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|The Basingstoke Balls
Written by JulieW
(12/1/2006 7:56 a.m.)
Here we go....
Constance Hill, in her book Jane Austen :Her Homes and Her Friends(1923) considered she had discovered where these assemblies were held: namely at The Angel Inn, in the Market Place.
Frequent allusions are made in the "Letters" to the county balls at Basingstoke. These took place, it seems, once a month on a Thursday during the season. They were held in the Assembly Rooms, and were frequented by all the well-to-do families of the out-lying neighbourhood; many of them, like the Austens, coming from long distances, undeterred by the dangers of dark winter nights, lampless lanes, and stormy weather.
Now, where could those Assembly Rooms have been situated? Guide-books were silent on the subject; but probably they formed part of the chief inn of Basingstoke. We learnt from the country people that the old "Angel," standing in the marketplace, was, in former times, the principal inn and posting-house.
With a firm determination to discover the county ballroom or, at least, the place where it stood, we set off for Basingstoke on a bright September morning. Having crossed the busy market-place we drew up in front of the "Angel," with its tiled roof and white window frames. The upper part of the building is evidently unchanged, but shop-windows occupy the ground floor where the stage-coaches formerly rolled through a wide entrance to the yard beyond. The West of England coaches, we are told, used to halt here for their passengers to dine, bringing for one short hour a whirl of excitement and bustle into the quiet sleepy town.
The house is still a place for refreshment, so we entered and made inquiries as to its former condition. The master, in reply, produced an old bill-head with a view of the inn upon it. We noticed, over the coach-entrance, a carved wooden lintel. "See, there it is, ma'am," he remarked, pointing to the lintel, which hung from a beam across the ceiling. We now questioned him about the Assembly Rooms, but here he was unable to help us, not knowing anything about them. So, after taking some lunch, we were regretfully preparing to depart when, by chance, we fell in with the wife of our host. Prepared for disappointment we put the same questions to her, but now there came to us a sudden ray of light and leading. She told us that beyond the old stables and coach-houses at the back of the inn, there was a large room, now used as a hay-loft, but which, she had been told, was once a ball-room. In old times it was connected with the inn by a long passage, that ran above the stables and harness-rooms, but now the only access to it was from the great coaching-yard. Should we like to see the loft? The owner of it, and of all the outbuildings was a horse-dealer, who she was sure would permit us to do so, and she would, herself, show us the way.
And so, following our guide, we step into a paved covered way, and, passing the long low mangers where the post-horses fed, come out into the coaching-yard. There on the left stand the buildings described. We mount some wooden steps leading to the so-called hay-loft, and in another moment we find ourselves in the old Assembly Room! Piles of hay cover the floor, but we cannot mistake the place. There are the handsome chimney-pieces, the sash windows and the double-flap doors that mark a reception-room of importance; and when we push aside the litter beneath our feet, the fine even planking of a dancing-floor appears. As we gaze around us, the discoloured and mouldering plaster on the walls, the broken panes, the cobweb festoons, the forlorn and rusty grates, and the piles of hay all vanish, and we seem to see the room as it appeared in its palmy days when prepared for a county ball. A chandelier, resplendent with wax candles, hangs in the middle of the room. Its lights are reflected in the polished floor beneath and again in the oval mirrors above the two chimney-pieces. Fires are blazing in the hearths. See, there are the musicians, in their tie-wigs and knee-breeches, just entering, and soon the gay company will be arriving. Amidst that gay company there is one figure around which all the interest of the past is gathered...
When the grand people mentioned above entered the room, we can imagine the same sort of commotion occurring as is described in "The Watsons." "After some minutes of extraordinary bustle without, and watchful curiosity within, the important party, preceded by the attentive master of the inn, to open a door which was never shut, made their appearance." In the present case the master of the inn, we find, was a man named Curtis; his family having managed the "Angel" for two generations. He was a clever huntsman, and is mentioned with praise in the "Vine Hunt."
When the dance was over we may fancy the company repairing to the large front parlour of the "Angel" for supper. They would traverse the long passage, already mentioned, to do so. Did it, we wonder, suggest to our authoress, the long passage at the "Crown," when, "supper being announced, the move began; and Miss Bates might be heard from that moment without interruption, till her being seated at table and taking up her spoon...
In the Reports of the JAS there had been for many years a dispute about this Angel Inn being the place where the Basingstoke Assemblies were held, particularly bearing in mind that the balls JA attended in Basingstoke were patronised by the local aristocracy. Would they really condescend to attend a ball in an inn?
Another point to consider was that there were other candidates , if the supposed site of the assemblies was an inn. At the time JA was attending these dances,the Angel was even not the principal inn in Basingstoke.
The two principal posting inns( where people could change horses, hire carraiges etc., etc.) were the Maidenhead( where poor unfortunate bankrupt Mrs Martin was the landlady) and the Crown. Indeed, in my copy of Carey's New Itinerary(1798) the Angel Inn is not even listed, though the other two inns are.
Robin Vick has found, by undertaking painstaking research in the archive of the Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette newspaper, that the assemblies in Basingstoke were not held at any of the inns.
Between 1792 and 1801 advertisments appeared in the Reading Mercury etc giving notice of a total of 56 balls at Basingstoke. For 46 of these occasions, they are specifically mentioned as being held at the Town Hall.
This is a picture of the Basingstoke Town Hall as it would have appeared at that time.
Robin Vick argues (see JAS Report, 1993) that the other 10 balls must have been held at the Town Hall otherwise an alternative venue would have been notified in teh newspaper, so as to avoid confusion.
He has also discoverd sone more news of the business affairs of the unfortunate Mrs Martin, landlady of the Maidenhead Inn. She organised these balls until February 1798. She placed the notices in the newspaper and made all the arrangmemets.
After February 1798, she left the Maidenhead Inn and took over the millinery and haberdashery business of Mr John Chambers in Basingstoke. She also opened a circulating library on the 14th Janurary 1799.It was the failiure of the businesses that caught JA asatention . And no wonder she was familiar with Mrs Martin: she would have naturally known her as the organiser of the assemblies she attended!
The Maidenhead Inn was then taken over by Willliam Wilson who also was landlord of The Crown. From March 1798 the assembly balls were organised by Mr Wilson, landlord of teh two most important inns in the town.
The room on the first floor of the Town Hall was very large and suitable for large and smart assemblies.
The Basingstoke entry in the Universal British Directory(1791) notes:
There is a very good market house and hall over it where the sessions for the town are held twice a year, and where the magistrates meet every Thursday to do their business.
It was also used for public meetings and dinners.The Reading
About half past two they reached the Town Hall and sat down to an elegant dinner, provided at the expesnse of the gentlemen in the neighbourhood. The roooms which contain about 300 persons were fillled with the most respectable freeholders
Note this also explains JA's cry of "Heathcote and Chute for ever!!" which was obviously an electioneering slogan adopted by the pair of candidates.
I think Robin Vick has it aright: the local aristorcary who were present at these balls were more lilkely to patronise a rooms capable of holding 300 people and not just a long room in an inn. With its civic associations it was altogether a more attractive and respectible proposition.
I feel sure that JA danced not at The Angel, but at the Town Hall instead.
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