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Lower Assembly Rooms, Bath

Lower Assembly Rooms, Bath

Dear reader, If you will recall in last week’s post about the Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath, poor Catherine Morland had to sit out the dance, having made no acquaintance with any gentleman. Luck was on her side later in the week when she and Mrs. Allen visited the Lower Rooms:

They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. There was little leisure for speaking while they danced; but when they were seated at tea, she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being. He talked with fluency and spirit – and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her. After chatting some time on such matters as naturally arose from the objects around them, he suddenly addressed her with – “I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent – but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.” – Chapter 3, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

South Parade, Thomas malton, 1775

South Parade, Thomas Malton, 1775

The lower rooms, built in 1708, were Located on Terrace Walk near beautiful South Parade off the banks of the Avon River. James King, the Master of Ceremonies who introduced Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, was an historic figure who actually performed as Master of Ceremonies in the lower rooms from 1785 to 1805. He then became M.C. of the upper rooms, which had recently been built in the newer more fashionable neighborhood uptown near The Circus. The Lower Assembly rooms sat in the older city center lower down, hence the distinction between upper and lower rooms.

The lower rooms were used during the day for promenading and visiting and at night for dancing. Beautiful stone walks and terraces surrounded the building, which encouraged people to gather to see and be seen, and dawdle away a few pleasant hours.

Lower Assembly Rooms at Terrace Walk, Benjamin Morris

Lower Assembly Rooms (right) at Terrace Walk (With Bath Abbey in the distance), Benjamin Morris, late 18th century.

As with my previous posts about Bath in conjuntion with Austenprose’s celebration of Northanger Abbey, I shall feature a series of quotes from original sources that will help to illuminate what Bath, its people, and the Lower Rooms were like during the latter part of the 18th century.

The role of Master of Ceremonies was narrowly defined. He presided over social functions, welcomed newcomers, and enforced an official code of regulations designed to preserve decorum and promote social interaction. For this treason, the Master of Ceremonies was often referred to as the “King,” because his social authority within the city of Bath was regarded as absolute.” Psychosocial Spaces: Verbal and Visual Readings of British Culture, 1750-1820, Steven J. Gores, p 71

Walks and Old Assembly Room, 19th c. copy of an 18th c. painting

Walks and Old Assembly Room, 19th c. copy of a painting

The above image from the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath shows the beautiful Terrace Walk made of bath stone around the lower rooms and the shops that faced the walk. Wiltshire’s Assembly Rooms, the building on the left with the three arched windows, did not survive competition with the Upper Assembly and was demolished.

Constance Hill, Jane Austen’s 19th Century biographer, provides a vivid description of the Lower Rooms in this passage:

Beau Nash in Bath

Beau Nash in Bath

It was at a ball in the Lower Rooms, we remember, that Henry Tilney was first introduced to Catherine Morland, and that when he was “treating his partner to tea,” he laughingly accused her of keeping a journal in which he feared he should make but a poor figure. “Shall I tell you,” he asks, “what you ought to say? I danced with a very agreeable young man introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him; seems a most extraordinary genius.” This Mr. King was, it seems, a real personage. He was Master of the Ceremonies at the Lower Rooms, from the year 1785 to 1805, when he became Master of the Ceremonies for the Upper Rooms. A code of rules compiled by him was used for about thirty years. One of these rules, originally laid down by Beau Nash, forbade gentlemen to wear boots in the rooms of an evening. It is said that when a country squire once attempted to defy [Page 114] this rule, in the days of the King of Bath, Beau Nash asked him why he had not brought his horse into the ball-room, “since the four-footed beast was as well shod as his master.”

The ball-room was used during the daytime as a promenade, for which it was well suited from its size and pleasant situation; its windows commanding extensive views of the Avon winding amidst green meadows and flanked by wooded hills. The accompanying reproduction of an old print taken from a design for a fan, shows the ball-room when used for this purpose. It was the fashion also for the company to invite each other to partake of breakfast at the Lower Rooms after taking their early baths or first glass of water.

