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Jane Austen News – Issue 99

The Jane Austen News is a very rare fan

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  


A Fan of Bath’s First Assembly Rooms comes to Bath

Although the Assembly Rooms built in 1771, and still to be found in all their glory at Bennett Street, are the ones most people think of when they think of Bath’s Assembly Rooms, they weren’t actually Bath’s first Assembly Rooms. Bath’s first assembly rooms were known as Harrison’s Rooms and were built for an entrepreneur in 1708 at the urging of Beau Nash – one of the first Masters of Ceremonies at Bath. Harrison’s Rooms became less popular as the ‘Upper Assembly Rooms’ (as they were then known) at Bennett Street grew in popularity, but Harrison’s Rooms were nevertheless still quite the landmark when Jane Austen came to Bath.

We mention all this because a hand-painted fan showing a long-lost view of Harrison’s Rooms as Jane would have known them has been acquired by Bath’s Holburne Museum, where it will go on display for the first time.

The rare fan, which had been in a private collection, shows elegantly dressed people strolling in Harrison’s Walk, a tree-lined riverside walk kept exclusive by paid subscription. The building in the background is Harrison’s Rooms.

The fan was painted around 1750 by Thomas Loggon, a renowned fan painter with dwarfism who ran a teahouse and china shop under the sign of The Little Fanmaker. As well as the fashionable group chatting with Nash, Loggon included himself in the scene (the slight figure towards the right).

Harrison’s Rooms burned down in 1820, and the view shown on the fan is now completely different to the view as Jane knew it (the area where Harrison’s Rooms once stood is beside the Parade Gardens). So if you’re coming to Bath it might be a nice thing to go and see after visiting the Jane Austen Centre.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 99

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The Journal of Eveline Helm, Part Five – At the Assembly Rooms, at last!

Dear Reader,

I hope that this journal of my time in Bath should prove to be helpful to you. In reading it may you be spared the numerous faux pas and embarrassments that I was not. I truly feel that if this work should prevent even one other young lady from public ridicule in the Assembly Rooms of Bath then it will have been wholly worthwhile. 

Humbly yours, 

Eveline Helm.


June 1797 

I am incredibly pleased to report that the sedan chair bearers did not drop me on the way to the Assembly Rooms as I had feared they might. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed my short ride; it was a smoother journey than I had thought, and certainly a very grand journey. My Uncle went ahead of us on foot, as gentlemen in Bath are wont to do, and was there to greet us as the doors of my Aunt’s and my own respective boxes were held open for us. I succeeded in stepping out from the small compartment with what I hope was some degree of grace, and found myself in front of the entrance, which consists of a grand pediment held up by four pale stone columns. There was little time to take in the grandeur of the outside, however, as my Aunt linked her arm through mine and guided me inside. Once admitted, we proceeded to tour the Rooms.

The assembly rooms near home, to which I have been to dance before, are nothing compared to the Bath Assembly Rooms.  After we had deposited our cloaks in the cloakroom to the right on leaving the entrance vestibule, we turned and entered the ball room through the opposite doors on the left. The room was vast; it was at least one hundred feet in length and forty wide, and its ceiling was of triple height. Halfway up the duck-egg wall was a series of tall windows, flanked on either side by a painted Roman column set into the wall which were letting in the last light of the day. Around the room, below and above these windows, were intricate moulded plasterwork borders. And, in the centre of the room, there hung five great chandeliers which, as my Aunt whispered in my ear (though loudly enough to be heard above the noise) each held forty candles! Just think! What with this and the windows, the room was all light and beauty. Thankfully the four grand fireplaces, two set into each of the longer walls, which would also have raised the light levels in the room, were empty, but even so, given the sheer number of people in residence and coupled with the balmy June night, the heat in the room was a very great one indeed.

