A few week ago I wrote a piece about a provincial set of rooms which Jane Austen once attended, the Assembly Rooms at Lyme. Some of you were so interested in this type of provincial set of assembly rooms, the type that would have been found in small towns as opposed to the grand sets in cities such as Bath, that I promised to post more on this subject, and in particular about my local set of rooms, the Stamford Assembly Rooms in Lincolnshire.
So here it is, my post on the Stamford Assembly Rooms, the unassuming type of public rooms that Meryton might have possessed, and that Jane Austen experienced in Basingstoke as a young girl, or indeed any other small town in England might have had during the 18th and early to mid 19th century.
The set in Stamford are in fact very special as they are the oldest set of rooms to have been continually in use in this country. They were built in 1726, by the local dancing master Askew Kirk. He was the governor of his own boarding school but in 1721 gave up that post to his wife, who had been a mantua maker, so that he could devote his time to teaching dancing. At that time Stamford held monthly assemblies in a house in Bath Hill.
Sensing a business opportunity not to be missed he approached the local landowner, the Earl of Exeter, of the nearby Burghley House. The result of their negotiations was that a site in the corner of St George’s Square -then the fashionable district in which to live in the town-was let to Mr Kirk on the condition that he built a new Assembly Room on it for the benefit of the residents and their guests.
This is a plan of St George’s Square,showing the position of the Assembly Rooms (number 58)Note all the illustrations in this post can be enlarged merely by clicking on them.
and here is the area for you to explore on Google maps:
This is a floor plan of the Assembly Room, taken from my copy of the Survey of Stamford by the Royal Commission on Hisotrical Monuments.
Note that at first only the long room -for dancing English Country dances-was built; the card and tea rooms came much later (see below).
Let’s look inside….
The ballroom is 65 feet 6 inches long, 25 feet wide.
The wooden settles built into the walls around the dance floor could probalby accommodate 80 people, sitting watching the dancing…
Or wishing they were dancing, perhaps…
This fireplace was original to the building,
and has a crest of the Cecil family surmounting it all.
This is the view from the rear of the Assembly room, looking downhill to the Parish Church of St Martin’s, where many of the Cecil family-the Earls and Marquesses of Exeter were interred, including Elizabeth I’s minister , William Cecil the builder of Burghley House.
This is the view from the new stage, to the entrance to the ballroom.
And this is the view from the entrance, into the rest of the room.
Note the crystal chandeliers: smart chandelier were thought essential for assembly rooms with pretensions to good reputations.
Once the Assembly Room proper was built assemblies were held there monthly and, in addition, extra assemblies were held during the festivities occasioned by Stamford Race Week, giving the people who thronged to the town for the horse races and cock-fights extra opportunities for socializing and enjoyment.
Here is an advertisement from the Stamford Mercury – a newspaper which is still in existance-of 1766 showing the details of the Stamford Race week :the races were run over a course on land owned once again, by the Earl of Exeter.
This is a notice again from the Stamford Mercury with details of the Assembly to be held in that week plus details of a concert.
Note that the tickets for the Assemblies specifically entitled the Bearer to their tea!
What sort of people visited Stamford for these race weeks? Barbara Johnson, a woman from a not particularly wealthy clerical family, rather similar in status to Jane Austen’s often visited the town for the festivities. We remember her today because she kept a magnificent record of her clothes in book form, covering the period 1746-1823. A facsimile of the book, (A Lady of Fashion,Barbara Johnson’s Album of Styles and Fabrics) the original of which is now in the possession of the Victoria and Albert museum, has been produced and it is one of my favourite books, being full of samples of the material out of which her clothe were made, together with contemporary prints of fashions and places etc.
We know from the evidence in her book that she ordered silk for dresses from silk mercers in Stamford in 1765, 1766 and 1767. These silks were made up into gowns in Stamford in 1766.
And as you can see from her note she wore this pink figured silk at the Stamford Races in 1768.
Back to the Assembly Rooms.
The next major alteration to the Assembly Room building was made in 1793 and 1795: a card and a tea room was added to the ball room . These rooms were vitally important parts of the sets of assembly rooms As Mark Girouard explains in his chapter on Assembly Rooms in his book, The English Town
Assembly Rooms had to satisfy a number of requirements. The basic accommodation was specified in a letter written to Lord Burlington (the architect of the York Assembly Rooms -jfw) by his building committee in 1730: a ballroom, a card room and a room for refreshments-usually called a tea room. The ballroom had to have sufficient space for dancers and spectators, accommodation for musicians, good artificial lighting, adequate means of heating for the beginning of the evening and sufficient height and ventilation to prevent too much heat at the end of it. A particular difficulty faced country towns assembly rooms which had to cater for the different needs of summer and winter balls.
By the early 19th century there were three assembly rooms in Stamford: our set in St George’s Square; a set on the first floor of the George Hotel then a major coaching inn on the Great North Road,
and, on the first floor of the Stamford Hotel formerly the Black Bull,
which was bought and aggrandized by Sir Gerard Noel of Exton in Rutland as part of his campaign to attract political and electoral support against the interest of the Earl of Exeter in the town.
But it is Mr Kirk’s set that still survives in its original form today. The George Hotel’s long room has now been converted to bedrooms, and the ballroom of the Stamford hotel is, appropriately enough, now a school of dancing.
So if you want to see this wonderful set -a fascinating and rare survivor from our era -for yourselves then do take a trip to the wonderful town of Stamford with its magical stone buildings.The Old Assembly Room is open to the public as it is part of the Stamford Arts Centre and I should to take this opportunity to thank all the staff of the Arts Centre for kindly and graciously allowing me access and for their assistance when I recently went there to take photographs for this piece. They are rightly proud of their assembly room.
Next in this series, we shall consider the part-small but interesting that this set of rooms had in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. I do hope you will join me.