It is a truth universally acknowledged that we are currently in the midst of a Regency renaissance. In 2020, ‘Bridgerton’ and ‘Emma’ brought Regency manners back to our screens. Viewers fell in love with the period, clamouring for the next Austen adaption, burning for the next steamy season.
There is no sign of the trend slowing down; ‘Bridgerton’ returns 25 March 2022, and not one but two adaptions of ‘Persuasion’ have been announced.
As Austen-lovers will know, ‘Persuasion’ focuses on the social season in Bath, with one pivotal scene taking place at the assembly rooms.
Assembly rooms often feature in Austen’s work; Elizabeth Bennet, and the rest of the world, were 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.
What were Assembly rooms used for?
Assembly rooms were a crucial part of the social scene in the Regency period, especially for women. While men could go to their club or the coffee house, entertainment was primarily based in the home for ladies. They would either pay visits to their friends or be visited themselves, taking tea, eating snacks, and making conversation.
Outside of this, private amusements included reading, sewing, and walking. Local assemblies were a crucial break from this societal standard, as one of the only places men and women were able to meet, talk, and flirt.
So, what did assemblies look like in Austen’s time? Ephraim Chambers defined an assembly in his ‘Cyclopaedia’ (1728) 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 even a bowling green, the most important feature was undeniably dancing.
Early in the period, lively country dances and cotillions were popular; these were replaced by the scandalous waltz, considered improper by some due to the close proximity of the men and women. The waltz was not considered socially acceptable until visitors from the continent danced it at the assemblies celebrating the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
National events like this were often celebrated at assembly rooms; at Norwich, there are records of celebrations for Peace with the French in 1802, Queen Charlotte’s birthday, and Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805.
In addition to traditional amusements, some assembly rooms hosted travelling entertainments like gymnasts, jugglers, and strongmen, while Norwich and Stamford assembly rooms both displayed Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Many doubled as performance spaces, playing host to famous actors and actresses like Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons, while some supported charities.
Lancaster Assembly Rooms raised money to support the adjoining almshouses, and Stamford hosted ‘relief shows’ for sufferers of the Battle of Waterloo and the American Civil War. These multitude purposes all boiled down to one core function in society: a hub for the community.
However, the 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 famous of whom 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 must always be chaperoned. To protect their reputations, they were also forbidden from spending all their time with the same gentleman. Men were not under the same level of pressure, though 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 reserved for only the upper echelons of society. Those of 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 may be required to ‘run the door’ to keep out undesirables. Bath Assembly Rooms was built with particularly high windows, designed to prevent outsiders peeping in. In Lincoln, they had two assembly rooms; 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. Provincial assembly rooms may have been nothing more than a room above an inn, with a less exclusive entry policy, but the purpose-built assembly rooms in larger towns and cities were strictly for the upper classes.
Assembly rooms still standing in England today
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 casually let for everything from general elections to jumble sales, and many were abandoned entirely.
Fortunately, as with the Regency renaissance on our screens, many assembly rooms are now getting the love and attention they deserve once more. Bath, Lincoln, and Lancaster’s assembly rooms now house restaurants and cafés, while developers are hoping to return 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, music, and more.
As well as looking to the future, many of these historic buildings keep a strong connection to their pasts. Stamford Arts Centre was a filming location for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005) and ‘Middlemarch’ (1994). Bath Assembly Rooms now houses the Fashion Museum, featuring everything from Elizabethan apparel to modern masterpieces.
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 their rigid social barriers; without this obstacle, they could have flourished as the centre of the community. Instead, they were neglected and abandoned. Now they are being picked up, dusted off, and transformed into the social hubs they once were (without their fatal, exclusionary flaw).
From grand events and entertainments to a simple chat over a cup of tea, assembly rooms have finally fulfilled their potential, becoming the diverse, inclusive centres of community they could always have been.