The number of people I have just mentioned fell into two categories; those seated on and standing by the three tiers of seats placed around the edge of the ballroom, and those who were up and dancing a country dance which I did not immediately recognize, but which might have been Lady Moncrieff’s Reel. The minuets had taken place already, beginning at six, and had then given way to the country dances at eight. Later the music would stop so that the tea, coffee and light refreshments might be served at nine in the large tea room on the other side of the Assembly Rooms. After that, the country dances would resume. By nine o’clock I was certain that the dancers who had arrived at six would be most glad of some refreshment, however light, not to mention the musicians who had been playing all evening.


But then I must mention the musicians! In the balls which I have attended before (the larger ones are those I am referring to rather than the dances among friends which are struck up in the joy of the moment after a dinner) only four musicians have been engaged, as is the custom, and they have played the usual piano, cornet, violin, and violoncello. However, the number of dancers in attendance here is of such a great number; my aunt tells me that there are upwards of five hundred people here on a regular basis, and that there are a dozen musicians playing from the minstrel’s gallery.

“I do not envy them their role,” said my Aunt, turning to me as we watched the couples dance. “Not only do they play here but they are also employed each morning in playing at the Pump Rooms, and then in the evenings they take their turn playing here or at private concerts. Even their afternoons are not their own, for they might then be occupied in playing for a private party at a gentleman’s lodgings, or at one of the large inns. Imagine! I am sure I do not know how they do it!”

“Surely, there are other bands in Bath who might take some of their custom from them and therefore allow them a respite from constant playing?” I said.

“None such as they. They were fully employed to act exclusively as the Bath Orchestra. For that reason, despite their heavy workload, they are not so badly done by; at least they can live safe in the knowledge that they shall be paid and able to pay their rent.”

“I suppose you are right,” I said, and let my attention stray once more to the dancers.

It was as in London, and as my Aunt had said, that the most fashionable dress material was white muslin, and derivations thereof. Lady upon lady clad in white, cream, and ivory whirled about the room, escorted by gentleman in fine silk waistcoats and jet-black tailcoats. White was not the only colour worn by the ladies (there was one peacock blue dress in particular that I had trouble drawing my eyes away from), but it was by far the most popular.

As for the gentlemen, some of the gentlemen I saw had adopted another of the London fashions and sported finely starched cravats that were tied in such complicated styles which travelled so far up their necks that I was surprised that they were able to move their heads. Beau Brummel may be considered the arbiter of men’s fashion, but in my most-humble opinion I do think that he might also be the arbiter of much of their discomfort.

My Aunt and I left the ballroom, vowing to return by and by once we had seen the remainder of the Rooms. Not that they were a revelation to my Aunt, but she is such a kind and considerate woman that she said she could not dream of settling herself until I had been acquainted with the Rooms in their entirety.

The next chamber we entered upon leaving the ballroom was the octagonal card room. Decorated in a deep rich yellow, its centre was taken up with table upon table of gentlemen and ladies, but mainly gentlemen, all playing various card games. I spotted Speculation, Brag and Whist among the games in progress, and also after a short time I spotted my Uncle, happily ensconced at a table in the far right, next to another unlit fireplace (the card room, like the ball room, also had four). He was laughing and talking with many other fine gentlemen, for, prejudiced as I am, there really is no other way to describe my Uncle, whom I did not first recognise.

“I knew we should find him here,” my Aunt said to me with a fond smile in her voice. “It never takes him long to find himself a table. I fear we may have now lost him for the evening. Now my dear, where should you like to see next? I am afraid that we cannot enter the tea room at present, but we might peruse the octagon ante-chamber if you should wish?”

“Is there much to see in the ante-chamber?”

“As much as you might see in any other ante-chamber.”

“In which case,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I should very much like to go and watch some more of the dancing.”

“But of course.”

We wove our way back through the know of people surrounding the card room doors and into the ball room. The reel was still in progress so my Aunt and I scanned the tiers of seats and spotted two seats together in the second row; the front row being already full near to where we were, and navigating to another part of the room while the dance was in motion was not a wise idea. However, before we had moved more than two steps towards our intended destination, we found our way barred by Mr Dawson, the Master of Ceremonies.

