I love visiting old assembly rooms. The large and glamorous sets, like the ones at Bath
or Lord Burlington’s magnificent set at York ( now part of the chain of Ask restaurants-they are very kind and will let you in for a peep without you having to buy a meal)
and smaller ones such as my local set, Stamford
Teeny- tiny compared to the first two. But still built on the same plan,as you can see:-a long room for dancing plus a tea room where refreshments were served and a card room for those not wanting to dance:
It is the oldest surviving set in England.
But we can never visit the Assembly Rooms at Lyme Regis which Jane Austen visited in 1804, for they were demolished in 1928.
Jane Austen famously danced there on her visit in 1804:
The ball last night was pleasant, but not full for Thursday. My father staid contentedly till half-past nine (we went a little after eight), and then walked home with James and a lanthorn, though I believe the lanthorn was not lit, as the moon was up, but sometimes this lanthorn may be a great convenience to him. My mother and I staid about an hour later. Nobody asked me the two first dances; the next two I danced with Mr. Crawford, and had I chosen to stay longer might have danced with Mr. Granville, Mrs. Granville’s son, whom my dear friend Miss A. offered to introduce to me, or with a new odd-looking man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last, without any introduction, asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease, and because I imagine him to belong to the honbl. B.’s, who are son, and son’s wife of an Irish viscount, bold queer-looking people, just fit to be quality at Lyme
(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 14th September 1804)
I’ve been scouting round my books and have found the following images and descriptions for you, so that we can try to piece together exactly what they were like:
Here is a description of the rooms from my copy of John Fletham’s early tourist guidebook, A Guide to all the Watering and Seabathing Places dating from 1803, which is slightly apologetic in tone:
Lyme has a small Assembly-Room, Card-Room and Billiard-Table all conveniently ranged under one roof ; and had the Library been joined to it, all the amusements which the place can furnish would have been comprised in one building. The situation for this edifice is happily chosen, as it commands a charming marine view as far as the Isle of Portland, eight leagues off, and the interior is compact and well arranged. Magnificence is not essential to enjoyment: often more happiness is found in a cottage than in a palace; and the rooms at Lyme frequently exhibit as cheerful countenance as are to be seen at Bath or Brighton.
Here is a 1825 map of Lyme which shows you the position of the Assembly Rooms at the bottom of the town ( note, Jane Austen was staying at Mr Pyne’s house which is also shown on the map)
And here is a close up of the part of that map that allows you to see the position of the Assembly Rooms in more detail:
We have one description of the interior of the rooms, by Constance Hill in her book, Jane Austen :her Homes and her Friends first published in 1902. She managed to visit the Assembly Rooms at Lyme before they were demolished, and recorded her impressions as thus:
The Assembly Rooms used formerly to be thrown open to company during the season twice a week, namely on Tuesdays and Thursdays…The ball-room is little changed since Miss Austen danced in it that September evening nearly a hundred years ago. It has lost its three glass chandeliers which used to hang from the arched ceiling, but these may still be seen in a private house in the neighbourhood. The orchestra consisted, we are told, of three violins and a violoncello. We visited the room by day-light, and felt almost as if it were afloat, for nothing but blue sea and sky was to be seen from its many windows. From the wide recessed window at the end, however, we got a glimpse of the sands and of the harbour and Cobb beyond.
Just outside this recessed window there is a steep flight of stone steps which leads from the Parade down to the beach. In former times this flight was much longer than it is now, part of it having been removed to make room for a cart track. On these steps the author of “Persuasion” effected the first meeting of Anne Elliot and her cousin, when his gaze of admiration attracted the attention of Captain Wentworth. Anne and her friends were all returning to their inn for breakfast, as the reader will remember, after taking a stroll on the beach.
The Assembly rooms were extended in 1866 . These are some old photographs of the exterior of the Rooms taken in the late 19th century:
Here the rooms are shown on the left of the photograph: you can clearly see the bay window as described by Constance Hill, and which looked out onto the sea. The rooms eventually ceased to function as assembly rooms and by 1900 they became a tea room:
Here is a picture taken of the rooms as they were being demolished
And in this picture you can clearly see the gap where the assembly rooms once were:
The above photographs were taken from a smashing book, Lyme Regis Past and Present by Jo Draper: it is filled to the brim with very atmospheric photographs from the extensive collection held by the Lyme Regis Museum. It is available to purchase from Lyme Regis Books, a marvellous resource for books on the town and its literary history:
I find it so sad that we can no longer visit these rooms,where Jane Austen was accosted by her “Irish” gentleman….I do love to visit these smaller provincial sets of rooms as I feel they give a very different impression of the assemblies of the 18th century, than the glamorous and large sets in the large cities. For the majority of people who attended assemblies they were visiting much smaller places and I think we ought to remember that not every set as was glamorous or as large as the exiting set in Bath or York.
I do hope you have enjoyed this little reconstruction of the Lyme Assembly Rooms.