The Fancy Dress Ball at the County Assembly Rooms in Lincoln, January 1866.

Lincoln’s History: The County Assembly Rooms

Until 1745, Lincoln’s County Assembly Rooms were in a one-storied house on Eastgate (opposite James Street) which was known as Atton Place. (Atton Place was re-fronted in the late eighteenth-century and later had an extra storey added.)

The architect Joseph Hayward was responsible for the new Assembly Rooms, located on Bailgate, just a short distance from Newport Arch, the remains of a 3rd-century Roman gate. Bailgate was once the site of a Roman Colonnade, and the Forum stood opposite the site of the Assembly Rooms.

Newport Arch, Lincoln by Nathan Drake, 1756
Newport Arch, Lincoln by Nathan Drake, 1756; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

Featuring a spacious ballroom and ‘convenient refreshment rooms’ the building was opened to the public in 1745, and still stands to this day although it has been added to and adapted over the years.

The County Assembly Rooms on Bailgate, Lincoln.
The County Assembly Rooms on Bailgate, Lincoln.

Those who lived ‘downhill’ were not permitted to set foot in the ‘sacred’ precincts of the County Assembly Rooms, which were for the ‘uphill’ gentry and county magnates. A City Assembly Rooms was built in 1757 above the Butter Market on the High Street at the bottom of Steep Hill, for the Lincoln tradesmen and their wives; in appearance it was remarkably similar to the County Assembly Rooms as it appears today (the façade of the City Assembly Rooms still exists, but it has been located to the Central Market on Sincil Street).

The Butter Market with the City Assembly Rooms above (the red brick building on the right, prior to being pulled down in the 1930s), as glimpsed through the Stonebow on Lincoln High Street.
The Butter Market with the City Assembly Rooms above (the red brick building on the right, prior to being pulled down in the 1930s), as glimpsed through the Stonebow on Lincoln High Street.

During September 1776, George III’s brother, Prince Edward, Duke of York made a visit to Lincoln. He saw the play, Midas performed by Mr Steven’s Company and then ‘repaired to the grand assembly room above Hill, where a ball was prepared for his entertainment, which was very brilliant. There was a great appearance of Nobility and Gentry richly dressed. His Highness opened the ball with the Countess of Scarborough, and staid near two hours in the room.’

The Duke of York, after a short naval career, devoted himself to a life of pleasure. In the same year that he came to Lincoln, the duke was described by Horace Walpole as ‘a milk-white angel, white even to his eyes and eyelashes’; he died the following September in Monaco.

Edward, Duke of York (1739-1767).
Edward, Duke of York (1739-1767). Royal Collection Trust.

From 1789, the Lincolnshire Stuff Ball was held every October at the County Assembly Rooms. This was an annual event which encouraged and promoted the manufacture and industry of a fabric known as Lincolnshire stuff. Each year the lady patroness chose the colour theme for the ball and all the guests had to order new clothes made in good Lincolnshire stuff which came from Lincolnshire wool and had been manufactured and dyed – in the colour chosen – in the county. You can read more about the Lincolnshire Stuff Balls in a previous blog post.

During the Regency period, the people of Lincoln were tricked by a con man by the name of Jones. In October 1815, this man circulated bills in and around Lincoln, announcing his intention of giving a concert and ball at the County Assembly Rooms. A small company assembled on the night.

During the ball, the manager [Jones] took French leave of Lincoln, leaving the printer, the musicians and attendants engaged for the night, and some other persons whom he had duped, to make the most of the comfort of companionship in misery! He has been heard of in other parts of the county since. If he elude the grasp of those whom he has incensed, this notice of his tricks may at least be serviceable to others.

I took the chance to visit the Assembly Rooms recently; there is a tea room in the side of the building (the Arches Tearoom, which I highly recommend) and research is always best undertaken with a slice of cake and a cup of coffee, I find. By 1813 the state of the rooms had necessitated immediate repairs, funded by a subscription although we have no description of the works carried out.

Originally, the Assembly Rooms sat well back from the Bailgate, with a courtyard in front. Although we have been unable to find any contemporary image from the original building, we do know that a portico adorned the front in 1866 as it was specifically mentioned.

