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Assembly Rooms

Page history last edited by Susanna Leigh 9 years, 3 months ago

The Assembly Room



  Image (1): The Comforts of Bath, Rowlandson. This sketch conveys the colours and elegance of the assembly rooms.


  Definition: An  assembly room, as defined by the Collins Dictionary, is “a room used as a public place of entertainment, usually dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century.”

  One might also consider its definition in the 18thcentury.

  In 1751, the Assembly Room represented "a stated and general meeting of the polite persons of both sexes, for the sake of conversation, gallantry, news and play."


  Etymology:  Fr. Assembler - Late L. assimulāre, to bring together, ad, to, similis, like. 

  Its sense of “gathering together” is recorded from the early 15th century.


With the age of puritan scandal-mongering behind them, the 18th century welcomed in a generation with an inexhaustible appetite for frivolity, dance and social interaction. To satiate these demands came the concept of the Assembly Room. 

Assembly rooms almost became a social test for the upper class Georgian and reputations were made and lost there. Guests attended these events to see and be seen. Gentlemen in periwigs and ladies in hooped petticoats travelled across the nation to attend these prestigious social gatherings that began to spring up across the country.  Laborious efforts went into the organisation and attendance of these events with attire, conduct and dancing ability deliberated with utmost importance.


References to assembly rooms abound ubiquitously across 18th century Augustan literature (1700-1750), as well as in the later literature of the Age of sensibility (1750-1798). The assembly room became an arena for social interaction, the interlacing of stories, romance and scandal. The stories from these events spilled into diary accounts, letters and periodicals and the melting-pot of the assembly room offered itself as fertile new material for literature. Ultimately, the heartbreaks and duels spilled into prose, with novelists exploring and critiquing this new form of sociable society. Indeed, it is unsurprising that the development of the novel, as we know it, and its dalliance with realism came about during this period. 

Within this increasingly liberal environment and under the influence of wine and merriment, the behaviour of its guests could easily be unearthed. The genre of restoration comedy, placed predominantly in the 17th century, continued to develop beyond the restoration period and into the mid-18th century. Whilst its most serious forms served to analyse contemporary morality, the majority dealt with sexual politics amongst the upper classes. One might consider the role of the assembly room in fuelling this. Similarly, peoples' faux-pas at the assembly rooms presented ideal material for satire – this emerging genre seeking to poke fun at the vices and inadequacies of society with biting wit and poise. The flourishing of the mock-heroic in the 18th century found itself in a similar category and revelling in this opportunity for societal parody. Whilst largely exaggeratory and comedic, these genres were geared towards a larger social or political criticism and with the bridge narrowed between the upper and middle classes, this new form of exposure put the upper classes at risk of ridicule. 

Additionally, the coldness of the Enlightenment era was met with the first stirring of the romanticism genre, opposing cold rationality with the elevation of human sentiment.  One might consider how tenets of the Enlightenment, including the opposition to social authority, interacted with the enforced etiquette of these spheres – once more a petri-dish for a societal observation of a very different kind. Whilst it also questions elements of societal restriction, the visual art, music and literature of the assembly halls harmoniously accompanied the tenets of the budding romanticism movement.  



Introduction: from Maypoles to Histriomastix to Assembly Rooms


Whilst dance comprised a small part of the assembly room tradition, without its acceptance into the public sphere, it is unlikely that the assembly rooms would have emerged as early as they did. The perception of dance in society speaks greatly about a nation’s social situation, from money to morals and sex to scandal.