It was in the year 1820 that these old Assembly Rooms were burnt to the ground. They had been founded by the great Beau Nash himself, and had flourished for more than a hundred years. Jane Austen:Her Homes and Her Friends, Constance Hill

The Lower Rooms, Bath, from an old print of a fan design

The Lower Rooms, Bath, from an old print of a fan design

The dances called out by the Master of Ceremonies would have been those that were popular during the period, such as the one shown in this YouTube Clip of a dance scene with Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in the 2007 ITV NA adaptation. Dress balls were offered every Friday in the Lower Rooms, when the Upper Rooms were closed; Fancy balls were scheduled every Tuesday. One of Nash’s edicts, which was still enforced during Jane Austen’s day, was that dancing was to “begin as soon as possible after six o’clock, and finish precisely at eleven, even in the middle of a dance.” (Lane, p 77.)

The dances that were popular at the beginning of the 19th century were those that had been popular at the end of the 18th century; the Minuet, Cotillions, and Country Dances. With the arrival of the waltz in the teens, we see the beginning of the modern ballroom era. Until this time social dances done by couples were done with limited physical contact; the gentleman and lady barely touched hands. The waltz however was done with a couple in a close embrace, the gentleman’s hand around the lady’s waist as they continually spun around the ballroom together. This intimate “waltz position” was initially shocking to a society where close physical contact with a member of the opposite sex, especially in public, was nothing short of scandalous. – From “Elements of the Art of Dancing”, Alexander Strathy, 1822

Bath’s glittering social whirl changed rapidly towards the end of the 18th Century at a time when the cost of the war ground Bath’s expansion to a halt. This Georgian guidebookdescribes Bath at the height of its glory:

No place in England, in a full season, affords so brilliant a circle of polite company as Bath. The young, the old, the grave, the gay, the infirm, and the healthy, all resort to this place of amusement. Ceremony beyond the essential rules of politeness is totally exploded; every one mixes in the Rooms upon an equality; and the entertainments are so widely regulated, that although there is never a cessation of them, neither is there a lassitude from bad hours, or from an excess of dissipation. The constant rambling about of the younger part of the company is very enlivening and cheerful. In the morning the rendezvous is at the Pump-Room;–from that time ’till noon in walking on the Parades, or in the different quarters of the town, visiting the shops, etc;–thence to the Pump-Room again, and after a fresh strole, to dinner; and from dinner to the Theatre (which is celebrated for an excellent company of comedians) or the Rooms, where dancing, or the card-table, concludes the evening. – (Christopher Anstey, The New Bath Guide, or, Useful Pocket Companion, 1799)

Detail of a map of Bath, c. 1800

Detail of a map of Bath, c. 1800

In the above map detail, you can see the position of the lower rooms in relation to the upper rooms. As the new century progressed, the middle classes, invalids, and people seeking to retire began to replace the aristocrats who had lent such glitter to the social whirl. Sir Walter Elliot, if you recall, chose to remove his household to Bath where he could still lord it over others as a man of consequence. As an impoverished and lesser peer in London, he would have led a life of relative obscurity, which his enormous ego could not abide. The social changes in Bath, along with new anti-gambling laws and the death of Beau Nash, led to the city’s decline in social caché.

Physical expansion came to an abrupt halt in 1793 with the financial crisis brought on by the war with France. This led directly to several schemes going unfinished, most notably perhaps Great Pulteney Street, the suburbs of which were never built, leaving the main street in relative isolation. When stability returned in the 1820s, building energy was channelled into the newly popular semi-detached villas. The population continued to grow quickly and Bath’s reputation became that of a quiet refined resort, in architecturally excellent surroundings. City of Bath World Heritage Management Plan

Due to Beau Nash’s edicts as social arbiter, Bath was known for its egalitarianism, where classes from the various social orders could mix and mingle. The ambitious Thorpes were particularly aware of this fact, and Isabella and John kept their eyes out for the most likely prospects. Not everyone thought that gentry rubbing shoulders with tradesmen was such a good idea. Matthew Bramble, a late 19th century poet, wrote archly:

Distinction of rank, in a moment is gone,
And all eager for tea, in one mass, now move on;
And Mistress O’Darby the dealer in butter,
Now sweats by the side of the sweet lady Flutter,
Who would certainly faint, but her senses so nice,
Are supported by smelling fat Alderman Spice.”

