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Austenonly P+P 200 LogoWe have seen in our previous post that an efficient, attentive Master of Ceremonies was essential to the smooth running of the large assemblies. Someone had to maintain control of the company, constituted as it often was in spa towns and resorts, of a constantly changing group of people. In today’s post let’s look at the role of the Master of Ceremonies in some more detail.

In most spas and sea bathing places that had any pretensions to greatness and fashion, the position of Master of Ceremonies was an official one. In Bath, from the time of Beau Nash in the early 18th century there was only one Master of Ceremonies even though from 1771 there were two sets of rooms, the new Upper set and the older Lower set. However, the role was eventually split between two M.Cs  in 1777 after the resignation of the sole Master of Ceremonies,Captain Wade, due to his involvement in a scandal ( see below for more details).

The decision as to who would be appointed as the Master of Ceremonies was usually taken in the form of an election, and the evidence from Bath is that they could be hotly and fiercely fought. As the Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1812) tells us:

On the resignation or abdication of this gentleman ( Wade- jfw)  in 1777, no less than seven candidates started; who, however, were at last reduced to two, Mr. Brereton and Mr. Dawson; and, as neither party would yield, it was agreed on to appoint two kings with equal rights; but that the one should preside at the Lower, and the other at the Upper or New Rooms. Mr. Brereton was nominated to the former, and Mr. Dawson to the latter.

Those entitled to vote were  the subscribers to a particular set of rooms, or the controlling committee.  Though the role of Master of Ceremonies was therefore official, and a beautiful badge of honour was supplied to the Bath M.C.s to distinguish them ( go here to see a portrait of William Dawson, the Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms from 1777-1786: wearing his bade. His badge of office  is still in the collection of the City of Bath) it might interest you to note that the Bath M.Cs were not paid an official salary. Instead, they were entitled to share the receipts from four benefit balls held every year. From 1771 two benefit balls were held in the Lower and two in the Upper Rooms every year and the Master of Ceremonies kept all the receipts. It was in his best interests therefore to makes sure these assemblies were popular with The COmpany in the town and were well attended. It is quite simple equasion: more happy people at a ball, more income for the M.C.

The eventual appointment of two Master of Ceremonies in Bath meant two badges of office and again we have this description from The Guide to all the Watering places etc (1812):

Mr. Tyson’s medallion is of gold, enamelled and enriched with brilliants, on one side displaying a figure of Minerva, over which is the motto Decus et Tutamen, and under, Dulce est desipere in loco; on the reverse Arbiter Elegantiardm. Oct. 1777, decorated with leaves of laurel and palm.

Mr. King’s medallion is also of fine gold, enamelled blue, and enriched with brilliants, having on one side a raised figure of Venus, with a golden apple in one hand and a rudder in the other: the motto Venus dccens. The reverse is a wreath of laurel, with the words, Arbiter elegantiardm, Communi consensu.

So, what did being a Master of Ceremonies entail? What were his duties? The amateur  Master of Ceremonies had to act in exactly the same manner as a professional one, keeping the peace in the public rooms and assemblies, enforcing the Assembly rules and making sure everything ran smoothly. He was simultaneously diplomat, judge, arbiter of fashion and policeman… Here is a contemporary take on their role by Jospeh Moser:

… introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls pouting; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions.  He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands:  but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life.

( See  The Sports of Ancient LondonThe Sporting Magazine  1807. )

The Bath Masters of Ceremonies could also supplement their incomes by becoming Masters of Ceremonies at different spas or resorts. This was due to the length of the Bath season, which ran from October to May.  The seasons at the other spas and sea bathing places usually ran from June to September, though it could vary in detail from rooms to rooms in  these provincial resorts. This system can be  illustrated by looking at the career of James King, the Master of Ceremonies whom Jane Austen mentions by name in Northanger Abbey, and who effected the introduction between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. He was the Master of Ceremonies at the Lower rooms from 1785. In 1805 he became the Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms. But he was also the Master of Ceremonies at another spa with which Jane Austen was familiar. He served, during their summer season, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire  from 1803 until his death in 1816.

