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Saving Samson

samson

Curators at the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell are appealing to people with links to the Samson and Hercules to help them secure the future of the statue of Samson who stood guard outside the city centre property for centuries. The oak carved figure has recently been restored, and it’s been revealed he dates back to the 17th century. Now, the museum wants to display him permanently in their galleries, and is crowdfunding to raise the £15,000 needed for a display case.

The ballroom was hugely popular with American GI’s over 50,000 of whom were stationed in Norfolk, and delighted the local girls, many of whom ended up marrying their wartime sweetheart. During the Baedeker Raids in Norwich, in April 1942, Samson and Hercules maintained their guard over the front door of ‘The Samson’ club. Unable to take shelter, the bombs rained down; narrowly missing them on occasion.

By July 1942 there was a friendlier invasion. Samson would have looked on in wonder as the Liberty Trucks from the local airbases pulled up and disgorged their cargo of young American airman keen to play hard while they could. Up to this point ‘The Samson’ had been a club for our ‘Boys in Blue’ but there was about be a change in the colour scheme. The American uniforms, known as pinks and greens, comprised of an olive drab coloured tunic and pink-brown coloured trousers. The novelty of the new uniforms, plus the fact that they seemed smarter, the fabric of better quality than the RAF Blue, quickly drew both looks of envy and admiration from the locals. Many of the Americans also came equipped with money, access to rare, desirable commodities such as chocolate, tins of food, stockings; plus a confident gift of the gab, all of which they quickly put to use on the local girls.

Samson, standing as doorman with his cohort Hercules since 1657, must still have looked on in wonder as the Americans tried their bold chat-up lines on the war-weary girls with the local boys often taking them to task over it and the American Military Police, nicknamed Snowdrops because of their white helmets, being on hand to break up any fights. The local boys were gradually inclined to avoid the place but the girls knew which side their bread was buttered! By the end of 1942 the number of GIs in the city of Norwich had boomed. Through the Samson and Hercules there now followed a sea of green dancing to the popular Gerry Hoey and his Band.

Disaster struck on 18th March 1944. Despite their resilience to the German arsenal, Samson and Hercules’ long lives were nearly cut short when fire took hold of the building. With determination the fire was put out and Samson and Hercules were saved, however, the lack of building material available due to the war meant the new portal they were guarding was far less impressive. They must’ve felt somewhat overdressed for the occasion!

For the past seventy four years rumours have abounded that Glenn Miller and his dance band were welcomed through the doors of ‘The Samson’. We certainly know that he played at Chapelfield Gardens on the afternoon of the 18th August 1944 but did he ever venture into one of the GIs’ favourite haunts to celebrate his promotion to the rank of Major? If only Samson could talk we would have discovered much earlier that the rumours were indeed true! Samson would have regained his sense of purpose of welcoming the great and the good through his, albeit now depleted, doorway and he must have have felt his feet rock on his plinth as the place erupted with roars and shouts of appreciation as the band stayed up most of the night celebrating their leader’s recent success.

Glenn Miller

Picture from: Glenn Miller in Britain then and now by Chris Way, published by After the Battle in 1996.

As 1945 progressed, the war drew to its end and the American airmen, who had become part of the scenery, gradually returned to their homeland, occasionally taking with them their new English brides, whom they would have met as Samson stood watch. They left behind them not only the odd broken heart and bloody nose, but more significantly an enduring connection to Norwich and fond memories of nights out at ‘The Samson’.

Samson, meanwhile, maintained his position as the decades rolled by until the early 1990s when his arm became detached and it was clear that now it was our turn to guard and protect Samson for the future. In 1993 both figures were removed for their protection, as they were in such a bad state of repair, and replaced by fibre glass replicas. And this is when an amazing discovery was made. Unbelievably, tests revealed that whilst Hercules was a Victorian replica, Samson dated from the early seventeenth century. Over the past couple of years conservators have removed countless layers of lead paint to unveil the most intricate of features, including curly long hair and strong arms bulging with popping veins and muscle.

Working in partnership with the Art Fund through their ‘Art Happens’ platform, the museum of Norwich at the Bridewell aims to raise £15,000 by 22nd March to Save Samson and proudly place him on permanent display, protecting this fragile and precious piece of the City’s heritage for the future. Now the conservation work is complete the museum wants to create a breath taking new display featuring a bespoke, state of the art, environmentally controlled case. Within the case, the very fragile figure of Samson will be supported by a new custom made, conservation grade mount. What’s more, specially designed lighting will enable visitors to see every curl and sinew in tantalising detail. Meeting the highest conservation standards, this new display will not only present Samson at his very best, but more importantly, will ensure this city icon remains in peak condition.

But the museum needs your help to make this happen.  By donating to this project, you can ensure Samson’s future will be secure for years to come and the story of this much loved Norwich night club can be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone.

What’s more, as a thank you to donors, the Art Fund offers desirable rewards for set price donations, such as exclusive campaign tote bags, limited edition signed prints by Leanda Jaine Illustrations and a behind the scenes conservator led tour to see Samson up close.

Find out more and join the campaign to Save Samson! www.artfund.org/saving-samson #savingsamson

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Filed under Local Interest, World War 2