Assembly Rooms had their origins in the early 18th century, they were constructed for social gatherings and balls and funded by private subscription. They were popular throughout the 18th century and early 19th century and assembly rooms were built all over provincial England.
The Dedham Assembly Rooms had opened by 1745 when a concert and a ball were held there, and the assembly was recorded in 1747-8. The earliest known reference to the Dedham Assembly Rooms is in a letter of Horace Walpole who in 1748 referred to " a quarrel at the Dedham Assembly, which is capable of involving all Europe in a new war".
Dances were held during the two-days Dedham fair in 1760, but in 1769 subscriptions were collected to repair the building and establish an assembly there for three years. By the 1830's, the Dedham balls, held three or four times a year, had become famous throughout the county. Three private subscription balls were held each winter until 1840, but only 40 people attended the single ball in 1852. These splendid affairs ended in 1870.
The Dedham Assembly Rooms were later to act as a club for local gentry before temporarily falling into disuse. The Assembly Room had closed by 1882, and was later used as a furniture store by a local Antique Dealer. At the end of the nineteenth-century it had become very dilapidated and the main hall had been subdivided into small rooms.
W. W. Hewitt of Lower Park purchased and renovated the Hall in memory of his brother James. and through the his far-sighted action, the once magnificent Assembly Rooms were rescued from their diminished status and given a new lease of life and restored as a Parish Hall and Reading Room in 1908.
It was renamed the Hewitt Memorial Hall in 1915, and it was used for church events, lectures, plays, and concerts. The building was transferred by Deed of Covenant to the Vicar of Dedham as the sole managing trustee. William Hewitt died in 1927 and provided in his will that a fund should be established with a capital sum of £3,500 to be held by the Charity Commissioners. The Churchwardens and Vicar of Dedham were appointed as co-trustees of the Hewitt Memorial Fund.
In 1997 the trustees of the Hewitt Memorial Fund commissioned the architects, Purcell Miller Tritton to advise how the Hall could be repaired and improved to provide better facilities for the village. A detailed survey of the building identified serious structural defects in the existing building and the need for extensive refurbishment to meet the recommendations of current fire, safety and disabled access regulations.
The external appearance of the building suggests it is a late Victorian building in the classical style. Until recently the present building was thought to have been constructed in 1810 but architectural details hidden within the structure suggested it was much older. As part of the refurbishment work a historic study was carried out by the architectural historian, Paul Drury, and this included dendrochronology dating of the structure. The condition of the existing frame proved ideal for dating and the frame has now been attributed to a construction date of 1744-45, making it one of the earliest surviving purpose-built assembly rooms. Single-bayed extensions on the north-east and south-west were lengthened in the mid 19th century. The interior has a shallow arched ceiling, a contemporary gallery with vase-shaped splat balusters, and a chimneypiece with an eared architrave.
The major restoration was completed in 1999 and in July 1999 it was announced that the building and rooms within it were to be re-named, prior to the re-opening later in the year. The building was to revert to its original name (by which it had been known for more than 225 years), i.e. “Assembly Rooms”. In honour of William W. Hewitt, who had given the building to the community in 1917, the main hall was to be called the “Hewitt Hall” (similar to “Hewitt Memorial Hall” which had, for just over eighty years, been the name of the whole building). One room was to be called the “Reading Room”, because Mr. Hewitt had particularly wanted this to be a feature (i.e. the provision of a library - now fulfilled through the provision of books for the pre-school nursery) and another was to be named the “Mallett Room”, in memory of the late Miss Betty Mallett, who had for so many years been associated with the building.
The refurbishment works were made possible by generous grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Colchester Borough Council and villagers. It will enable this historic structure to serve the community in the 21st century.
Use the links alongside to see more about the restoration project and the detailed history of the Assembly Rooms in the article by Lucy Archer in the February 2021 issue of the Dedham Parish Magazine.