The Bath Masters of Ceremonies  were often suave and handsome figures and it was not unknown for them to be involved in affairs of the heart. Perhaps the most famous of these is Captain Wade, due to his being immortalised in this magnificent portrait by Thomas Gainsborough which hangs in the Great Octagon Card Room of the Upper Rooms:

Captain Wade, Master of Ceremonies at Bath by Thomas Gainsborough

Captain Wade, Master of Ceremonies at Bath by Thomas Gainsborough

He was the Master of Ceremonies at Bath when the new, magnificent Upper Rooms were built. As a result he became the of Master of Ceremonies of both the Lower and the Upper Rooms, and took up his post at the new rooms  in September 1771 when they opened. However, he had to resign  his post as Master of Ceremonies in Bath in 1777 after he was involved in

an affair of gallantry

as Pierce Egan in Walk’s Though Bath (1819) coyly describes it.  What had happened was that in July 1777 Wade was named in the divorce proceedings of Elizabeth Eustatia Campbell and  her husband, John Hooke Campbell.  He was forced to resign his post as Master of Ceremonies at Bath due to the scandal. However, Wade’s attachment to Elizabeth Campbell continued and following the death in 1787 of his first wife, Katherine with whom he had five children, he and Elizabeth were married on 30 June 1787 at St Marylebone, London. Wade had held the post of M.C at Bath and at  Brighton since 1767  and on being made to  leave Bath, he became full-time Master of Ceremonies at Brighton where he reigned over the principal assemblies at the Castle  and the Old Ship Inns. He also issued a set of rules intended to regulate the behaviour of the company in the town  and in 1787 . for example, he  prohibited the playing of games on the Steine, which was an open space in the town set just in front  of the Prince of Wales’ home the Pavilion, and a scene of fashionable promenading. By 1806 he was in dispute with the Old Ship and as a result, form then on, presided only at assemblies  at the Castle Inn.  Wade’s last season was 1807, and he  died at his home in New Street on 16 March 1809.

If the room’s committee permitted it , some provincial M.Cs could also split their duties between two sets of rooms. Charles Le Bas, shown below,

A profile of Charles Le Bas from The New Margate Ramsgate and Broadstairs Guide (1809)

A profile of Charles Le Bas from The New Margate Ramsgate and Broadstairs Guide (1809)

was the Master of Ceremonies of both sets of assembly rooms in the nearby towns of Margate and Ramsgate in Kent. Ramsgate was of course, the scene of Georgiana Darcy’s near disaster, the sea-bathing resort from which Wickham attempted to elope with her, an attempt that was happily, not successful.

Poor Mr le Bas. He succeeded  Richard Tyson as Master of Ceremonies of the Lower Rooms in Bath in 1805. But, the Lower Rooms were becoming very unpopular, and most of the Company preferred to spend their time at the new, more fashionable, Upper Rooms in the more fashionable part of Bath. The poor attendance at the Lower Rooms made it financially impossible to support a separate Master of Ceremonies. The monies raised from the benefit balls could not support two such officials. And so, after struggling on for three years, he had to resign.

In small towns like Meryton, no official would have been paid to act as Master of Ceremonies, and in many smaller towns where everyone knew each other, it would not have appeared necessary  to appoint one.  But, if the rooms did need consider they needed one then often a local gentleman would be asked to preside. For example, in the small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, the nearest town to his estate at Chatsworth, William the fourth Duke of Devonshire presided at their assemblies as Master of Ceremonies.  Mrs Lybbe Powys, a friend of Jane Austen’s aunt and uncle the Leigh Perrots,  described in her diary  just how active he was in the role when she visited the town in the mid 18th century:

On the Wednesday, having dined early, we set off in different carriages, and seven gentlemen on horseback for the course, about three, came back to tea about eight. Sir Harry Hemloak, his two sisters, and more company returned with us, and about ten we went to the Assembly Room, where The Duke of Devonshire always presided as master of the ceremonies, and after the ball gave an elegant cold supper, where, by his known politeness and affability, it would be unnecessary for me to say how amiable he made himself to the company.

