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From Handel to Hirst

Alan Morris

Long form Journal article: Alan Morris explores the history of assembly rooms

As the new occupiers of the Assembly Rooms owned and cared for by Lancaster City Council, Assembly Arts feel privileged to once again breath life into the historic and important building.


 The Lancaster Civic Society plaque on the front of the premises on King Street testifies that the building was originally constructed in 1759 by the Trustees of Penny's Almshouses.  Income from dances and other social events at the Assembly Rooms provided for the Almshouses which had been established from a £700 endowment left by the former Mayor of Lancaster, William Penny, in 1716. Built for 'twelve poor men' in 1720, in addition to the Almshouses a small chapel was constructed and which is still accessible to this day.


From 1770 the chapel housed the Charity School which educated the sons of craftsmen in reading, writing and arithmetic. A hub for at least wealthier members of the Lancaster community in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like others across the country the Assembly Rooms was an important social centre. With the building now occupied by artists and makers producing new and exciting work, perhaps emulating the likes of Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, what was the purpose of assembly rooms and what is the history of the venues where Mozart or Handel might have once been played and dances held? 


Readers of Jane Austen will be familiar with the assembly rooms that feature in the author's work; Elizabeth Bennet was first introduced to Mr. Darcy at the Meryton Assembly in Pride and Prejudice and the characters of Northanger Abbey can often be found at the Bath Pump Rooms, for example. Austen's novels reveal that assembly rooms were an important part of the social scene during the Regency period - especially for women.


While men could go to their club or the local coffee house, for ladies, entertainment was primarily based in the home. Women of a certain social status would either pay visits to their friends or be visited themselves, taking tea, eating snacks and making polite conversation. Other than this, private amusements for such women included reading, sewing, and walking. Local assemblies formed a crucial break from this strict societal standard as one of the few places men and women were able to meet, talk and (as perhaps some of Austen's most memorable scenes reveal) flirt


So, what were assemblies like in Austen’s time? The English writer and encyclopaedist Ephraim Chambers defined an assembly in his 1728 Cyclopaedia  as ‘a stated and general meeting of the polite persons of both sexes for the sake of conversation, gallantry, news, and play’. While some assemblies had dedicated card rooms or perhaps a bowling green, the most important feature shared by all was undeniably dancing.


The Assembly Rooms in Lancaster has at its centre a large dance hall, with a musicians gallery at one end. Designed and built by the Lancaster architect and businessman Richard Gillow, the son of the furniture magnate Robert, the Assembly Rooms is just one example of Gillow's Georgian buildings in the city, which also include the Customs House on St Georges Quay. As furniture makers Gillow and Co of Lancaster were among the leading companies of the late 18th and 19th centuries, with a vast output that catered for both the nobility, gentry and the growing middle-class market.


Gillow's musicians' gallery in the dance hall is historically important not least for being carried on two wooden Tuscan columns, with the front panels decorated with a Chinese Chippendale fretwork design.  The musicians' seated in the gallery might have played a variety of music for the dancers below, including lively country dances and cotillions, where four couples danced in square formation. These were later replaced by the scandalous waltz, considered improper by some due to the close proximity of the men and women. Whilst the waltz was not considered socially acceptable by many, it subsequently became more tolerated when visitors from the continent danced it at the assemblies organised to celebrate the end of the Napoleonic Wars. 


In addition to the traditional amusements centered around dancing and music, some assembly rooms hosted travelling entertainments like gymnasts, jugglers, and strongmen, while Norwich and Stamford assembly rooms both displayed Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Many assembly rooms doubled as performance spaces, playing host to famous actors and actresses like Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons, while some (as with Lancaster) supported charities. Stamford hosted ‘relief shows’ for sufferers of the Battle of Waterloo and the American Civil War. These various purposes all related to one core function in society - a hub for the community.


Nevertheless, assembly rooms were not without rules and they were not for everyone. Strict social regulations were in place, enforced by the Master of Ceremonies. Perhaps the most infamous Master of Ceremonies was Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, a gambler and socialite who shaped the society and culture of Bath in the 18th century. These rules often pertained to the behaviour of unmarried women, who always had to be chaperoned. To protect their reputations, such women were also forbidden from spending all their time with the same gentleman. Unsurprisingly in such a patriarchal society, men were not under the same level of pressure, although they were required to leave their swords at the door to prevent fights.  


The rules of the assembly room did not just apply to the behaviour of the guests, but also to the guest list itself. Assemblies were strictly reserved for the upper echelons of society. Those of a lower social status were priced out of the social circle, with entry to the assembly rooms costing anywhere from £1 for the season in the country (nearly £50 in modern money) to 10 guineas in London (almost £500 today).


At some assembly rooms, the Master of Ceremonies would have been required to ‘run the door’ to keep out 'undesirables', while Bath Assembly Rooms was built with particularly high windows, designed specifically to prevent outsiders peeping in. In Lincoln two assembly rooms operated, one reserved for ‘uphill’ people, while another was built for ‘downhill’ folk, like tradesmen.  


This unyielding societal structure meant that while assembly rooms were a community hub, they did not serve the whole community. With a less exclusive entry policy, provincial assembly rooms may have been nothing more than a room above an inn, but the purpose-built assembly rooms in larger towns and cities like Lancaster were strictly for the upper classes.


Over the next century, as the social rules relaxed, assembly rooms fell out of fashion. The buildings went through many iterations, some being transformed into cinemas while others were let for everything from polling stations to jumble sales and many were abandoned entirely.  Fortunately as with the Assembly Rooms in Lancaster, many buildings are now getting the love and attention they deserve.


For a number of years the popular Emporium has operated from the ground floor, housing a range of artisan and creative markets stalls, whilst in March 2023 Assembly Arts took up the tenancy of the remainder of the building, having been empty for a number of years after the young peoples dance charity Ludus vacated the premises in 2020. Further afield Bath and  Lincoln assembly rooms now house restaurants and cafés, while developers have returned Boston Assembly Rooms to its social roots as a nightclub. Stamford and Ludlow assembly rooms are both used as arts centres, serving the community through theatre, cinema and music.


Assembly rooms were born from the Georgian penchant for grandeur but as society evolved, they failed to move with the times. Their greatest failing was perhaps their rigid social barriers; without this obstacle they may have flourished as the centre of the community but instead many were abandoned and neglected. Now some are being transformed back to the social hubs they once were, but crucially without their exclusionary flaw.  


With the musicians gallery in Lancaster's Assembly Rooms still thankfully in its original condition over 250 years after being constructed, it is easy to imagine the wealthy citizens of Lancaster dancing in the hall below.  Whilst now playing host to artists and creatives and providing valuable space for workshops and classes including ceramics, drawing and photography amongst others, one day the building may perhaps revert to its original purpose and be a venue for dances and events.


In the meantime Assembly Arts, along with our ground floor neighbours in the Emporium, will cherish and protect the space so that all of the community can meet and continue to enjoy the magnificent building that is Lancaster's Assembly Rooms.

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