I think we imagine that each set of assembly rooms operated on similar lines, but that really was not the case: each set of rooms would have its own standards of behaviour and level of social acceptability. And, accordingly, the social mix of The Company- those admitted to the social events at the assembly rooms- varied considerably.
Beau Nash, who was the Master of Ceremonies at Bath in the early 18th century, had a very catholic and comprehensive attitude to the company there. He forbade all private parties but invited everyone to the Assembly House for dinners, teas, breakfast concerts and balls provided that two conditions could be met. These were that the Company would be made up of:
people of every degree, condition and occupation of life, if well dressed and well behaved.
He was also wise enough to realise that such a potent mix of people had to be regulated in some way and so he created his influential Rules by General Consent. His rules were displayed ( and still are!) in the Pump Room, below, where, of course, every family wishing to take part in the activities of the town announced their arrival in Bath by adding their names to the “subscription book” kept there for that purpose.
Their names were also subsequently listed in the local newspapers. The subscription book was kept by an employee of the Bath Corporation( the first known was a Mrs Porter)and paying the subscription fee of 2 guineas procured three tickets to the twice weekly balls. Note that in addition, Nash took it upon himself to visit every family who attended the city to make certain everyone understood what was expected of them and to see if they would be acceptable members of The Company. His rules were somewhat capricious, but they certainly make strong points about the standard of behaviour and dress required:
That a visit of ceremony at first coming, and another at going away, are all that are expected or desired by ladies of quality and fashion–except impertinents.
That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen coming to wait on them home, to prevent disturbance and inconvenience to themselves and others.
That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps show breeding and respect.
That no person take it ill that anyone goes to another’s play or breakfast and not theirs; except captious by nature.
That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls to any but gentlewomen. N.B.–Unless he has none of his acquaintance.
That gentlemen crowding before the ladies at the ball show ill manners; and that none do so for the future except such as respect nobody but themselves.
That no gentleman or lady takes it ill that another dances before them except such as have no pretence to dance at all.
That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at a ball, as being past or not come to perfection.
That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them.
That all whisperers of lies or scandal be taken for their authors.
That all repeaters of such lies and scandal be shunned by the company; except such as have been guilty of the same crime.
Other important Assembly Rooms were run by professional master of ceremonies, like Nash, but most small, provincial assembly rooms, like the Meryton set, would have been organised by amateurs: a local chap might act as Master of Ceremonies( more on this later) or a committee of local patrons or patronesses might have organised the balls and enforced the rules. In my copy of The Complete System of English Country Dancing by Thomas Wilson, in his chapter entitled The Etiquette of the Ballroom, he gives very detailed instructions to prospective masters of ceremonies as to how an assembly should be run so as to avoid any unnecessary problems with dress or behavior. Thomas Wilson was the dancing master at the Kings Theatre in London at the turn of the 18th century, but in addition to this post he frequently organised public balls and his rules do seem to have been written from hard won experience. For example:
Gentlemen are not permitted to enter a Ball room in boots,spurs, gaiters, trowseres(sic) or with canes or sticks: nor are loose pantaloons considered proper for a Full Dress Ball.
He also sagely advises;
To preserve the greater order and to prevent disputes , it is advisable that the proprietors or the conductors of Public Balls and Assemblies should have the foregoing etiquette, particularly so much of it as relates to the company ,written and hung up in some conspicuous part of the room during such evenings as the Balls or Assemblies maybe held.
But, of course human nature being what it is, Assemblies did not always work out in the democratic way that Nash envisaged. For example in York, Whig families patronised Thursday night assemblies and Tory families attended Monday night assemblies.The Company in that town was clearly divided on political lines. The “company” in Derby took social segregation to extremes. This assembly room was under the control of a committee of Lady Patronesses ( who were Dorothy Every; Elizabeth Eyre; Bridget Baily and Hester Mundy)and it had quite strict rules regarding attendance.
No attorneys clerk shall be admitted
No shopkeeper or any of his family shall be admitted except Mr Franceys.
No lady shall be allowed to dance in a white apron
All young ladies in Mantuas shall pay 2/6d
No Miss in a coat shall dance without the Leave of the Lady of the Assembly
Whosoever shall transgress these rule shall be turned out of the assembly.
But they had not reckoned on Mr Franceys, mentioned in the second of three rules. He was a very rich Derby apothecary who entertained very lavishly at his home on the market place in the town. Even though he was exempted from the Lady Patronesses’ snobbery, he disliked their scheme for attendance so much that he established a second set of rooms which was for the use of all those who were not admitted to the first : that is, people in trade and the unfortunate attorney’s clerks! The same sort of situation existed in Lincoln, which is, as any one who has been there knows, dominated by the vertiginous Steep Hill at the top of the town which was the administrative and social centre, for the castle, law courts and cathedral were all to be found at plateau at the top of the hill. The members of the county set met at the Assemblies held at the top of the hill: the people of the city (traders) met at a second assembly room built at the bottom of the hill. And never the twain did meet.
The rooms at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (the Atheneum, see the Ballroom above ) were also strictly segregated reading class as this passage taken from Volume XIV of The Beauties of England and Wales by Frederic Shoberl makes abundantly clear:
At the south side of the open place known as Angel Hill stand the Assembly Rooms, a newly erected building of simple exterior. Teh ballroom is well proportioned…The three balls held annually during the great fair in October, are in general attended by great numbers of persons of the first rank and fashion as are also the four or five winter balls; but trades-people, however respectable and opulent, are rigourously excluded. It has been universally remarked that there is not perhaps a town in the kingdom where the pride of birth,even though conjoined with poverty’s so tenaciously and so ridiculously maintained as at Bury.
The tone suggests that the author was quite disgusted by this exlusivelity. But what sort of company was there at Meryton? In chapter 4 of Pride and Prejudice we are given Bingley( who is rich from his father’s efforts in trade, but not landed) and Darcy’s thoughts on the assembly:
The manner in which they spoke of the Meryton assembly was sufficiently characteristic. Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; everybody had been most kind and attentive to him; there had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention or pleasure. Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.
In chapter 5 we learn that in addition to the Bennets,the Lucases and Miss King, Mrs Long and a Mr Robinson were also at the assembly. Mrs Long , Mrs Bennet’s friend cannot afford to keep a carriage. Perhaps she was the widow of a tradesperson, and Mr Robinson associated with trade too? In any event it appears, to me at least, that the Meryton assembly seems to have been an inclusive rather than an exclusive group. And perhaps this was what helped form Darcy’s poor opinion of the evening? Perhaps he would have had a better time had he travelled to Suffolk, or nearer to home at Derby….