Interestingly, if a committee of patronesses organised the assemblies then one of their number would be asked to preside over the running of the assemblies. Girl power, indeed.

Our friend Thomas Wilson, dancing master of the King’s Theatre in London, in the chapter,  Etiquette of the Ballroom in his book The Complete System of Country Dancing (1813) and a Master of Ceremonies himself, gave explicit and minutely detailed instructions as to how an amateur master of ceremonies should conduct himself, and order the night. For example,

When the ball commences the company should not leaves their places or rest till after the second dance. Should the sets be short they may dance three dances before they rest. During the remainder of the evening it is the business of the Master of Ceremonies to direct the company as to the proper time for resting….

He also realised the Master of Ceremonies should be easily recognisable and thus :

The Master of Ceremonies should wear a sash or some other conspicuous ensignia, to distinguish him from the rest of the company

He also has this to say to prospective Masters of Ceremonies as a warning:

Persons should be very careful in taking upon themselves the office of Master of Ceremonies unless properly and fully qualifies for that office,as they take upon themselves very great responsibility 

So, would Meryton have had a Master of Ceremonies at their assemblies ?Jane Austen does not mention one, but…does it not occur to you that Sir William Lucas, that civil man about that particular town, might have been the prefect candidate? He was courteous to a fault and had little to do now he had prematurely retired, “unshackled by business” as Jane Austen terms it:

Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to an house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James’s had made him courteous.

and he does take an interest in how people dance:

At that moment Sir William Lucas appeared close to them, meaning to pass through the set to the other side of the room; but on perceiving Mr. Darcy he stopt with a bow of superior courtesy to compliment him on his dancing and his partner.

   “I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Miss Eliza (glancing at her sister and Bingley) shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in! I appeal to Mr. Darcy — but let me not interrupt you, sir. You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose bright eyes are also upbraiding me.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 18

I will admit that against this argument is the fact that Bingley suggested that Jane Bennet might introduce Darcy to Elizabeth at the Assembly, not the Master of Ceremonies:

You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

   “Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you…

Pride and Prejudice Chapter 3

But, nevertheless, I like to think that Sir William might have take this role upon himself, as I think with all  his experience at court (!!) and with his ample leisure time and determined to be civil to all the world  he was the prefect candidate. My opinion only…Despise me if you dare…;)

Austenonly P+P 200 LogoI 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.

The Pump Room, Bath ©Austenonly

The Pump Room, Bath ©Austenonly

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.
They were:

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 Ballroom of the Athenaeum , Bury St Edmunds

The Ballroom of the Athenaeum , Bury St Edmunds

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….

Austenonly P+P 200 Logo“Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3

Oh, dear…the unreconstructed Darcy at his worst. He didn’t make many friends that evening at the Meryton Assembly did he?

But, do you ever wonder about the nature of pubic assemblies and how they began? Assembly Rooms epitomise , for me at least, certain aspects of Georgian life which have disappeared for ever: public assemblies of the company, where local people -often of differing social classes- could socialise, dance ( in the Ballroom), gamble ( in the Card Room) and take fashionable refreshments ( in the Tea Room). If the intricacies  of this type of entertainment has ever intrigued you while reading Jane Austen, then this next short series of posts is for you. Let’s look at how they began, developed, the sort of rooms they begat, their rules and the personnel involved, and the ones Jane Austen knew.(Well, that should keep us busy for the next few days….)