“Mrs Denison, Miss Helm, allow me to introduce Mr Thomas Palmer…”

webJenni Waugh Headshot The journal of Eveline Helm’s time in Bath has made its way online thanks to Jenni Waugh, one of our tour guides at the Jane Austen Centre.

She writes: “I couldn’t resist sharing Eveline’s exploits. I hope everyone else finds them as interesting and entertaining as I did!”



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Guinness World Record

We Did It. Jane Austen Guinness World Record regained

Austen_Guinness Record
550 inside Bath’s Assembly Rooms
Adrian Lukis Austen Festival
Actor Adrian Lukis (BBC’s Mr Wickham) and some of his friends

The Jane Austen Festival in Bath, which began this weekend, has reclaimed the title of ‘Largest Gathering of People Dressed in Regency Costumes’.
The Guinness World Record was originally set in 2009 by the festival itself, which is held each September and recognised as the biggest of its kind in the world, when 409 people gathered in the famous Assembly Rooms in the city.
This July, however, that number was surpassed by 491 American Austen festival-goers in Greater Louisville, as part of an event organised by the Jane Austen Society of North America. Although this figure had yet to be officially recognised by Guinness, it was the one the UK Jane Austen Festival had set itself to beat. On Saturday (13 Sept), with 550 men, women and children, all suitably attired in Regency costumes, they did so.
Adrian Lukis, who played George Wickham in the BBC’s celebrated 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, opened proceedings. Adrian was guest of honour, having become the festival’s patron earlier in the year.
The announcement of the new record was made by MC John White.
The record attempt, which took place once again in the famous Assembly Rooms, is just one of the highlights of what organisers are calling the biggest festival yet in the event’s fourteen year history.
After leaving the Assembly Rooms, participants then took part in the Grand Regency Promenade – a spectacular costumed perambulation through the streets of Bath that traditionally marks the opening of the festival – making their way past many of the world heritage site’s most iconic landmarks, such as the Royal Crescent and the Circus.
The rest of the festival programme, which runs between 12th – 21st September, includes more than eighty events, starting with Jo Baker – acclaimed author of Longbourn, soon to be made into a film – and ending ten days later with a performance by the hugely popular and widely acclaimed Austentatious.
In between these two events, there are walks, talks, performances and readings, along with many more events celebrating and reflecting both the famous writer herself – who stayed in the city between 1801 and 1806 – and the period in which she lived.
Other highlights are a series of performances at the Mission Theatre, Corn Street. These include: ‘Austen – a musical’; Pride & Promiscuity!’ performed by New Zealander Penny Ashton as part of a world tour; and a unique version of ‘Northanger Abbey’ by the Box Tale Soup Theatre Company.
This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s most contentious book – Mansfield Park – and this is celebrated by the reading of the entire text over the course of eight days at Bath Central library, a talk and discussion by Professor John Mullan and a rare outing for ‘Lover’s Vows’, the controversial play that appears within the book.
The final weekend of the festival will include a Regency Costumed Masked Ball (Sept 19) which will be held in another iconic Bath building, the Pump Rooms.
Jackie Herring, director of the Jane Austen Festival said: “It is absolutely marvelous we have reclaimed the record with 550 people and such a wonderful round figure, as well. It was touch and go for a while but then we had a rush at the end. It a fantastic way to start the festival and bring the record back to the city Jane Austen called home for several years of her life.”


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Rolinda Sharples: Painter of the Everyday

Rolinda Sharples (1793–1838), was an English painter who specialized in portraits and genre paintings in oil. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, and at the Society of British Artists, where she became an honorary member.

Rolinda Sharples was born into a family of artists headed by James Sharples, her father, and Ellen Sharples, her mother. Rolinda’s three brothers also pursued careers in art. They were: George, from her father’s first marriage; Felix, from his second marriage; and James Jr., who was Rolinda’s full brother and son to Ellen, James’s third wife. She was only an infant when her parents moved to America in 1794. In 1803, Rolinda’s mother, a miniature portrait painter, began to encourage her daughter to take an interest in the profession. She taught Rolinda drawing, paying her small sums of money to encourage her. By the time Rolinda was 13 years old, the teenager had joined the family business, which consisted of creating small scale pastel portraits of famous people and copying them and selling them for a profit. Along with her two brothers and mother, she began copying miniature portraits from her father’s original paintings.

