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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