The fashion for public assemblies- balls where people from the genteel  or trade classes in an area could meet together to socialise in an elegant environment -began in the early 18th century. The first assemblies were where genteel people met for conversation, taking tea and playing cards. Dancing was added to the agenda soon after, and during the 1720s this type of assembly became very, very popular. These first public assemblies were held in any large room or building which could accommodate a great gathering of people who wanted to dance country dances. The very nature of these dances called for a long room, that is longer than it was wide. An example of an existing building being adapted for use for assemblies, is the Guildhall in Boston, Lincolnshire. In early 18th century Boston assemblies were held  not in a specially built set of assembly rooms but in “The Big Room” in the Guildhall, a building which was originally built in the 14th century. The  room was newly fitted out with sash windows, it had a first floor gallery for the musicians and it had benches fitted around the walls to accommodate those not dancing. This was to  become the pattern for ballrooms in sets of assembly rooms all over the country. Here, below,  is an illustration by Rowlandson from my copy of The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough,(1813) and it contains many elements with which we are familiar from reading Jane Austen’s descriptions of balls. Let’s look at the print in some detail. You can see that the ballroom is separated from the tea room and the card room by arches; the musicians are above the company in a gallery, just visible to the right of the picture:

The Assembly at Scarborough by Rowlandson ©Austenonly

The Assembly at Scarborough by Rowlandson ©Austenonly

You can also see that those not dancing are promenading about, and some are sitting on benches arranged around the walls, to the rear of the picture , under the curtained windows. There are chaperones, older men and couples. Note the presence of a clergyman -dressed in black, centre front- dancing, just like Mr Collins would do at the Netherfield Ball. And also note the presence of children, to the right of the picture, exactly as Jane Austen describes in this scene from her unfinished fragment, The Watsons. The assembly scene in this fragment is full of exquisite details, and confirms that the presence of young children was a usual thing. In this scene, quoted below, the young boy, Charles, is disappointed when Miss Osbourne quite unfeelingly fails to dance with him preferring instead to dance with Colonel Beresford, despite having previously promised Charles a dance:

If the poor little boy’s face had in its happiness been interesting to Emma, it was infinitely more so under this sudden reverse; he stood the picture of disappointment, with crimsoned cheeks, quivering lips, and eyes bent on the floor. His mother, stifling her own mortification, tried to soothe his with the prospect of Miss Osborne’s second promise; but though he contrived to utter, with an effort of boyish bravery, “Oh, I do not mind it!” it was very evident, by the unceasing agitation of his features, that he minded it as much as ever.

Emma did not think or reflect; she felt and acted. “I shall be very happy to dance with you, sir, if you like it,” said she, holding out her hand with the most unaffected good-humour. The boy, in one moment restored to all his first delight, looked joyfully at his mother; and stepping forwards with an honest and simple “Thank you, ma’am,” was instantly ready to attend his new acquaintance. The thankfulness of Mrs. Blake was more diffuse; with a look most expressive of unexpected pleasure and lively gratitude, she turned to her neighbour with repeated and fervent acknowledgments of so great and condescending a kindness to her boy. Emma, with perfect truth, could assure her that she could not be giving greater pleasure than she felt herself; and Charles being provided with his gloves and charged to keep them on, they joined the set which was now rapidly forming, with nearly equal complacency…

It is very apparent that Jane Austen knew, from her descriptions of balls and assemblies in her novels, that people not only found happiness, but sometimes humiliations in these places.

Back to assemblies…It soon became clear that these assemblies were an ideal place for a marriage market to thrive. Daniel Defoe in his Tour of Great Britain (1727) was appalled by this aspect of assembly balls. In his withering comments made on the Winchester and the Dorset  assemblies, you can clearly see that he was not at all impressed. With regard to the assemblies in Winchester, where the gentry and wealthy clergy mixed, he dourly and ironically noted that:

As there is such good company, so they are gotten into that new-fashioned way of conversing by Assemblies. I shall do no more than mention them here: they are pleasant and agreeable to the young people,and sometime fatal to them, of which in its place Winchester has its share of the mirth: may it escape the ill consequences…

In Dorset he noted that the ladies:

…do not want the Help of Assemblies to assist in match-making; or half pay officer to run away with their daughters…

Mrs Bennet ought, perhaps,to have taken note.