After her father’s death in New York in 1811, Rolinda returned to Bristol with her mother and brother. She branched out from painting small portraits, earning her living painting portraits in oil, and more ambitious genre and contemporary history paintings that depicted groups of people. During this time, her mother Ellen’s diaries shifted their focus to Rolinda’s progress as an artist. In 1812, Ellen wrote of her daughter: “Rolinda commenced oil painting on the 21, & has since applied with great ardour, continuing other studies, & having lessons in music, practising &c.” Soon thereafter in 1813, Ellen notes that she “sat for my picture to Rolinda in oil colours as large as life, kit kat size, the first portrait she painted in oil.” Rolinda painted her mother several times. At the end of 1813, she painted a large as life portrait, having, as her mother observed, “much improved in painting and become discontented with the portrait executed in Jan. 7.” In 1814, Rolinda painted a self-portrait, and in 1815 she completed a double portrait entitled The Artist and Her Mother, which can be seen on this page.

The Rownham Ferry

Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1827. Rolinda was one of the first female British artists to tackle multi-figure compositions. Her group paintings were as meticulous in detail as the small portraits she once painted, and today her scenes of Regency Bristol are considered to be accurate social records of the period. Her major paintings include The Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms; Racing on the Downs; Rownham Ferry with Portraits; The Stoppage of the Bank; and The Trial of Colonel Brereton after the Bristol Riots of 1831. Rolinda also painted smaller, more intimate studies from nature – of shells, or of a little mouse – which she exhibited.

Rolinda’s paintings were included in exhibitions in Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham, and Carlisle, and with the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists in London. For the last eight years of her life she lived with her mother in Hotwells, and died of breast cancer in 1838. Many of her paintings are now in the Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.

Cloak-Room at the Clifton Assembly Rooms, 1817
Cloak-Room at the Clifton Assembly Rooms, 1817

This painting, which resides in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, has become one of Rolinda’s most recognizable images for fans of Jane Austen and the British Regency. The image has been used for numerous books, most notably A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil, Jane Austen’s World, by Maggie Lane, and High Society, by Venetia Murray. One reason for its popular use might be that only a few Georgian paintings exist today that depict assemblies in progress, with people dancing or moving around. Rolinda’s painting shows a group in the cloakroom preparing for the evening. In an interesting aside, the Clifton Assembly rooms still survive to this day.

Additional works by Ms. Sharples can be found

The text of this piece is quoted from Wikipedia.

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Richard “Beau” Nash: The Original Beau

Beau Nash

Richard “Beau” Nash: The Original Beau

That the elder ladies and children be contented with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.
–Rule VIII of Nash’s Rules by General Consent Determined


Richard ‘Beau’ Nash was born in 1674 in Swansea, Wales. His father, also Richard, was a partner in a glass-making factory. I could find nothing about siblings so he may have been an only child. Little is known about the young Richard except that he was reputed to have ‘a natural vivacity’.

At twelve he was sent to the Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth in Carnarthen 20 miles north of Swansea where he distinguished himself as an athlete, particularly it seems at both forward and backward standing jumps.

From the Grammar School he went to Jesus College, Oxford, to read Law. He did not shine at his studies and was sent down some time later for becoming embroiled with too many women, probably of the wrong sort. With the financial backing of his father he then became an ensign in the Guards but soon found both the obligations of the Army and the lack of ready money a problem. He persuaded his father to let him revert to the study of Law, this time at the Inner Temple in London.

Nash was a dandy from a young age, sporting a velvet coat, ruffles, diamond buckles and a diamond brooch, and soon became aware that he possessed a certain style and manner which attracted people to him. He was not well off but supplemented his income by gambling, at which he appears to have been extraordinarily successful. He was by now a well-known young man-about-town and was welcomed into society.

