19 August 2012

Assembly Rooms in Birmingham

An assembly. 1817. (Not a Birmingham image)

Anyone who enjoys dramatisations of Jane Austen's novels will understand the centrality of the assembly in the social lives of the Georgian and Regency middle classes. The guests at an assembly would not only dance, but drink tea, play cards, watch and listen to performances of music or theatricals and just generally socialise. The assembly was a great opportunity to socialise, gossip and, of course, flirt. Assemblies as a nation wide entertainment began towards the beginning of the 1700s; Defoe critically noted in about 1725 'the new mode of forming assembles [which was now] so fatally in vogue'.* What began as a novelty soon became 'part of the established urban scene'.* Birmingham had at least two permanent assembly rooms by the 1750s, one in the Square and the other in Bull Street.*** Balls or assemblies were often intertwined with other events such as Birmingham's Triennial Music Festival or other musical and theatrical performences.
Assemblies at the various rooms often operated in seasons, at the Hotel (later the Royal Hotel) in Birmingham the assemblies were held over the winter season by subscription.

The architecture of assembly rooms was often amongst the smartest, grandest and most elegant of the provincial towns which reflected their significance within middle class society, and Birmingham was no exception to this. Architecture and situation could also aid in asserting the respectibility of these establishments. Birmingham's most esteemed assembly rooms were situated in the upper parts of the town which had been built up from the early 1700s. These areas contained smarter, more expensive housing, and were away from the majority of the noise and bustle of the workshops in the older parts of the town. The assembly rooms were also situated in enclaves of the elite social life, the Hotel was opposite St. Philip's with its elegant walks, the assembly room in the Square was an enclosed environment with rules restricting the usage of surrounding properties and the Theatre on New Street also had an assembly room among its other entertainment facilities. As well as these smarter establishments though, there were also 'great rooms' in inns and public houses in which assemblies could be held; the Red Lion in Digbeth had one such room in the 1790s, and these would perhaps be attended by a more varied section of society.

By the early 19th century dancing assemblies began to be criticised by some as new dances such as the waltz were introduced, which involved more intimate contact with the dance partner.** The Birmingham preacher John Angell James (writing in the late 1820s) believed that dancing was immoral and stated that it should not 'be permitted to rise to a higher rank than that of mere physical training, which should be strictly confined to the school'.*** This last comment was directed towards women and girls, to whom the public assembly had been a intregal social activity, but at this time were being pushed by some like James into more virtuous pursuits (in James's words, being a 'good wife and mother'). One Birmingham ball in the 1820s was attended by Amelia Moilliet and her daughters, but she decided to not allow them to attend again.** Of course, these critisisms were not heeded by all and dancing assemblies retained some of their former popularity. In 1838 the subscribers to the assemblies at the Royal Hotel assembly rooms were still described as 'of the highest respectability in the town,*** and great care was to keep them select,*** but the assembly room at the Theatre Royal was by 1830 no longer used for its original purpose but instead for auctions, exhibitions and lectures.*** It seems that the surviving assemblies at Birmingham's Royal Hotel could be maintained by accepting only what was deemed as the very highest in society.

As the fashion for assemblies waned, so the buildings that had so popularly housed them became near obsolete. Some of these rooms could be used for other functions, such as at the theatre, but with the building of new, grand public buildings such as the Town Hall, these smaller premises would have suffered and the once grand assembly rooms would have become neglected. Birmingham's primary assembly room at the Royal Hotel was converted and taken over by the Birmingham Eye Hospital in 1861. The hospital moved to a custom built building in the 1880s and it is likely that the original building of the Royal Hotel was demolished not long afterwards.

* Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance
** Leonore Davidoff & Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850
*** Other references on request

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