These assemblies became, quite understandably, very popular, despite Defoe’s misgivings, and soon they developed from being held in rooms in existing buildings or inns(as in the Crown in Emma) to being put on in purpose-built sets of Assembly Rooms, and these began to spring up in towns all over the country. The earliest purpose-built rooms to survive are those in Stamford in Lincolnshire, which I wrote about, here .

The Ballroom at Stamford Assembly Rooms, Lincolnshire ©Austenonly

The Ballroom at Stamford Assembly Rooms, Lincolnshire ©Austenonly

You can see , in the picture of the ballroom, above, the raised dais for the musicians,( a  development of the late 18th century), the benches set around the walls, the fireplaces to keep people warm and the magnificent chandeliers to provide an expensive and beautiful illumination to the room. Compare it to the Scarborough picture above, and you will find many common elements. This set was first built in 1726.

Lord Burlington designed the Assembly Rooms in York, and they were built between 1728-30, but sadly they were a triumph of form over function.

The Assembly Rooms, York, designed by Lord Burlington, via Wikipedia Commons

The Assembly Rooms, York, designed by Lord Burlington, via Wikipedia Commons

The ballroom was a beautiful but rather impractical design: a recreation of an “Egyptian Hall”, which you can see here, below,  hosting a modern “Georgian Ball”:

The Ballroom of the York Assembly Room ©York Civic Trust

The Ballroom of the York Assembly Room ©York Civic Trust

The room, though stunningly beautiful, originally had no gallery for the musicians and no heating. Chaperones and spectators  had to view the dancing through the colums which lined the area for dancing, and when benches were eventually  introduced to make their watch more comfortable, they made the space rather cramped. The area for dancing also disappointed: at 28 feet wide it was rather too narrow for the two parallel sets of dancers which was the norm for large assemblies.

The purpose-built assembly rooms nearly always followed a similar pattern: here is the floor-plan of the Upper Rooms at Bath, as designed by John Wood, and you can clearly see the large ballroom with its musicians gallery, the separate card room (which also had a musicians gallery),where Mr Allen in Northanger Abbey took refuge from the dancing and talk of muslins, and the tea room where refreshments could be taken. Note also the colonnade for the sedan chairs used so profusely in the Bath terrain, and the separate entrance for carriages.

Floor plan of the Upper Rooms,Bath from Walter Ison’s book,   “The Georgian Buildings of Bath”

Floor plan of the Upper Rooms,Bath from Walter Ison’s book, “The Georgian Buildings of Bath”

Similar smaller sets of rooms were found in many provincial towns and many had impressive features, for their object was to promote not only the impression that the rooms were a place of enjoyment  but, importantly, were also an elegant place for “the company” to gather together. Hertford, which we have seen was most probably the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Meryton, had the impressive  Shire Hall, below:

Built between 1769 to 71 the building was designed by James Adam (Robert's brother), and was restored in 1990. The ground floor houses The Magistrates Court    © Copyright Melvyn Cousins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Shire Hall, Hertford. Built between 1769 to 71 the building was designed by James Adam (Robert’s brother), and was restored in 1990. The ground floor houses The Magistrates Court
© Copyright Melvyn Cousins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This large building, designed by the architect, Robert Adam’s brother, James, was multi-purpose. It not only houses a ballroom where dances took place, but the courts where criminal and civil cases were (and are) heard. Very handy for Sir William Lucas,as we shall see later in this series;)

Next, how these rooms were used.

So..when Lady Russell ventures from her elegant lodgings in Rivers Street,what pleasures could she seek in Bath? She could go a short journey along River Street to the New Assembly Rooms for a ball. Now, today you will have to indulge me on this, for there is no evidence in Persuasion that Lady Russell visited the Assembly Rooms for a ball, but she did of course go there for a concert (more on that next time).