Nash gradually lost interest in the Law and in 1705 decided to try his luck in Bath, which was just beginning to become popular as a health spa. He became acquainted with the then Master of Ceremonies, Captain Webster, and was soon appointed his assistant. Shortly afterwards the unfortunate Captain was killed in a sword-fighting duel and Nash, still in his early thirties, found himself elected by the Corporation of Bath as the new Master of Ceremonies. Because of the recent disaster Nash began his term by abolishing the wearing of swords and, ipso facto, the abandonment of duelling came about. He next insisted that all lodging houses, most of which were damp and dilapidated, must be renovated and he himself fixed a tariff for every room.

In 1708 Nash arranged for an Assembly House to be built and levied a subscription on all visitors to Bath. As Maggie Lane told us, he forbade all private parties (what power!) but invited everyone to the Assembly House for dinners, teas, breakfast concerts and balls. On the orders of the resident doctor who was concerned for the health of those who had come ‘to take the waters’, and with the concurrence of Nash, all balls began at 6pm and finished precisely at eleven.

A list of rules was drawn up and deportment at dances was strictly regulated. Nash even forbade ‘exhibitions of resentment from either gentlemen or ladies, (who displayed it) on the grounds that someone had danced out of turn.’ He ridiculed, and so made unfashionable, the wearing of boots in the Assembly House and let it be known that swearing was out of order.

Most things in Bath seem to have cost a great deal of money, e.g. a crown for pen and paper to write a letter and up to a guinea to borrow books from the bookseller. Amazingly enough there was no revolt against either the restrictions or the charges and it is reported that guests were pleased to obey.

Just prior to 1720 Nash arranged for a large ballroom to be added to the Assembly House. Later on he was involved in the encouragement and employment of architect John Wood who is famous for his wonderful Bath buildings. This was the beginning of the expansion of Bath as many more visitors, including artists and writers, members of the aristocracy and later royalty, started to arrive. It is of interest that Nash was famous enough to rate a mention in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the chapter called ‘The History of Mrs Fitzpatrick’. His name can also be come across in Georgette Heyer’s novels.

During the period 1720 to the 1740s Beau Nash lead a busy life. As well as other duties he organised the recreations of the day, arranged for the ringing of bells to announce the arrival of distinguished guests to Bath, visited the new arrivals to pay his respects, arbitrated differences between neighbours or visitors and solicited subscriptions for his latest plan, a hospital. In 1735 he was also installed as Master of Ceremonies at Tunbridge Wells where he enforced similar rules to those at Bath.

Nash was a prodigious gambler but went to a great deal of trouble to prevent others less experienced than he from losing all their money. He had long been a dandy and an arbiter of fashion, and it was said that his well-known white hat was awarded more respect than many a general. There is a lovely quote from Lord Chesterfield describing the Beau at a ball:

He wore his gold-laced clothes on the occasion, and looked so fine that, standing by chance in the middle of the dancers, he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland.

Although an earlier law against gambling had been enacted, Nash and his fellow players, male and female, had managed to get around this by various means including the invention of new games. However in 1745 the anti-gambling law was tightened. Although the popularity of Bath continued this was a great drawback to Nash, not only because of being a successful gambler on his own account, but because he had awarded himself as Master of Ceremonies a percentage of all winnings. From this time on his fortunes and his influence gradually declined. He had been the epitome of the benevolent dictator, an imperious rule-maker who nevertheless showed great generosity to those who had come across hard times. He now found himself in the same predicament, and had to sell most of his possessions to survive. He died in straitened circumstances in 1762, aged 87.

Beau Nash never married but had a relationship of many years standing with one Fanny Murray. After she left him he took up with Juliana Papjoy who was his companion and who cared for him until his death.

The name of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash is intricately entwined with that of Bath and it could be said that the city itself is his monument. It seems to me that here was a man who was able to use his talents in a way that suited him and who more than many of us, truly found his niche in life.


