In the mid 1780s Lincolnshire society established an annual ball, known as the ‘Stuff Ball’, to encourage and promote the local manufactory and industry of the fabric known as ‘Lincolnshire Stuff.’ The first ball was held in 1785 at The Windmill Inn, Alford.
‘Stuff’ could refer to any woven fabric and the rules for these balls stipulated that only ‘Lincolnshire Stuff‘ made from Lincolnshire wool and both manufactured and dyed in the county could be worn, the only exception being for gentlemen to be allowed silk stockings. Each year the titled patroness of the ball chose the colour theme for the year ensuring that all the guests had to order new clothes rather than wear those from the previous year.
Due to the success of the ball, the venue had to be changed to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend and it was held at the Assembly rooms on Lincoln’s Bailgate from 1789 when the first patroness there was Lady Banks, wife of Sir Joseph Banks.
In 1790 Lady Monson was patroness when the colour scheme chosen was brown. One wonders how the ladies present dressed that one up!
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A contemporary report described it thus:
The Lady’s magazine: or, Entertaining companion for the fair sex, 1791
At a time when the amusements of the wealthy are more calculated for their private gratification than for the good of the public, the following information relative to the Lincolnshire ball, cannot be unacceptable.
The annual ball for the benefit of the stuff manufactory of Lincolnshire, was begun about six or eight years ago at Alford, with an intention to encourage the spinning of worsted among the poor, and in the houses of industry in this country; and removed to Lincoln in 1789 when Lady Banks was patroness.
The following are the rules by which the ball is conducted.
Ladies are admitted gratis, appearing in a stuff gown and petticoat of the colour appointed by the patroness, spun, woven, and finished within the county, and producing a ticket signed by the weaver, and countersigned by the dyer; one of which tickets is to be delivered with every twelve yards of stuff.
Tickets to gentlemen are 10s. 6d. who are to appear without any silk or cotton in their dress, stockings excepted.
The first year, the assembly-room was so very much crowded, that the stewards erected a temporary booth for the cold collation the year following; when the ball was honoured with most of the nobility and gentry of the county; 466 being present, viz. 252 ladies, and 214 gentlemen. Lady Monson was patroness, and the ball colour a dark brown or carmelite.
The Morning Post, on the 1st December 1796, and amidst the backdrop of the French Revolution, reported that:
Lady BERTIE is the patroness of a Ball at Lincoln for the encouragement of Lincolnshire Stuffs, and at which those stuffs are, of course, alone worn. If our Nobility followed the example of Lady BERTIE, and Lord EGREMONT, the Duke of BEDFORD, &c., the great Patrons of improvement in agriculture, the discontented would have less ground of complaint against the Aristocracy.
In 1809 the annual Stuff Ball was combined with the Royal Jubilee celebrations for King George III on October 25th and ‘perhaps, never before exhibited such an universal scene of elegant and decorous festivity.’
By the end of the 19th century, although the balls continued in the same tradition, with the patroness picking the colour, the rules regarding the wearing of Lincolnshire Stuff had been waylaid and much lighter fabrics, such as muslin were the norm, more suited to the ballroom. The balls were also moved from their usual date of October or November to January. The ball scheduled for January 1900 was cancelled; it was felt that a time when so many families were anxious for relatives serving in the Boer War it was not suitable to be enjoying the festivities of a ball, and the tradition gradually lapsed.