As you can see from this annotated section of the map of Bath dating from 1803, taken from my copy of A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places by John Feltham, The Assembly Rooms ,numbered “2”on the map,

and known in the early 19th century as the Upper Rooms in order to distinguish them from the Assembly Rooms in the older lower part of Bath near the river (the Lowers Rooms),were not far from Rivers-street.

This engraving of the imposing Upper Rooms, above, was taken from my copy of Walks though Baht by Pierce Egan (Do note all the illustrations in this post, as ever, can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

This is the floor plan of the rooms ,which were designed and built by John Wood the Younger between 1769 and 1771. This plan is taken from Walter Ison’s magisterial book on Georgian Bath, “The Georgian Buildings of Bath”, which I reviewed here.

But however reluctant Lady Russell may seem on dancing… let’s concentrate on the ballroom in this post…above is the entrance,with its severe portico…

Chairs were an important from of transport in Georgian Bath, for due to its very steep,hilly terrain, it was not easy for carriages to negotiate its steep and sometimes winding roads. So, Lady Russell may have arrived at the Upper Rooms by chair…as Catherine Moreland did, arriving at the Theatre Royal in Bath in one in Northanger Abbey.

This is a rather elegant and luxurious example which is on display in the vestibule of the Upper Rooms today.

To gain access to the ballroom, Laady Russell would first process along the vestibule having quitted her chair there, progress into the Small Octagon, and then turning left would enter the Ball Room.

When I visited the rooms to take this photographs this room was set up for a wedding reception: what a wonderful place to celebrate a marriage! However, it did limit the photographs I could take…I’ll jsut have to go back yet again(what a trial!) But if you go to the Fashion Museum website and click on the link on the bottom right here, View the Assembly Room Tours you will be able to virtually visit the Rooms,and especially to see the details of the ballroom with its wonderful musicians gallery which I was unable to photograph.

To give you some idea of the massive scale of this room, let me quote from Pierce Egan’s Walks though Bath, 1819 for a view of someone who visited it in the early 19th century:

The elegance of the ball-room astonishes every spectator, it is 100 feet 8 inches long, 42 feet 8 inches wide and 42 feet 6 inches high. ~The ceiling is beautiful ornamented with pannels(sic) with open compartments, and from which are suspended five superb glass chandeliers; and the windows from which the rooms receive daylight are on a ball night covered with boards painted with ornaments on them to correspond with the uniformity on the other side of the room. The walls are also painted and decorated in the most tasteful style; and the Corinthian columns and entablature resemble statuary marble. At each end of the room are placed in magnificent gilt frames, the most splendid looking glasses to give effect to the general brilliant appearance.

In its heyday, during the late 18th century, this room could hold as many as 800 dancers,the sort of crowds poor Catherine Morland had to contend with on her first visit there:

Mrs. Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr. Allen, he repaired directly to the card–room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protegee, Mrs. Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly. But to her utter amazement she found that to proceed along the room was by no means the way to disengage themselves from the crowd; it seemed rather to increase as they went on, whereas she had imagined that when once fairly within the door, they should easily find seats and be able to watch the dances with perfect convenience. But this was far from being the case, and though by unwearied diligence they gained even the top of the room, their situation was just the same; they saw nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies. Still they moved on — something better was yet in view; and by a continued exertion of strength and ingenuity they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench. Here there was something less of crowd than below; and hence Miss Morland had a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her, and of all the dangers of her late passage through them. It was a splendid sight, and she began, for the first time that evening, to feel herself at a ball: she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room.

Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2.

At the end of the season,the rooms could be quite deserted, as Jane Austen noted in her letter to Cassandra, dated 12th May 1801:

In the evening, I hope you honoured my toilette and ball with a thought; I dressed myself as well as I could, and had all my finery much admired at home. By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

and by the time she wrote Persuasion, in 1816,the fashion was definitely shifting towards private parties not great formal assemblies open to all and sundry. And lest we think that these elegant places were always inhabited by decourous people, in the same letter, Jane Austen also noted drunken goings on:

Mrs. B. and two young women were of the same party, except when Mrs. B. thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken husband. His avoidance, and her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.

