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The Bennets, the Bridgertons, and now you: Assembly Rooms Past and Present

Regency romance has returned to our screens with the likes of Bridgerton and a flurry of Austen adaptions.

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 and viewers fell in love with the period, clamouring for the next Austen adaption, and burning for the next steamy season.

There is no sign of the trend slowing down; Bridgerton fans are anxiously awaiting the next instalment, expected in early 2022, and not one, but two adaptions of Persuasion have been announced!

As Austen-lovers will know, Persuasion focuses around the social season in Bath, with one pivotal scene taking place at the assembly rooms.

North Colonnade At Grand Pump Room
The Bath Pump Rooms, which feature heavily in Northanger Abbey © Historic England Archive

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.

Then: What were Assembly rooms used for?

Assembly rooms were a crucial part of the social scene in this period, especially for women. While men could go to their club or the coffee house, for ladies, entertainment was primarily based in the home. 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.

Embroidery kit
Embroidery was a popular pastime for Regency ladies © Historic England Archive

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.

Ballroom with chandeliers
The ballroom at Bath Assembly Rooms would have seen country dancing, cotillions, and waltzing © Historic England Archive

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.

Sandstone building with slate roof.
Lancaster Assembly Rooms supported the local almshouses © Historic England Archive

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.

Cameo with portrait of a woman
Women like Lady Eleanor Clifford, pictured in this miniature by William Wood from the Kenwood House collection, were subject to strict social rules © Historic England Archive

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 the guest list itself. Assemblies were reserved for only 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 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, while 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.

A family sit at a table in an assembly room
The rich interiors of assembly rooms were reserved for the upper classes © Historic England Archive

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.

Now: 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.

Derby Assembly Rooms with a banner reading 'Army recruitment centre'above the door
Derby Assembly Rooms was used as an army recruitment centre during the Second World War © Historic England Archive

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.

Exterior of Boston Assemby Rooms, a large white building in a town square
Developers are hoping to turn Boston Assembly Rooms into a nightclub © Historic England Archive

As well as looking to the future, many of these historic buildings keep a strong connection to their pasts. Stamford Arts Centre was used as a filming location for Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Middlemarch (1994), and 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, but instead they were abandoned, neglected. 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.

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