Thursday, January 10, 2013

Regency Social Life: The Public Assembly

By Maria Grace
In the Regency era, an active social season was not limited to London. Most country towns had a formal social season during the autumn and winter months, often beginning in early to mid-October. Extra events might also take place in the spring. Public assemblies or balls were usually scheduled to coincide with the full moon to ease travel. Traveling at night, especially for those with a considerably journey to an assembly, was not considered safe without the light of a full moon. 

 Assemblies were held at local inns or assembly rooms, typically between the hours of 8pm and 11:30 pm. Subscriptions funded the events. A season's subscription might cost anywhere between £1 in the country to 10 guineas in London. Attendance was only limited by the ability to pay for the subscription and to dress appropriately for the event. Consequently, the company would be mixed, those of rank mingling with the lower orders.  

Assembly Rooms 

Assembly rooms followed a very distinct pattern. Each of three separate spaces accommodated a different activity: a ball room that included a musicians' gallery for dancing, a card room for various card game, and a supper room for refreshments. The layout might vary somewhat, but the essentials remained consistent. For example, in Bath, the assembly rooms were on the first floor, while in York, the assembly rooms were on the ground floor. Billiard rooms were also provided in some places. At grand assemblies, orchestras would be engaged while for smaller occasions, a few local musicians, perhaps only a fiddler, would be enough.  

Master of Ceremonies

A Master of Ceremonies supervised every aspect of the ball including room arrangements, the musicians, even the ordering of the dances. His duties also included insuring that too many undesirables did not gain entrance. He enforced dress codes: ladies were forbidden to dance in colored gloves (at Weymouth); men could not appear in ‘trowsers or coloured pantaloons’, boots or half-boots(Bath). And of course, he would insist that gentlemen leave their swords at the door. The Master of Ceremonies also performed the service of introducing dancing partners so that young people could interact respectably. 

 Dancers generally arranged themselves in order of precedence. To help manage issues of precedence in places where the lesser gentry, the professions and the genteel trades were the bulk of the attendance, ladies were usually presented with numbers as they entered the assembly rooms. These numbers indicated their place in the dance. Before each dance, the Master of Ceremonies would call out a number and the lady with that number and her partner would be the couple to lead that particular dance.  

For those who did not care to dance 

While some attended assemblies to dance, flirt and look for potential marriage partners, others attended simply to meet their acquaintances, talk and play card and possibly billiards. Chairs and benches were provided at the sides of the dance floor and in the card room. Private gossip might be facilitated by a stroll about the room with one’s conversational partner. 

While supper might be served at a private ball, public balls did not provide meals. Light refreshments might be provided with the tea served halfway through the night. Negus, a drink made from sugar mixed with water and wine (sherry and port) was also sometimes among the offerings.  


Unmarried girls were accompanied by a chaperon, typically a married relative, or an older woman friend, and closely supervised. A young woman did not dance more than two pairs of dances with the same man or her reputation would be at risk. Even two dances signaled to observers that the gentleman in question had a particular interest in her. Pairs of dances usually lasted half an hour, so an undesirable dance partner could have been quite a burden, especially considering dancing in a large set involved a lot of standing around waiting one’s turn to dance. However, if one’s partner were pleasing company, it was possible to have private conversations under cover of the crowd. 

Dances of this era were lively and bouncy. Ladies pinned up the trains of their ball gowns for ease in performing the steps. This also signaled potential partners that they meant to dance that night. 

Steps ranged from simple skipping to elaborate ballet-style movements. Country dances, the cotillion, quadrille and the scotch reel made up most of the dancing. Many versions of these dances existed and often the lady of the leading couple would get to select the specific one that was to be danced. 

 In the country dance, a line of couples performed steps and figures with each other, progressing up and down the line. As they reached the top, each couple in turn would dance down until the entire set had returned to its original positions. 

The scotch reel consisted of alternate interlacing and fancy steps danced in place by a line of three or four dancers. 

The cotillion was a French import, with elaborate footwork. It was performed in a square or long ways, like the country dance. It consisted of a "chorus" figure unique to each dance which alternated with a standard series of up to ten "changes" (simple figures such as a right hand star common to cotillions in general). 

The quadrille consisted of five distinct parts or figures assembled from individual cotillions without the changes, making it a much shorter dance. 

For a wonderful animated tour of the figures danced check out this site:

 One dance not likely to be found in a Regency era ball was the waltz. When it was first introduced, the waltz was regarded as shocking because of the physical contact involved. Even Lord Byron was scandalized by the prospect of people "embracing" on the dance floor. It was unlikely to have been seen often in public assemblies until the latter part of the Regency era, and even then, not often.


Britain Express: Regency Dances

Rendell, Jane. The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London. Rutgers University Press (2002) 

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)

Sullivan, Margaret C. The Jane Austen Handbook. Quirk Books (2007) 

 Todd, Janet & Bree, Linda (editors). The Cambridge Edition of Later Manuscripts. Cambridge University Press (2008) 

 Period References  
The Gentleman & Lady’s Companion: Containing the Newest Cotillions and Country Dances; to which is added Instances of Ill Manners to be carefully avoided by Youth of Both Sexes. 1798.  

The Complete System of English Country Dancing – 1815 (click to download pdf)  

Pierce Egan - "Walks through Bath..." 1819 

 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision and The Future Mrs. Darcy. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Have the Assembly Rooms in Bath changed venue? The place I know under that name has the main rooms [as described] on the ground floor - though there is also a lower 'basement' storey which now houses the costume museum.

  2. Wonderful post! Bookmarking it for future reference....

  3. I went into London investigating Almacks - sadly the original building has gone and there's a modern monstroncity next door and scaffolding over the address. It mad me sad how anonymous the place looks now.
    G x

  4. Good information to know! I couldn't imagine learning some of those dances. No wonder they needed dance instructors.

    Thank you.


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