Miles Breen as James King, Master of Ceremonies in 2007 Northanger Abbey

Miles Breen as James King, Master of Ceremonies in 2007 Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen mentioned James King as Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Assembly Rooms, which forcibly reminds us that Northanger Abbey , while written in 1798 or 1799 (according to Cassandra), was not published until after her death. For full details, read my post: The Long Publishing Journey of Northanger Abbey. In the passage below, noted Jane Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye points out the changes in Bath between the time when the novel was written and when it was eventually published:

Apart from these two additions, it is clear from the tone of the text that it still dates to the turn of the century. By 1816 ladies had ceased to pile their hair up into huge powdered ‘heads’, muslins were no longer a novelty fabric worthy of discussion, and the Bath assembly rooms were no longer quite so smart – the city had become less of a fashionable holiday resort and marriage-mart, and more of a residential retreat for invalids, elderly spinsters and widows, bachelors and widowers, the atmosphere which Austen creates in Persuasion. James King had retired as Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Rooms in 1805, and it would have been easy enough for Austen to change this name if she were attempting to update the story. Likewise, she mentions ‘Union-passage’ in the centre of Bath, but does not mention the larger Union Street, which opened in 1807. In any case, the novel’s structure could not easily have accommodated any large-scale revisions; Austen pins both her plot and her characters so tightly to parodies of the conduct novel and the gothic romance that to change any of this would require substantial rewriting. It can therefore be assumed that the text as we now have it is substantially as it was in 1803. Northanger Abbey the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, Jane Austen, Deirdre le Faye, excerpt

During the 18th Century, both the Lower and Upper Assembly rooms were able to attract enough visitors to keep profits healthy for each establishment, but the Lower Assembly rooms were small in comparison to the larger more modern Upper Rooms and situated in an inconvenient part of town. With time they fell into disuse. The competition between the two assembly rooms was not as harmonious as one first supposes. When the Upper Rooms were built, there was an attempt by the Master of Ceremonies who replaced Beau Nash, Captain William Wade, to preserve the order of things and to divide the competing markets. However, the builders of the new assembly rooms saw no need to adhere to an arbitrary set of rules, and they placed the following notice in the Bath Chronicle:

Captain William Wade, Gainsborough

Captain William Wade by Thomas Gainsborough, 1771

They (the Proprietors) beg leave to declare, that as they cannot think it reasonable that they should submit the management of their property and servants to any set of men, much less can they be willing to submit the control of them to an individual. They always have been, and still are willing to allow, to a Master of Ceremonies, every power and authority requisite to preserve and promote order, decorum and regularity at the public amusements held at their rooms; but they must ever think it necessary to determine for themselves, what use shall be made of their property, and what servants shall take care of it. (Bath, 1680-1850, p. 222)

The proprietors of the new assembly rooms then declared that their rooms would be open every evening except Fridays and alternate Sundays. They also announced that a ball would be held every Monday and a concert every Thursday. The small old-fashioned lower rooms simply could not compete. When they burned to the ground in 1820 they were not replaced, and today only a remnant of their former glory remains.

Remains of the lower rooms

Remains of the lower rooms

The Old Assembly Rooms, the scene of Beau Nash’s glory, erected in the half of the last century, were destroyed by fire in 1820, excepting the portico and exterior walls, which now form a part of the Literary Institution. Nash was master of the nearly 50 years from 1710 to 1760. Handbook for Travellers in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, and Somersetshire, By Edmund Venables, John Murray (Firm), W E Flaherty, 1869.

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