Dancing with the devil:  The history of dance across the 16th to 18th century has certainly been a turbulent one. In the dawn of the 17th century and the Protestant Reformation, the morality of 16th century dance was starting to be scrutinized – whether the sophisticated dances of the court or the traditional May Pole dances of the countryside. In an era of religious tension, the dangers of youthful exuberance flared up concern for both the participants and the spectators. The nature of dance, including the seemingly harmless May Day dances around the May Pole, and the emotions that it evoked were questioned. In 1633, the staunchest critics of dancing William Prynne published Histriomastix, a furious attack on theatre and dancing.  Within this puritan text he condemns dancing as a breach of the Ten Commandments and as something which serves no laudable or pious end. 


dancing is the Devill’s procession.


 wee never reade of any Christians that went dancing into Heaven.


 in a dance a man breakes the ten Commandements of God.


for the party that danceth, be he male or female committed adultery with the party they lust after. For he looketh on a woman, and lusteth after her, hath already committed adultery in his heart.


 sundry wicked ones who have gone dancing downe to Hell (254-256)


Dance was soon denounced as depraved and a social menace and ultimately, in 1644, Parliament banned maypoles altogether. The critique was launched at the immorality of its seductive and frivolous nature, as well as the ambiance that accompanied the drinking and dancing.  


Images (2) and (3): Passages from Histriomastrix. The nature of the text is conveyed especially well in its visual form with its lengthy and repetitive denouncements of dance.



A slow danceThe revival of dance came about with John Playford’s The English Dancing Master. In the midst of the Puritan era and teetering the edge of treason, this manual exalted dance as a form of art, praising it as a “commendable and rare quality” (1). Its success was imperious enough to initiate a trend and the book remained in print for 70 years and in 17 editions. Playford’s appeal was in his addressing of higher society, thus captivating the attention of gentlemen at court. Whilst ahead of his time, it might be argued that Playford spurred the evolution of dance, subverting it from an act of depravity to a form of high art. It is highly symbolic upon the restoration of Charles I to the throne in 1661, a maypole marked with the royal coat of arms, was erected on the path of the coronation procession - this royal engraving denoting the king’s approval. Subsequently, maypoles were erected throughout the country in celebration and as a sign of loyalty to the crown.


A dance liberation: The Puritanical influence was rapidly shed and paved the way for dance to be explored and for new and exotic genres, such as Masquerades,  to infiltrate the nation. With the re-emergence of dance came the need for somewhere to house it.  Assembly rooms met these demands and surpassed them. They represented a new-found sense of liberation in the public sphere, with the opportunity to play cards, drink tea and to converse and flirt with the opposite sex.  These pursuits were in no way novel but the concept of an arena in which these activities could occur simultaneously throughout different rooms, certainly was. In fact, it is believed that by 1770 more than 60 towns and spas in England had embraced assemblies.




Design and Aesthetic Elegance


A focus on culture and aesthetic elegance began to surface in the eighteenth century and the assembly rooms certainly sought to bring this into the public sphere. With guests from the higher tiers of society, grandiose architecture, lavish furnishings and extravagant colours were anticipated. The buildings were designed to impress with their size, design and elegance and the members luxuriated in this public expression of art and unrestraint.


The encouragement of the arts can be seen in the inscription on the foundation stone of the Newcastle upon Tyne assembly room:

In an age

When the polite arts

By general encouragement and emulation,
Have advanced to a state of perfection
Unknown in any former period;
The first stone of this edifice,
Dedicated to the most elegant recreation,
Was laid by William Lowes, Esq.
 On the 16th of May, 1774.


The honour of designing the first assembly room fell upon Lord Burlington, a gifted amateur architect, skilled in a classical architectural movement known as Palladianism. With a stark brief and request to construct a building of 90 foot long, he designed what is believed to be the first neoclassical building in Europe. He modelled his masterpiece on the Ancient Egyptian halls used for festivals and entertainments and in regards to aesthetics, he drew upon Italian Palladium principles – with the close-set colonnade of Corinthian pillars in the Great Hall. Around the Great Hall was a cluster of rooms used for smaller events, games and refreshments.


Such was the aesthetic attraction of assembly rooms that guests travelled the country to revel in their glamour – thus prompting the concept of a holiday resort.  In The Balnea: or, an Impartial Description of the Popular Watering Places in England, George Saville Carey critiques every spa-town’s assembly rooms, asserting the importance of design for the sake of visitors and the ability to attract tourists.  For example, he speaks of the Cheltenham assembly rooms as “remarkably neat and elegant, the chandeliers and lustres peculiarly brilliant” (155) and the lower ones as  “handsome, but inferior” (156). The Scarborough assembly rooms however, compare as “nothing to boast of in respect to elegance” (244). The existence alone of such a manual highlights the importance of aesthetics and design.



