In summer 1992, I had been working for Norfolk Museums Service for nearly a decade and had recently been appointed to lead the conservation team. Like everyone else in Norwich, I knew who Samson and Hercules were and where they were, but had never given much thought to exactly what they were and why they were there.
They were important icons for the city of Norwich and it was understood that they had been in Tombland since the 17th century. But they did not look like historic statues because, as it turned out, only Samson was, and he was disguised by a centimetre thick coating of paint.
Then one day, I received a phone call telling me that Samson’s arm had fallen off. I headed down to Tombland, where the detached arm was handed to me. I was thrilled to see that large sections of paint had broken away, revealing that it was beautifully carved from solid oak, with fine detail, clearly the work of a highly skilled craftsman.
We could assume that the figures really were old, but we soon learned that the original Hercules figure had been destroyed and replaced with a new version around 1900. Samson’s condition was pretty dire, with much rot inside and a large crude repair to the skirt at the front.
Nobody wanted to see Samson and Hercules leave Tombland, but it was clear that Samson could not survive much longer in situ. So it was agreed that both figures would be taken down and replaced with replicas. They were removed in July 1993.
We decided the best solution was to replicate the figures as we had known them in the 20th century and they were installed in 1999. Meanwhile, the original Samson gave us many headaches.
The innumerable layers of paint contained lead, making the figure extremely heavy and difficult to move. It was hard to find out how bad the rot was while the paint was still on, but removal of the paint was a serious health hazard. And it was important not to lose any traces of the original colouring.
As the Millennium approached, it was proving hard to find the money for this complex project. Then the National Lottery arrived and Norfolk Museums Service took on a series of major developments which continued beyond my official retirement in 2009. Samson was on my mind all through those years, so I was ecstatic when NMS managed to fund the essential conservation treatment starting in 2014.
The return of Samson to Norwich will be a huge achievement for the NMS conservation team and for many others who have contributed to the project over 25 years.
For me, it may be the highlight of my work for NMS. Samson tells us so much about the history of Norwich. In my mind he stands as a symbol for the city as much today as when he first arrived here around 1657.
Please help us complete this amazing journey by donating to our project, and ensuring Samson’s future.