This article, wriiten by Halcyon Evans, was copied by permission of The Jane Austen Society of Australia. It first appeared in their December 2000 newsletter. To learn more about this organization, visit their website: Notes taken from Beau Nash: Monarch of Bath and Tunbridge Wells, by Willard Connely; 1955.

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The Upper Rooms

Bath’s famous Assembly Rooms, known to Austen readers as the Upper Rooms (the much older “Lower Rooms” burned to the ground in 1820 and were not rebuilt) opened in 1771, only a few years before Jane Austen’s birth. Here, as in the Lower Rooms, the fashionable of Bath came to see and be seen, attend balls, concerts and small theatrical events. Assemblies held here provided a public ball with dancing, dining and cards and flirtations galore for all who cared to purchase a ticket.

The official website for the rooms explains, “Bath’s magnificent 18th century Assembly Rooms were opened in 1771. Known as the New or Upper Rooms (to distinguish them from the older Assembly Rooms in the lower part of the town) they were designed by John Wood the Younger, the leading architect in the West Country.

There are four rooms: the Ballroom; the Tea or Concert Room; the Octagon Room (linking all the rooms), and a Card Room. The Ballroom is the largest 18th century room in Bath. Dancing was very popular and balls were held at least twice a week, attracting 800 to 1,200 guests at a time. The high ceiling provided good ventilation on crowded ball nights and windows set at a high level prevented outsiders from looking in.

The Tea Room was used for both refreshments and concerts in the 18th century (and was sometimes known as the Concert Room).During the evening entertainments there was an interval for tea, the cost being included in the price of a ball ticket. On Sundays there were public teas when admission cost sixpence per person.

The Ballroom and Tea Room are linked by the Octagon Room which was originally intended as a circulating space which could also be used for music and playing cards. On Sundays, when cards were not allowed, visitors could listen to the organ, which once stood in the musician’s gallery. Anew Card Room was added in 1777 but the architect is not known.

The Octagon Room is dominated by Gainsborough’s portrait of the first Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms, Captain William Wade. Bath’s most famous Master of Ceremonies, Richard “Beau” Nash, never knew this building as he died in 1761.”

Today, the Assembly Room is owned by the National Trust and open for visitors. The basement houses Bath’s exquisite costume collection, featuring original items from a variety of time periods.

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Almack’s Assembly Rooms

Assembly Rooms

Almack’s Assembly Rooms

All on the magic list depends
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends;
‘Tis that which gratifies or vexes
All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.
If once to Almack’s you belong,
Like monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove, you can do nothing right.
Henry Luttrell, Irish poet and wit (1766-1851)

Regency Chronicler, Captain Gronow writes, “one can hardly conceive the importance which was attached to getting admission to ‘Almack’s,’ the seventh heaven of the fashionable world. Of the three hundred officers of the Foot Guards, not more than half a dozen were honoured with vouchers of admission to this exclusive temple of the beau monde, the gates of which were guarded by lady patronesses, whose smiles or frowns consigned men and women to happiness or despair as the case might be. These ‘lady patronesses,’ in 1813, were the Ladies Castlereagh, Jersey, Cowper, and Sefton. Mrs. Drummond Burrel, afterwards Lady Willoughby d’Eresby, the Princess Esterhazy, and the Princess Lieven.”

“The most popular amongst these ‘grandes dames,’” he adds, “was Lady Cowper, now Lady Palmerston. Lady Jersey’s bearing, on the contrary, was that of a theatrical tragedy queen; and whilst attempting the sublime, she frequently made herself simply ridiculous, being inconceivably rude, and in her manner often ill-bred. Lady Sefton was kind and amiable, Madame de Lieven haughty and exclusive, Princess Esterhazy was a bon enfant, Lady Castlereagh and Mrs. Burrell de très grandes dames.”