The Layout of the Assembly Room


“The building contains a variety of other apartments, everyway suited to the purposes intended."

The History of Edinburgh, 1819. 


The assembly rooms sought to harmoniously bridge design and purpose, with the layout of the large hall and smaller rooms allowing for multiple activities.

  • The ballroom was the largest and most grandiose of rooms in which stately dances were performed by couples and spectated by onlookers.
  • The card room was a room in which card games were played by both men and women and in which gambling was endemic.

Historian William Lecky notes that gambling" reigned supreme; and the physicians even recommended it to their patients as a form of distraction... Among fashionable ladies the passion was quite as strong as among men" (156).

In The Letters of Horace Walpole, Walpole (the son of England’s first prime minister) is seen to admire its ability to unify people, regardless of political ideology.

“Whist has spread an universal opium over the nation, it makes the courtiers and patriots sit down the same pack of cards” (800). 

  • The tearoom was used primarily for refreshments and was equally as vivacious as the other rooms.

 The necessity for a tea room in the assembly rooms is expressed in Emma following Mrs Weston’s suggestion that the small size of the room set aside for the supper would not allow for the extravagant feast that such an event required.

Mrs Weston proposed having no regular supper; merely sandwiches, &c. set out in the little room; but that was scouted as wretched suggestion. A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women; and Mrs Weston must not speak of it again. (259)

 This demonstrates the high value placed on tearooms and the rituals surrounding them.







Images (4) and (5): Whilst the building has been adapted to suit a contemporary use, these images I took at the York Assembly rooms demonstrate the grandeur of the main hall and the Palladian influence. 



Image (6): This floorplan sketch of the Bath assembly rooms demonstrates the archetypal compartmentalised layout.



The Master of the Ceremonies: host and peacekeeper


Image (7): Portrait of James King, The Master of the Ceremonies at Bath.


With a flood of guests and a range of activities, the seamless orchestration of events was a delicate task. At the crux of such a role was the Master of the Ceremonies.  Full authority was given to this person who oversaw the procedures and enforced the rules. Visitors were required to sign their name into a book before being greeted by him personally. If he deemed the guests to meet the standards required, he would welcome them into his domain and introduce them to the company present. Whilst these were “public” assemblies, the process of obtaining a ticket filtered out the lower classes. However, in case of misplaced tickets, the screening process was deemed imperative to propriety.  The Master of the Ceremonies ensured that guests assimilated and that social interactions remained polite and amicable.  He also had full power over the most perilous area, the dance floor, ensuring decorum and curtailing any visible signs of disagreement and heartache. 


In the Sporting Magazine, we see the interpolating of assembly life into journalism, and notably, one aimed at a male demographic. The magazine outlines the role of the Master of the Ceremonies. 

 “to 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 orflushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing [their heads], and their noses from turning up, when precedencepartners, 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."  ( 190)


In 1704 Richard "Beau" Nash became the Master of the Ceremonies in Bath until his death in 1762. With his name resonating in households across the country, Nash rose to eminence as the figure who transformed the nature of the role and, more remarkably, the image of Bath. Within his 10 year rule, he transformed the town into a holiday resort to which members of polite society flocked during the Bath season, which ran from October to early June. The town was especially elevated in status at the visit of Queen Ann. To this, Bath matched the elegance of visit with elegance of their surroundings. One of Nash's most infamous changes was his implementation of a code of behaviour.   The Rules of the Assembly were conspicuously posted on the wall to underline the rules of dress, behaviour and order. In accordance to Nash’s rules, hard drinking was forbidden, as well as the carrying of swords - which often led to duels. As well as forbidding various elements, he also created rules which he felt would assist in civilising the society. This included a dress code and code of etiquette, such as a ban on boots in the ballroom or that ladies who wished to dance minuets were obliged to wear court dress with the full hoops and streamers of lace on their heads.  In creating a structures set of rules, he facilitated the understanding of etiquette, thus indirectly encouraging assimilation between the growing gentry class and the aristocratic elite - parties accustomed to remaining apart.