The chandeliers as Pierce Egan noted above, are spectacular. The orignal chandeliers were supplied to the Upper Rooms Furnishing Committee by Jonathon Collett,at a cost of £400 for the five which were to hang in the ballroom. In October 1771, a month after the rooms opened a disaster concerning them was luckily avoided. One of the arms of the chandeliers in the ballroom fell, narrowly missing (and injuring) Thomas Gainsborough the artist. The chandeliers were found to have severe defects, and were replaced by five commissioned from William Parker, supplier of chandeliers to The Prince of Wales, whose trade card is shown below.

He had already provided the Furnishing Committee with chandeliers for the Tea Room, and now was commissioned to make replacements. His work is simply amazingly and breathtakingly beautiful. It cost the owners of the Rooms £556, 3 shillings and 6 pence to provide candles and oil for the lamps in the other rooms, in the first season of 1771-2.

The assembles of the 18th century were new social phenomena.They allowed, in the main, people from different classes to mingle, the Master of Ceremonies entrusted to introduce previously unknown parties. Beau Nash, the first Master of Ceremonies in Bath drew up a series of rules for governing behaviour in assemblies which were adopted, in one way or another, as a good method of keeping order by nearly all the other assemblies in England.

The rules for the Assembly changed with each successive Master of Ceremonies-and I will be writing more on them in the next post .In 1816 the were as follows:

That the Balls at these Rooms do commence at eight o’clock in the evening; a quarter o f a hour before which time the Rooms shall regularly and properly be lighted up;and that the dancing shall cease at half -past eleven o’clock precisely, except on the night of the King’s Birthday and on the nights of the two balls given for the Master of Ceremonies when the time of dancing shall be unlimited.

That every person on admission to these Rooms on ball-nights shall pay sixpence for their tea.

That the three front benches at the upper end of the room be reserved for ladies of precedence, of the rank of Peeresses of Great Britain or Ireland

That a reasonable time shall be allowed between the minuets and Country-Dances for ladies of precedence to take their own places in the dance; and that those ladies who shall stand up after the dance shall have commenced must tale their places successively at the bottom

That no lady after she shall have taken her place in the set do permit another to come above her in the dance.

That ladies are to be considered perfectly free in regard to accepting or declining partners

That it is the positive order of the Committee that no servant whatever shall be admitted into the vestibule or gallery on any occasion or on any pretence whatever on ball-nights.

That no gentleman in boots or half boots be admitted into the Ball-Room on ball-nights except Officers of the Navy or of the army on duty in uniform; and then without their swords.

Trowsers(sic)or colored pantaloons not to be permitted on any account.

There wer also rules regulating the Master of Ceremonies and his duties:

That the Master of Ceremonies do attend at a quarter of an hour before eight o’clock on ball nights to receive the company.

That the Master of Ceremonies on observing or receiving information of any persons acting in opposition to these resolutions do signify to such person that as Master of Ceremonies it is his duty to see that proper decorum be preserved, and these orders obeyed; in the proper and impartial execution of which duty he will be supported by the subscribers at large

Resolved that these regulations be printed, framed and glazed and fixed in a conspicuous part of the Room for public information; not to be taken down on any pretence whatever on order that they may remain as a pubic document.

Here is an advertisement for a series of Subscription Dress Balls for the season 1811-1812

In my next post… Concerts and the Tea Room in the Upper Rooms( and which we can be certain that concerts are something that Lady Russell did attend !)

On my recent jaunt to Bath I paid my usual visit to the Museum of Costume which is to be found in the basement area of the Assembly Rooms. This place is always a delight to visit: the staff are helpful and knowledgeable and the collection  is magnificent.