“Many diplomatic arts, much finesse, and a host of intrigues, were set in motion to get an invitation to ‘Almack’s.’ Very often persons whose rank and fortunes entitled them to the entrée anywhere, were excluded by the cliquism of the lady patronesses; for the female government of ‘Almack’s’ was pure despotism, and subject to all the caprices of despotic rule: it is needless to add that, like every other despotism, it was not innocent of abuses. The fair ladies who ruled supreme over this little dancing and gossiping world, issued a solemn proclamation that no gentleman should appear at the assemblies without being dressed in knee-breeches, white cravat, and chapeau bras. On one occasion, the Duke of Wellington was about to ascend the staircase of the ball-room, dressed in black trousers, when the vigilant Mr. Willis, the guardian of the establishment, stepped forward and said, ‘Your Grace cannot be admitted in trousers;’ whereupon the Duke, who had a great respect for orders and regulations, quietly walked away.”

“In 1814, the dances at ‘Almack’s’ were Scotch reels and the old English country dance; and the orchestra, being from Edinburgh, was conducted by the then celebrated Neil Gow. It was not until 1815 that Lady Jersey introduced from Paris the favourite quadrille, which has so long remained popular. I recollect the persons who formed the first quadrille that was ever danced at ‘Almack’s:’ they were Lady Jersey, Lady Harriet Butler, Lady Susan Ryder, and Miss Montgomery; the men being the Count St. Aldegonde, Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Montague, and Charles Standish. The ‘mazy waltz’ was also brought to us about this time; but there were comparatively few who at first ventured to whirl round the salons of ‘Almack’s;’ in course of time Lord Palmerston might, however, have been describing an infinite number of circles with Madame de Lieven. Baron de Neumann was frequently seen perpetually turning with the Princess Esterhazy; and, in course of time, the waltzing mania, having turned the heads of society generally, descended to their feet, and the waltz was practised in the morning in certain noble mansions in London with unparalleled assiduity.” *

Almack’s Assembly Rooms was one of the first clubs in London that welcomed both men and women. It was one of a limited number of upper class mixed-sex public social venues in the British capital in an era when the most important venues for the hectic social season were the grand houses of the aristocracy.

Almack’s opened in King Street, St. James, in London, on 20 February 1765. Traditionally, it is said to have been established by William Macall who, to avoid the onus of a Scottish name, then considered foreign and uncouth, reversed the syllables. (His Almack’s Coffee House, opened at the same time, was bought in 1774 to become the gentlemen’s club, Brooks’s.) However, Chancellor points out that Almack is as legitimate and common a name as Macall, and may easily have been the man’s actual family name.

Some confusion arises from attempting to assign to one time the varying characteristics of almost a century of existence.

Almack’s Assembly Rooms first opened in purposeful rivalry to Mrs. Cornelys’ establishment, whose masqued balls were becoming notorious. At first it was described as a “female Brook’s”–that is, a gambling club to which women were admitted, though it was always unisex. A unique characteristic of this phase of Almack’s was that male members proposed and elected the female members, and women proposed and elected the male members. At this time, like Almack’s other establishments, it was meant to make money as what we would call a casino. It was, like any male club, open any night, and gambling is all that went on, besides a little supper served by Mr. and Mrs. Almack, the latter of whom poured tea in a fashionable sack gown.

As Horace Walpole wrote in 1770, “There is a new Institution that begins to make, and if it proceeds will make, considerable noise. It is a club of both sexes to be erected at Almack’s, on the model of that of the men at White’s. Mrs Fitzroy, Lady Pembroke, Mrs Meynell, Lady Molyneux, Miss Pelham and Miss Lloyd are the foundresses. I am ashamed to say I am of so young and fashionable society; but as they are people I live with, I choose to be idle rather than morose. I can go to a young supper without forgetting how much sand is run out of the hour-glass.”

This first phase of Almack’s suffered from competition from The Pantheon or “Winter Ranelagh” from 1772 until it burned down twenty years later. Play seems to have fallen off, as Almack’s entered its second phase some time after 1800.

Now Almack’s Assembly Rooms became governed by a select committee of the most influential and exclusive ladies of the ton, known as the Lady Patronesses of Almacks. At different periods in the club’s long history, there were six or seven of them.