The characters in Jane Austen’s novels often frequented these balls and the role of the Master of the Ceremonies was duly noted. In Emma, his role is such that the assembly is described as the “Master of the Ceremonies’ ball” (96) – thus demonstrating his authority. In Northanger Abbey, the Master of the Ceremonies, Mr James King, orchestrates the introduction between Mr Tilney and Miss Morland at the Bath Assembly Rooms. Miss Morland says “I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr King.” (16) Jane Austen’s exploration into the genre of realism was such that James King was the real Master of the Ceremonies at the time, a fact that would have amused her readers. 


The role of the assembly room and the success of the Master of the Ceremonies is reflected in the surge of population in Bath. From 3000 in 1700 to 35000 by 1801, Bath was the eighth largest city in England with a population of 30,000. This Google Ngram graph traces the mention of the word “Bath” in literary texts across between 1700 and 1800, highlighting its growing popularity. 




Social Boundaries & The Decline of the Assembly 



















Image (8): An advert for tickets to a ball. The repeated mention of “subscribers” highlights the complicated subscription process.

Image (9): A sketch by Rowlandson of The Old Tea Room, Assembly Rooms, Bath and satirises the decreasing sophistication of these events.



The Georgian period brought about changes in the social structure. With a boom in importation and commercialisation, merchants began to drive the economy. In A Plan of the English Commerce, Daniel Defoe infamously claimed that “The Commerce of England is an immense and almost incredible Thing” (107.) The result of this burgeoning economic market was the possibility to translate wealth into social status and become a gentleman regardless of lineage.  With an increasingly affluent middle class, the assembly halls began to cater for a new demographic. Entrance to the assembly halls was not granted through connections but on the ability to pay.  Therefore, one might consider how the assembly rooms were key in the homogenisation of Georgian society by blurring the hierarchy between the upper and middle classes. Many appreciated this bridge between classes and in The Rise of The Public in Enlightenment Europe, a visitor to Tunbridge Wells in the 1760s is noted to have claimed “all ranks are mingled together without any distinction” (212).

       However, many members of the upper classes grew increasingly frustrated with the encroachment of the middle tiers of society and attendance began to diminish in favour of private parties. 



The Decline of the Assembly in The Man of the World 


 “oddities”  “Noah’s ark” “Ridiculous” “bawling and wrangling”


In Charles Macklin’s play, The Man of the World, the characters mock the uncultivated nature of the assembly rooms. In Act II. Scene I, Lady Rodolpho is interrogated by acquaintances on the “company at Bath,” to which banter ensues as they mock the unsophistication of the middle class guests and the activities they indulge in.


Sir Pertinax MacSycophant:—but Lady Rodolpho —I wanted to ask your ladyship some questions about the company at the Bath;—they say you had aw the world there.

Lady Rodopho: O, yes!—there was a vary great mob there indeed;—but vary little company.—Aw Canaille,—except our ain party.—The place was crowded with your little purse-proud mechanics;—an odd kind of queer looking animals that have started intill fortune fra lottery tickets, rich prizes at sea, gambling in Change-Alley, and sic like caprices of fortune;—and away they aw crowd to the Bath to learn genteelity, and the names, titles, intrigues, and bon-mots of us people of fashion; ha, ha, ha!


Lady Rodolpho  establishes the difference in status between the attendees and herself, seeking to elevate her sophistication whilst mocking their lack-of. She impersonalises these people in reducing them to “queer looking animals” to which Lord Lumbercourt relies that “I know the things you mean, my dear” – herein objectifying the guests to animals. Indeed, guests often attended assembly rooms with the hope of cultivating and refining themselves through the association with propriety and culture.  She laughs at how they “crowd to Bath to learn genteelity, and the names, titles, intrigues, and bon-mots of us people of fashion; ha, ha, ha.” Whilst Lady Rodolpho might have enjoyed these elements, she neither comprehends why the middle classes would wish to do so nor wishes to align herself with them. Furthermore, she scorns this group of nouveau-riche and their alternative modes of financial acquisition, denouncing it as “gambling in Change-Alley.” This is met by Lord Lumbercourt’s laughter at the bizarreness of their presence - having “wondered where the devil they all came from.” Indeed, title and worthiness appears to sit at the core of this conflict. The characters associate new trade and business with unsophistication and ill-breeding and for this, they middle classes are considered unworthy of the luxuries that fortune may entail.