Because of its situation-in the heart of the rooms peopled by the fashionable set of 18th century Bath- there are always examples of 18th century/early 19th century costumes on show to satisfy people obsessed with our era, but there are always many other  interesting clothing related exhibits too. This year the exhibits (which are constantly changing to give  the dresses time to rest and to provide different points of interest to frequent visitors) have no examples of costumes  prior to the 18th century on show other than a marvellous exhibit of 17th century gloves,so I missed seeing my favourite 1660s dress made of shimmering silver tissue: but there were special exhibits of The Diana Dresses showing some of the late Princess of Wales’ iconic clothes, which brought back many memories, and as ever, the fascinating Dress of the Year exhibit, a dress chosen by the staff as being most representative of that particular year.

This picture shows the current winner for 2009 by Antonio Baradi. All the previous winners are on show:  including the winner for 2005, by Versace and made famous by Jennifer Lopez

and this beautiful Karl Lagerfeld ensemble which won the accolade in 2008.

The museum was founded in 1963 by the scholar, designer and collector,  Doris Langley Moore

She favoured a phorensic approach to researching fashion history and  encouraged examining real examples of clothing to discover the truth about fashion from the pst. She also encouraged the collecting of modern classics, as well as collecting and preserving clothes from the past. She was friends with Anne Buck and C. Willet Cunningham and their combined scholarship has transformed our understanding of historic clothes.

The 18th and early 19th centuries were well represented in the galleries, and I would like to show you some of the dresses that were on show.

A marvellous sack dress made with silver thread: this would have surely fascinated quietly in the candle-lit assembly rooms of Bath of the 1760 and 70s

A pair of stays circa 1775, the year Jane Austen was born. Worn over a linen sift and made of stout linen.The corset was stiffened with whalebone and a rigid busk of wood or horn or even ivory was inserted into the centre front to keep it rigid. No, thank you…..

A sack back gown of silver-embroidered silk circa 1770

Some more dressed from the 18th century


A court dress of brocaded silk circa 1760-1765.

Though wide skirts of this very rectangular shape had passed out of fashion in the early 1750s the style was retained for court dresses. This is an example of such a dress made of French silk covered with a gold strip and brocaded with coloured silks and chenille thread.

A printed cotton dress of the circa 1795, fashionable at the time Jane Austen was writing her first draft of Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions. A late example of the 18th century style of dress, of the  open robe and petticoat type which was to be superseded by the type of dresses seen below, a one piece dress, put on by  placing it over the head of the wearer, unlike this style, which the wearer put on like a coat, sleeves first.

These are two embroidered cotton muslin dresses, one having tambour work embroidery , both circa 1800

The dress on the left, above,  is made from  plain and undecorated white cotton, which reflects a shot lived fashion for severe plainness in dress in England dating from around 1800. Cotton, grown in America was imported into England and produced in mills such as those owned by Samuel Oldknow of Stockport( more on him later in the year!)

This is a stunningly simple dress, circa 1806, made of cotton muslin embroidered with tiny sliced cylinders of white glass which produced  a shimmering effect: marvellous in a candle lit room, don’t you think?

Additional fabric has been pleaded into the centre of the back of the dress to create a small train and to allow the skirt of the dress to drape gently around the legs of the wearer.

These are interesting dresses date from 1815. They are both made of  brown silk gauze with yellow and blue stripes. They are reputed to have been worn by the Misses Percival at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball held in Brussels in  June 1815 immediately prior to the Battle of Waterloo. There is no conclusive evidence to support this claim but  the museum ‘s curator did make the point that long-sleeved dresses were fashionable as evening dresses at the time so they could quite possibly qualify as having been worn at that event. If only they could talk!!

This is a wedding dress from America made at the turn of the 19th century which took my eye…

And because the staff understand that everyone likes to dress up, children’s sporting clothes from the 1880s are available  for all to use…

As are some wonderfully swish-y crinolines and different types of corsets from differing eras. We had great fun trying them out and  watching other people play….

So there it is, my impressions of a trip to the Costume Museum in the summer of 2010. Do go if you ever have the chance, for you will not regret it. And of course you can also visit the Assembly Rooms at the same time. More on those next week ;-)

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.

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