The County Assembly-rooms are being richly decorated for the Fancy Dress Ball to be given by the High Sheriff on the 19th [of January]. The portico will be closed in and used as an ante-room. A passage will also be made in the court-yard, and at the end of it will be the entrance. This promises to be a great improvement.

Fancy Dress Ball given by the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire at the County Assembly Rooms
Illustrated London News, 10 February 1866

Renovations were carried out in 1908, to specifications by the Lincoln architect William Watkins, but a newspaper report at the time specifically mentions the exterior of the building and no additions were made to the frontage at that time.

Visitors to the Lincoln County Assembly Rooms during the coming winter season will recognise and appreciate a series of ingenious alterations and improvements that are just approaching completion. They are concerned with the entrance, and include the provision of a large crush-room and a more commodious gentleman’s cloak room, while the lighting and seating arrangements have been brought to perfection. The ballroom has, of course, long held the reputation of being one of the finest in the country, and the new additions to the premises (which have not, however, necessitated any external structural alterations) make the approach considerably better than previously. Under the old arrangement the cloak rooms bordered the entrance hall on either hand, and the main corridor was crowded at times of the departure and arrival of the company, often to the point of inconvenience.

The improvements will be admitted at once. On the right, the creation of a large lobby greatly increases the space, preventing any crowding near the door, and a gentleman’s cloak room has been evolved from a store room further back, which has been fitted with larger and deeper shelves, etc., and is altogether better than the old ones. But the chief improvement is obtained by the cutting out, further along the main corridor, of the wall separating the corridor from the gentleman’s waiting room. That room and the corridor are now thrown into one, making a very satisfactory crush-room, which has been very beautifully decorated and furnished.

However, in 1914, the Assembly Rooms received a substantial makeover. A new frontage and facade was added, covering the old courtyard and almost doubling the space within the building and bringing the front level to the Bailgate. (Pevsner says of this addition that ‘the front in dry classical style is of 1914, but some yards behind can be seen the bold quoins and fine entablature of the original front of 1745. The interior is certainly the finest Georgian room in Lincoln.).

If you look down the passage at the left-hand side of the Assembly Rooms, you can indeed see the ‘bold quoins and fine entablature’ of the original front.

Interior of the Lincoln County Assembly Rooms; looking through into the original 1745 building from the frontage added in 1914. Photo © Joanne Major
Interior of the Lincoln County Assembly Rooms; looking through into the original 1745 building from the frontage added in 1914. Photo © Joanne Major

Plaque above the internal doorway in the Lincoln County Assembly Rooms. Photo © Joanne Major
A plaque above the internal doorway in the Lincoln County Assembly Rooms. Photo © Joanne Major


Williamson’s Illustrated Guide to Lincoln, 4th Edition

The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire, Nikolaus Pevsner and John Harris, second edition revised by Nicholas Antram, Yale University Press, 1989

History, gazetteer, and directory of Lincolnshire, and the city and diocese of Lincoln, William White, second edition, 1856

Stamford Mercury, 9th October 1766, 22nd October 1813, 13th October 1815 and 12th January 1866

Lincolnshire Echo, 26th August 1908

The Lincolnshire Stuff Ball

Lincoln Cathedral, from the west by Augustus Charles Pugin (1762-1832) © Whitworth Art Gallery
Lincoln Cathedral, from the west by Augustus Charles Pugin (1762-1832)
© Whitworth Art Gallery

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.

The 18th century assembly rooms on the Bailgate in Lincoln.
Assembly rooms

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.

Dorothea Banks (née Hugessen) by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after John Russell; National Portrait Gallery
Dorothea Banks (née Hugessen) by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after John Russell; National Portrait Gallery

In 1790 Lady Monson was patroness when the colour scheme chosen was brown. One wonders how the ladies present dressed that one up!

Stuff Ball 1790

 Click to enlarge

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.’

The Stonebow and Guildhall, Lincoln, 1836. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
The Stonebow and Guildhall, Lincoln. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

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.