The code of social boundaries becomes blurred. The lower classes are considered as little more than “entertainment” to be “observed.” In reducing them to figureheads of amusement and ridicule, Lady Rodolpho and her acquaintances seek to augment the fissure that separates them.  However, Lady Rodolopo goes on to speak of her engagement with the activities and herein lies her hypocrisy.  Lady Rodolpho describes her night at a ball in all its crudeness, inferring the thrill that she gained from it. The rough activities that she would appear to frown upon are perversely those that she engaged in. Here the distinction between herself and “the mob” ends and she instead speaks of the collective group – herself included - as “we.”  She does not restrain herself in the descriptions of how they all “danced, and wrangled, and flattered, and slandered, and gambled, and cheated, and mingled, and jumbled, and wolloped together—clean and unclean.”


Whilst this could imply that social hierarchy is redundant within the sphere of the assembly room, there is a much nastier overtone to this. The hypocrisy of such a statement is transparent on several levels. Firstly, having boasted of the manners and etiquette at which her social class excels, she fails to represent this but conversely, engages in its opposite. She also subverts the direction of influence as rather than seeking to extol her grace and etiquette, she reminisces of having attended such events to “to reconnoitre the monsters and pick up their frivolities.” She, like any social class, is partial to the thrills and excitements of this environment but takes advantage of the liberties offered, in indulging in improper forms of behaviour.  Having previously shunned the financial profitability of the emerging classes and the sense of unworthiness that this brings, she freely admits to having “gambled, and cheated.” Indeed, she is prepared to align herself with the lower classes when it appeals to her but not in her everyday life where she wishes to maintain her superiority.


The promise of scandal and depravity is enticing in itself and Lord Lumbercourt and Sir Egerton begin to discuss attendance at it.

 Lord Lumbercourt: Why yes, there is some fancy in it, I think, Egerton?

Sir Egerton: Very characteristic indeed, my lord.

Lord Lumbercourt: What say you, Mr. Sidney?

Sidney: Upon my word, my lord, the lady has made me see the whole assembly in distinct colours.


It is striking that even whilst discussing attendance to such an event, mockery is still woven into the dialogue. The most scornful image is the recurring mention of Noah’s ark, as the speakers liken the guests to the animals on the ark. Such an image is considered fitting by all and Sir Pertinax admires that “It is an excellent picture of the oddities that one meets with at the Bath.” The irony of such a claim grows when Lady Rodolpho completely abandons her façade of sophistication in veering the conversation towards the subject of bodily features. Having revelled in the copious quantities of alcohol available, she begins to describe how the alcohol “always make a swish-swash in my bowels, and give me the wooly-wambles.” Images of meat and sweating accompany this, making one consider the real “animals” of the play.


Indeed, from the viewpoint of Lady Rodolpho and her acquaintances, their engagement with such debased behaviour does not reflect in anyway on themselves as, outside of the assembly room, they are above it. Whilst their behaviour need not necessarily reflect this, they find reassurance in their intrinsic sense of superiority. Macklin certainly confirms this new sense of societal assimilation, as well as satirizing the blinkered upper classes who enjoy taking part in scandalous behaviour yet still believe in their societal high-ground. In adherence to its comedic genre, the play is certainly exaggeratory and crude however, one might look to the autobiographical to search for traces of comparability. In The Memoirs of Charles Macklin, numerous descriptions are devoted to Macklin’s insatiable yearning to frivolity and scandal – this behaviour often expressed in the assembly rooms. It speaks of his engagement in “scenes of riot and intemperance” and how following a substantial monetary win “in their frolics at the gaming-table,” (160) he celebrated with a weekend in the countryside, accompanied by a friend and a couple of prostitutes (for more information, refer to Streetwalking). However, despite being “dressed very expensively” and “much taken notice of,” one of the ladies become embroiled in a dispute at which “her language and temper” revealed her profession. Subsequently, they were all ushered out with loud protestation. Indeed, this suggests that within the scandals that Macklin depicts lies elements of truth.



