Friday, 16 October 2015

Rules for attending public balls in the first decade of the nineteenth century

In his book “An Analysis of Country Dancing” published in 1808 the London dancing master Thomas Wilson gives the following advice to those attending their first public assembly:

“The regulations of some well known assemblies are already before the public. As the Bath Guide contains the rules and etiquette of their balls, which for public balls are perhaps the genteelest and best conducted of any in England, I have in the following lines given only such general hints as ought to be observed in all assemblies whether public or private.

Every Lady on entering the ball room must be presented by the Master of the Ceremonies with a ticket, on which is inscribe the number of her call (except Ladies of title, who claim their precedence according to their rank or seniority), which she should pin in a conspicuous place, to prevent any confusion or misunderstanding respecting places."

By the 'number of her call' Wilson means her place in the set for the country dances so she would stand below ladies with a lower number but above ladies with a higher number. Gentlemen dancing together would always go the bottom. These rules in part reflect Georgian concern with social rank but were mainly introduce to avoid the disorder that otherwise broke out as people lower down the set fought for spaces or tried to intrude their friends.

"Any Lady or Gentleman wishing to dance a Minuet must, as soon as they enter the room, make known their intentions to the Master of the Ceremonies."

This is because the Master of the Ceremonies played a crucial role in managing the dancing of minuets. The minuet was a couple’s dance where one couple danced at a time before an admiring or more often critical company. After the first couple had danced the man retired and the Master of the Ceremonies would bring the woman a second partner. The minuets continued until all the ladies who had stood up for them had danced with two men. The succession of dancers was governed by strict rules of precedence arbitrated by the Master of the Ceremonies.

"No Gentlemen must enter the ball room with whole or half boots on, or with canes or sticks in their hands; nor are any pantaloons considered a proper dress for the assembly room."

"When Country Dancing has commenced, and the top couple have gone down three couple, the next couple must go off."

Unlike modern practice, the dances were called and danced by the top couple and the rest of the set waited for them to arrive before they started. While modern dancers might find such a way of operating rather tedious with long waits before dancing for contemporary young people it must have afforded a welcome and rare opportunity to talk and flirt. It is possibly also worth pointing out for those used to modern practice that both three and two couple dances were danced in continuous long sets, modern callers break up three couple sets to avoid the 2nd and 3rd couples having to cope with constantly changing their numbering.

"When every couple have gone down the dance, and the couple who called it have regained the top and gone down three couple, the dance is finished; for the next dance they stand at the bottom.
Number 2 calls the second dance, and so regularly on through the company”

Wilson refers to the rules of the Bath assemblies at this time which can be found in the Bath Guide of 1803.

For the Upper Rooms:

"The following are the rules and regulations entered into by the subscribers of the Dress Balls:

That the power of direction and control relative to the public amusements in the rooms, is in the subscribers to the Dress Balls, and them only.

That the weekly publick [sic] amusements in these Rooms, during the season be as follows:

Monday night ………………………………………..Dress Ball
Tuesday night ………………………………………..Card Assembly
Wednesday night……………………………………..Concert
Thursday night………………………………………. Fancy Ball"

Fancy Balls were, in Georgian terms, much more relaxed occasions Ladies could appear in hats or make any other elegant fashion statement they pleased, short of actual fancy dress costumes. Fancy balls started with a country dance, after which there was one Cotillion only, and then tea – after tea, a country dance, one Cotillion only and the evening ended with more country dances, and the Long Minuet famously illustrated by Henry William Bunbury.

"N.B. The Rooms to be open every day, Sunday excepted, for cards, and every other Sunday evening for a promenade.

The subscription of one guinea to the Dress Ball shall entitle such subscribers to admission every ball night, and also to two tickets transferable to ladies only.

That a subscription of half a guinea to the Dress Balls shall entitle such subscriber to one ticket each night not transferable. Young ladies and gentlemen at their school vacation will be admitted when introduced by a subscriber.

That a subscription of half a guinea to the Fancy Ball shall entitle such subscriber to one ticket every ball night; this ticket not transferable."

It is always difficult to attribute modern day equivalents to historic prices but in this context, a guinea would approximately equate to spending £1300 today.

"That the dress and fancy balls shall begin as soon as possible after seven o’clock, and conclude precisely at eleven, even in, the middle of a dance."

These timings are derived from the contract with the musicians.

"That in future every person, on admission to these rooms on dress and fancy ball nights, shall pay 6d for tea"

6d equates to about £30 today.

"That a reasonable time be allowed between the minuets and the country dances, for Ladies of precedence to take their places; and that those who shall stand up after the dance is begun, must take their place for that dance at the bottom.

That no lady do permit another to come in above her, after she takes her place in the set.
That ladies who intend dancing minuets do wear lappets; and it is requested that the rest of their dress be as conformable as possible to this distinction, regard being had to the prevailing fashion of the times. It is also hoped that the gentlemen will accommodate their dress to the ladies."

By this date, there was increasing resistance to conforming  to a dress code based on the formal court dress of many decades ago in an age of muslin and empire lines,

Ball Gown circa 1805

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

That the gentleman’s annual subscription for the use of the coffee and card room be one guinea; for two months half a guinea.

