Who was Thomas Ivory?

Thomas Ivory was a prominent Norwich architect, builder and timber merchant.

Ivory was born in 1709 and much of his early years and education remain obscure. It is not until his entry into the business world that we have more detailed records of his life.

Early work in Norwich

His earliest recorded large commission was in his capacity as a builder and timber merchant at Thrigby Hall in 1735.

In June 1744 he advertised in the Norwich Mercury for joinery work, becoming a Freeman on 21st September 1745. Becoming a Freeman of the city allowed him to trade in Norwich free of all tolls (a fee or tax that must be paid to the Crown).

His appointment as carpenter at Norwich’s Great Hospital followed in 1751 where he was responsible for maintaining properties belonging to the Trustees, a position he retained throughout his life.

Building a family home

In May 1750 he advertised for sale his “commodious family house” in the parish of St Martin-at-Oak, wishing to move nearer to his business in Bishopgate. He leased some land on the west forecourt of the Great Hospital. It is thought that his financial donations to the St Helen’s Church at Bishopgate may have helped secure the land lease. Part of the lease required Ivory to erect a house at a minimum cost of £300. The actual cost was nearer £1,000, it being built of “good red brick and with pediment and an orderly range of sash-windows”. Ivory and his family lived here until his death.

Other works

In 1751 he began building the Methodist Meeting House in Bishopgate, which became known as the Tabernacle (See further information on this below).

After this Thomas Ivory secured the commission to build the Octagon Chapel. As discussed in this section, Dr John Taylor held and a competition to decide who should be awarded the project, which Ivory won. Work began in 1754 and the building was opening in 1756. Ivory’s new building was initially simply called The New Meeting House, to differentiate it from the Old Meeting House (the building that this was to replace), but the chapel soon began to be called The Octagon. Ivory’s design proved so popular that it was as a model for subsequent Methodist meeting houses across Europe. You can explore the architecture of the Chapel in the next section.

Whilst building the Octagon Chapel Ivory also began building The Assembly House in the same year, 1754. Ivory designed the grand building with the interiors being designed by Sir James Burroughs, Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Between 1767 and 1779, along with two members of his family, his son William and his nephew John Ivory, he built a new range at Blickling Hall. Over the years they would make a number of additions and modifications to the Hall.

Family life

Ivory married Hannah Lacey on 22 December 1735 . They had two sons: William, who assisted his father as an architect, and Thomas junior, who emigrated to India, where he worked in the revenue office at Fort William. They also had a daughter, Sarah.

When Ivory died, his considerable estate was divided between Hannah, Sarah and William. Although Thomas junior inherited nothing from his father’s estate, when his brother William died in 1801, he left Thomas half of his property.

These facts are strange given that there is no recorded date of Thomas juniors birth and no record of his reasons for leaving England to travel and work in India. It was not uncommon for all wealth to be left to an individual’s wife and eldest son but Thomas junior seems to have been specifically excluded from

Ivory’s will, with both his other children and wife included.

There are records of Ivory’s eldest son and nephew, John Ivory continuing within the building and architectural trade within Norwich. There are several buildings and stoneworks associated to them which survive to this day continuing Ivories legacy.


When completing alterations at Blickling Hall for the second Earl of Buckingham Ivory suffered an injury in May 1779 when a large piece of timber fell upon his leg. This would prove to be his final assignment of work as he did not recover from his injury and died on the 28th August 1779, he was 70 years old at the time of his death. His son William is said to have overseen the completion of the work for the Earl.

Ivory was buried in Norwich Cathedral. His nephew, John Ivory, a stonemason, created a memorial plaque which is on the north wall of the Triforium in the Cathedral. (get picture?). In his will he is described as ‘builder and timber merchant’. Upon her death in 1787 Ivory’s wife, Hannah, was buried with him and both can still be visited in the North Gallery.


In addition to work as a builder and architect, Ivory carried on an extensive trade importing timber and owned his own yard in Bishopgate. He also operated the Norwich Theatre (see more information on this below), and employed his own company of actors, the Norwich Company of Comedians, to perform in Norwich in 1768.

Thomas Ivory’s works

Ivory’s buildings, particularly the Octagon Chapel, are his legacy to Norwich citizens allowing them to experience the grandeur and elegance of his age. Read in more detail about some his buildings below and specifically about the architecture of the Octagon Chapel in the next section.

St Helen's House

Ivory's family home on the grounds of Great Hospital, Norwich, now known as St Helen's House still survives today. With the lease requiring any house Ivory built to cost at least £300 his construction was estimated to cost £1000.

The Tabernacle

A Methodist meeting-house in Bishopsgate Street, Norwich, later known as the "Tabernacle" which was demolished in 1953.

The Assembly House

The Assembly Rooms opened in 1755 were built as a place to entertain and socialise. Still open today the Assembly House originally opened with a bowling green, rooms for assemblies, meetings, cards, dancing, music and guild balls for the local gentry to present themselves.

Octagon Chapel

The chapel is a grade II* listed building which survives today and is the home for to a growing liberal religious community of Unitarians in Norwich. When built the design proved so popular that it was used as a model for Methodist meeting houses across Europe.

Norwich Theatre

In 1757 The New Theatre Royal near Chapelfield was built at the request of the city’s leading citizens, Although mostly rebuilt from Ivory's original design his original building was said to be built from one of the King’s Theatres in London and was a grand design that included a box tier, an upper tier with a gallery and side boxes.

St Helen's Church

A family pew, bearing carved Gothic style script, and a date of 1780 can be seen in St Helen's Church, Bishop gate where the Ivory family attended for worship.

Ivory's burial

Thomas Ivory and his Wife, Helen, are both buried in Norwich Cathedral and their graves can be visited today.

Norwich Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal was first called the Grand Concert Hall. Thomas Ivory did not have a licence to perform plays and thought by calling it a concert hall and not a Theatre he would be able to ‘get around’ the requirement for such a licence.