In 1814, they were:

  • Anne Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, better known as Viscountess of Castlereagh.
  • Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey (not the Regent’s old mistress, but her daughter-in-law)
  • Emily, Lady Cowper (later married Lord Palmerston)
  • Lady Sefton
  • Mrs. Drummond Burrel (whose husband, a notable dandy, became Baron Gwydyr after 1816, and Lord Willoughby de Eresby after 1828)
  • Countess de Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador, raised to princely rank only after leaving England)
  • Countess Esterhazy (wife of the Austrian ambassador; again, raised to a princedom afterward)

These “fair arbiters” created a temple of exclusivism for the balls held on Wednesday nights (the only activity of the club) by allowing only those of whom they approved to buy the non-transferrable annual vouchers, costing ten guineas (a guinea being a bit more than a pound sterling). Holding that voucher became the difference between society and Society. To not have it might mean simply that one had not applied. To lose one’s voucher, though, meant that one had been tried and found wanting, a social disaster for those dedicated to their place in the ton.

The Lady Patronesses met every Monday night during the London social season (approximately April to August) to decide who, if anyone, might need to be removed for recent déclassé behavior, and whom they might wish to add to the august membership. Their reign lasted until 1824 or so when exclusivity and strictness of rules both dropped off.

Money was never a key to being a member of Almack’s. It existed to exclude the nouveau riche, the mushroom “cits” of England. Title was a recommendation, though breeding and behavior were more important. Only about three-quarters of the hereditary nobility passed muster. Yet a penniless Irish poet like Thomas Moore could be adjudged to have the right address, the right style, the right ton, to make him a valued member.

To avoid any suggestion of impropriety, dances were limited to the country dances or contredanses, at that time danced with a good deal of energy. (Think Scotch reel or Virginia reel, as opposed to the now-passé court minuets.) This changed some time after the declaration of the Regency, when first the quadrille and then the lively waltz (rather more what we think of as a polka) were introduced. According to Raikes, these were first danced at Almacks in 1813, to Gronow in 1815, and to Dancing in the Badminton Library, 1816. In any case, the introduction of the quadrille is strongly associated with Lady Jersey, and the waltz definitely linked to Lady de Lieven.[6]

The club took pains not to resemble the expensive private balls by avoiding sumptuous repasts. Refreshments in the supper rooms, described by various authors who were never there as shriveled and stale, in fact consisted of thinly-sliced bread (which has to be a day old to be sliced that thin) with fresh butter, and dry cake (dry meaning unfrosted, without icing, not stale), probably what we know as pound cake. To avoid the drunkenness rampant in society, where many noblemen prided themselves on drinking four or five bottles of port a day, they served only tea and lemonade in the supper rooms.

People came to Almack’s to see and be seen, to assert their claim to being of the highest social rank, and to network with others of the caste. Secondarily, for gentlemen seeking brides of suitable ton, it served as one of the marriage marts of Society. By 1790, being a debutante, one presented at court, carried very little weight, as the King’s court was considered rather fusty. Instead, mothers sought éclat for a daughter newly presented to society by wangling vouchers at Almack’s.

Besides the dancing rooms and the supper rooms, some historians say the later Almack’s also provided gaming rooms for those who preferred cards to dancing. In 1871, the new owner of the Assembly Rooms renamed them in his own honour as Willis’s Rooms. A high-rise office building now bears a brass plaque commemorating the existence of Almack’s on that spot.

Almack’s, in its heyday, might appear or be mentioned in any of the “silver fork novels of the time. These notably included Almack’s by Marianne Spencer Hudson (1827) and Almack’s Revisited by Charles White (1828). Almack’s and its patronesses also appear frequently in the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer (e.g. Friday’s Child) and many other authors of the genre.

*From Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, courtesy of Prints George. Rees Howell Gronow (1794-1865), “Captain Gronow”, was a Welsh Grenadier Guards officer, an unsuccessful parliamentarian, a dandy and a writer of celebrated reminiscences.

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