Annotated Bibliography


Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

     This novel provides an insight into the conventions of assembly rooms and the etiquette they demand, as well as emphasising the romance that it offered.


Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Maryland: Arc Manor LLC, 2007. Print.

     A novel which directly connects the role of the Master of the Ceremonies to romantic partnership  in the 18th century. It is especially interesting in its fusion of fiction with reality.


Carey Saville, George. The Balnea: or, an Impartial Description of all the Popular Watering Places in England.  York: J.W Myers, 1799.

     This manual might be considered as an early tourist-guide, demonstrating the growing demand for holiday culture, as well as the importance of aesthetics and design.


Cooke, William.The Memoirs of of Charles Macklin. London: James Aspirina, 1806. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.

                In comparing the memoir of  the writer to his written word, one can understand the context of his writing and whether there is any disparity.


Defoe, Daniel. A Plan of The English Commerce. London: Rivington & co. 1728. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.

     Defoe explores the prospering trade of the  nation, asserting its strength as well as the economic issues and fluctuations that it entails. This is useful in understanding the growing affluence of the middle classes and how the assembly rooms began to adapt to this new demographic.


Lecky, William. History of England. Vancouver: Read Books, 2008. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.

                This volume of historical and political essays is interesting due to its retrospective viewpoint. Written by a historian born in the early 19th century, he is still very aware of the impact of the 18th century yet detached and unbiased.


Macklin, Charles. The Man of the World. London: J.Bell, 1793. Print.

                Despite being the oeuvre of a man famed to have revolutionised the face of acting in the 18th century, this play remains disproportionately unknown. This satirical comedy is not only useful in highlighting the assimilation between the upper and middle classes but reveals the tensions that arised as a result of this.


Moser, Joseph. Sporting Magazine, Volume 29. London: Rogerson & Tuxford, 1806. Wed. 27 Feb. 2015.

                Founded towards the end of the 18th century, this was the first English periodical devoted to sport. It is interesting to note how news of assembly rooms, something more associated with the feminine square, permeated this male-dominated newspaper and was even considered a sporting topic.


Playford, John. The English Dancing Master. Princeton: Dance Horizons, 1976. Web. 28 Feb 2015.

                This manual sits at the heart of the post-Reformation revolution of dance.  It was certainly progressive and risky yet cleared itself of immorality by addressing the upper classes.


Prynne, William. Histriomastix. New York: Garland Publishing, Incorporated, 1974. Print.

                This infamous book is especially useful in understanding the Puritan influence and the fear that it in evoked. The perspective that it takes is certainly extreme and in parts the structure of the book is lost in its formless ranting.  


Van Horn Melton, James. The Rise of The Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

                This book examines the role of the public in the 18th century and their new modes of socialising and exerting social influence. This is especially pertinent considered the role of assembly rooms in this adjustment.


Walpole, Horace. The Letters of Horace Walpole: 1735-1748. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1842. Web. 28 Feb. 1015.

                This documents the correspondence of Horace Walpole, the son of England’s first prime minister. It demonstrates interaction between the assembly room and politics, even in regards to gambling.




Image 1. Rowlandson. The Comforts of Bath. 1798. Austenonly. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.


Images 2 and 3 - Prynne, William. Image of Histriomastix. New York: Garland Publishing, Incorporated, 1974. Print.


Images 4 and 5 - Leigh, Susanna. York Assembly. 2015. Personal image.


Image 6. Ison, Walter. The Bath Assembly room floorplan. The Georgian Buildings of Bath. Web. 28 Feb. 2015


Image 7. Crutwell, R.  Sketch of James King, The Master of the Ceremonies at Bath. The New Bath Guide, 1799. Web. 29 Feb. 2015.


Image 8. Anon. Advertisement to an assembly ball. Austenonly. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.


Image 9. Rowlandson. The tea room at Bath, 1789. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.


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