.
There was a homespun, local feel to the Dragon Hall performance in keeping with the informal roots of mumming. Although the mummers were costumed they didn’t have masks. I know it is difficult for actors (even professionals) to work from behind masks, but I think that the element of disguising would have added a medieval depth to the piece that the venue of Dragon Hall so invited.