Assembly Rooms: Party Time
If you’ve ever had to arrange a venue for a large celebration of some kind, you know the difficulty in finding a place the offers space to accommodate a large number of guests, a dance floor, and also elegance. In Georgian England most towns of any size had dedicated rooms for that purpose. They called them assembly rooms. These places play a familiar and treasured role in historical romance, particularly in stories set it the Regency era. You could not, however, simply run out and contract for one.
Assembly rooms usually functioned as social clubs that catered to the upper classes with admission controlled by subscription with an eye to allowing in only the “best” sort of folks. The most notorious example of exclusivity was Almack’s Assembly Rooms, London’s premier social club. William Almack, the founder, had a long history with exclusive clubs. Both Brooks and Boodles gentlemen’s associations grew out of Almack establishments. Both limited membership and required those proposed for membership to be voted upon by the existing members. The Ladies Coterie followed, and the famous Almack’s Assembly Room on King Street opened in 1765 to accommodate balls. It also housed a card room and an “ordinary” for dining.
The venue reached the height of its reputation in the early 1800s after William Almack died when a committee of women, The Lady Patronesses, controlled who got in and who did not, effectively determining the pecking order for London’s haut ton, the fashionable elite of the entire United Kingdom. Rules were strict and generally resented by the gentlemen.
Imagine those ladies’ surprise to know that in our time the most famous assembly rooms were those in Bath. The Almack’s patronesses likely considered Bath sadly lacking and certainly beneath their own society. But in our day when an author refers to The Assembly Rooms in capital letters, readers will no doubt assume he or she refers to the ones in Bath. If you’ve watched movie of Jane Austen’s Northinger Abbey or Persuasion (at least the 1995 version) you’ve seen The Assembly Rooms with their polished floors, towering ceilings, and spectacular crystal chandeliers. It is likely Jane herself visited them.
Owned by The National Trust, those rooms are now open to the public and house the Fashion Museum. Tourists gawking up at the windows and chandeliers, however, may be surprised to know that the Luftwaffe bombed the building in 1942 during Germany’s campaign to attack cultural targets across England; the interior was burned out and had to be restored. The spectacular chandeliers, eight feet tall and lit by over 200 tapers, had luckily been taken away and stored for safety. The ones you see today are the same ones commissioned for the rooms’ opening in 1771.
Unlike in Georgian times, The Assembly Rooms also available for rental for private events by anyone who can afford the fee, so if you’re still having trouble planning for that wedding, anniversary, or bar mitzvah, you might want to check them out.
The assembly rooms in York are less famous but equally spectacular. Thirty-six years older than those in Bath, they are considered the oldest neo-classical rooms in Europe. Those in Newcastle were built in 1776 in hopes, one suspects, of attracting visitors to the city. Still spectacular, they are also available for personal and corporate events. The 1787 Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, completely refurbished in 2012, include not only a ballroom and drawing rooms, but a music hall as well. They have a long history of hosting music festivals and serve as one of the venues for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The smaller, more provincial towns also had assembly rooms that catered to the local gentry. Some shared space with other public offices. Shire Hall in Hertford, for example, housed assembly rooms but also courts, the council chamber, and the corn exchange. The Worcester Guildhall, a spectacular Queen Anne building, also served civic and judicial functions but it had tea rooms over courtrooms and an assembly room on the upper floors.
Whether graced with vouchers to Almack’s so you could dance with the dukes in knee britches or were deemed acceptable enough to attend a provincial ball and dance with a local squire in boots, you likely did so at an assembly room. No matter which you found yourself in, romance most likely flourished. Who can resist music and candlelight?
Crutwell, R., Rival Assembly Rooms, Bath, October 1774. https://books.google.com/books?id=hKwHAAAAQAAJ, Accessed January 17, 2019
The Georgian Assembly Rooms, Parts 1-4, on Austen Only, https://austenonly.com/2013/02/14/an-assembly-as-this-georgian-assembly-rooms-part-one/ , Accessed January 17, 2019
Morton, David, “Newcastle’s Iconic Assembly Rooms Celebrates Its 240th Birthday This Week,” on Chronicle Live, June 20, 2016 https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/newcastles-iconic-assembly-rooms-celebrates-11498129, Accessed January 17, 2019
Oimadmin, “The Assembly Rooms, York,” in Ornate Interiors Magazine, October 18, 2018, http://www.ornateinteriorsmagazine.co.uk/?p=360, Accessed January 17, 2019
Ross, David, “Almack’s Assembly Rooms,” on Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/History/almacks.htm, Accessed January 17, 2018
Ross, David, “Worcester Guildhall,” on Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/worcestershire/az/worcester/guildhall.htm, Accessed January 17, 2019
Caroline Warfield is a writer of family centered romance deeply embedded in nineteenth century history across the globe. She always nudges her characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. Her novella, Candles in the Dark, included in Valentines From Bath, features a tradesman eager to supply candles to the Bath Assembly Rooms. You can find her here:
Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
You’ll find references to both Almack’s and the Assembly Rooms in “Clytie’s Caller.” Please enjoy this article that sheds some light on both entities.
Love this look into the social scene of the past! I remember being awed by the descriptions as a young woman reading about them in historical novels, so it was a real treat to see the Bath Assembly Rooms when we visited some years later. They were featured in God Is an Englishman and maybe one of its sequels, if memory serves me correctly.
I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath and got a glimpse of the Assembly Rooms. Only a glimpse because there was a wedding going on there and the area wasn’t open to the public. But I did get to tour the museum, which was a delight, and take a selfie of myself in a huge bonnet and a photo of three lovely Japanese girls in full costume. What a delight! Fun blog post. I’m definitely going to use Bath as a setting in one of my upcoming Regencies.