That the ladies subscription for the use of the room every Tuesday evening during the season for a card assembly be 5s.

That no gentleman in boots or half boots be admitted into any of these rooms on ball nights, public card or concert nights.

That no person be admitted into any of these rooms on dress ball nights without a ticket; but no ticket of admission to the card-room be required on fancy ball nights from such persons as subscribe to the walking subscription."

The walking subscription entitled you to promenade inside the rooms where you could be assured that you would only meet other members of fashionable society.

"That non subscribers be admitted to the promenades on Sunday evening: gentlemen paying one shilling and ladies six pence, tea included.

That the renters of these rooms having agreed with the subscribers to furnish twenty six dress balls on the guinea subscription and thirty fancy balls on the half guinea subscription, no annual account of the expenditure be required of them.

That the musical band of these rooms do consist of twelve performers, including an harp, tabor, and pipe; each performer to be allowed a sum not exceeding half a guinea on each ball night for his attendance, which money is to be taken from the subscription of the respective balls.

That the musical band at the Pump Room, in lieu of a former establishment; viz five guineas a week paid by each room taken from the subscription to the dress balls be allowed:

From the corporation ------------------------------------ 50l
From the Upper Rooms---------------------------------- 50l
From the Lower Rooms---------------------------------- 30l

Each party on rotation to let the band have the use of a room for an annual concert, gratis

That no persons be permitted to play with cards left by another party.

That no hazard, or unlawful game of any sort, be allowed in these rooms on any account whatever, nor any cards on Sunday."

Hazard was a dice based gambling game from which the modern casino game craps may have evolved

"That all future orders and regulations agreed to in general meeting be inserted in the subscribers’ book; and signed by the chairman of the meeting for the time being: such orders and rules not to be altered by any authority whatever, but at a general meeting of the subscribers; and that the said book be deposited in trust with the renters of the rooms, to be produced at any time when a meeting of subscribers to the dress balls be assembled, or when three or more subscribers shall desire the same.
That not less than nine subscribers to the dress ball be competent to call a general meeting upon any business relevant to these rooms.; the said nine to leave a summons signed with their names, upon the table for the space of one week previous to such meeting; which summons shall also express the particular purpose for which such meeting is called, and shall be published in the Bath papers.
That the master of ceremonies, on receiving information of persons acting in opposition to these resolutions, do signify to such person, that, as master of ceremonies, it is his duty to see the orders of subscribers properly enforced.

As the late great extension of the city puts it out of the power of the master of ceremonies to be regularly informed of the several persons who arrive here, he hopes they will be so indulgent to him as not to charge him with want of attention, if he should happen to omit visiting them; and that he publicly requests that they will, on their arrival, cause their names, with their places of abode, to be inserted in a book kept at the pump rooms for that purpose, which will afford him such information as will enable him to comply with his own wishes, and the expectations of the public."

The Master of Ceremonies played a vital role in arbitrating matters of precedence and controlled access to assemblies so he needed to know who he was dealing with as can be seen from the next clause.

"And as it is extremely desirable that all improper company may be kept from these rooms, he requests also, that strangers, as well as ladies and gentlemen, will give him an opportunity of being introduced to them, before they hold themselves entitled to that attention and respect, which he is ambitious and ever will be studious to show to ever individual resorting to this place"

For the Lower Rooms:

"The Master of Ceremonies very respectfully submits the following regulations to the company which are considered as the established rules of the rooms.

1st  that the balls shall begin as soon as possible after seven o’clock and conclude precisely at eleven.

2ndly That the seats at the upper end of the rooms be reserved for Peeresses.

3 dly That Ladies who intend dancing minuets do wear lappets and it is requested that the rest of their dress may correspond with this distinction.

4 thly That a reasonable time will be allowed between the minuets and country dances for ladies of rank to take their places; those who stand up after the dance is called, must go to the bottom for that dance, after which should they wish to take their precedence, on application to the Master of Ceremonies; he will put them in their place.

5thly That ladies do not permit other couples to stand above them after the set is formed; and they are particularly requested to continue in their places after they have gone down a dance, until the rest of the couples have done the same.

6 thly That gentlemen cannot be admitted to the room on ball nights in boots or half boots; nor are pantaloons considered proper dress for a ball.

7thly That no hazard or unlawful games will on any account be allowed in these rooms ; nor cards on Sunday

8 thly That each lady and gentleman on public nights pay six pence on entering the rooms =, which will entitle them to tea.

8tly The ladies may, if they please wear hats in the public rooms in the evening, except on ball or concert nights: Gentlemen are not to wear boots in the public rooms of an evening, nor spurs to the pump room of a morning

9thly That no Hazard or unlawful games will be allowed in these Rooms on any account whatever, nor cards on Sundays.

Lastly That Ladies or Gentleman coming to town, give orders that their names and places of abode be entered in the Pump Room books; and the Master of the Ceremonies thus publicly requests the favour of such Ladies and Gentlemen to whom he has not the honour of being personally known, to offer him some favourable occasion of being presented to them, that he may be enabled to shew that attention, which it is not more his duty than his inclination to observe."

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