Ahead of next Tuesday’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Hillary Burlock of Newcastle University. On 29 November, between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Hillary will discuss the connections between dance and factional politics in London’s West End, 1780-89.
The seminar takes place on 29 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here
The ballroom was an inherently political space in late Georgian Britain. Indeed, dance was a tool used by political hostesses to communicate and perform allegiances and identities in the homes of Britain’s elite in London. The Prince of Wales’s position in society and his fondness for dancing made him a sought-after guest for any hostess of the bon ton, but particularly for those in opposition.
The Prince of Wales’s establishment in the early 1780s fundamentally changed the type of political jockeying for power, as the energetic heir apparent made being in opposition fashionable. The flamboyance of the Prince of Wales and the opposition generated a cohesive community and identity against the staid nature of George III’s court, deliberately using dance, performing cohesion, and communicating political views.
The 1784 general election has been intensely analysed by historians, but very little has been written on the role of dancing within the campaign. Balls and dancing were staples in the political candidate’s arsenal to treat borough and county constituencies during Georgian elections. However, they were also employed to secure members of the bon ton to government and opposition parties.
The rivalry between Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger played out nationally, but in the constituency of Westminster, the campaigning in the streets was for Fox and his opponents Baron Hood and Sir Cecil Wray. With Westminster’s close proximity to court and the homes of the political elite, the election of local MPs was projected onto the national stage. While the polls were open for forty days, electioneering for the borough began much earlier.
The three candidates addressed the electors at a meeting in Westminster Hall on 14 February 1784, prompting Fox’s female supporters (including the duchess of Devonshire, Lady Duncannon, Lady Melbourne, Mrs Bouverie, and Mrs Crewe) to canvass on his behalf from March, in advance of the prorogation of parliament on 6 April 1784. By the close of the polls on 17 May 1784, the final votes were cast for Baron Hood with 6,588 votes, Charles James Fox with 6,126 votes, and Sir Cecil Wray with 5,895.
The election of Fox to his seat in Westminster was seen as a crucial victory for the opposition against the Crown, despite the Commons’ majority being for Pitt the Younger as prime minister. A plethora of festivities ensued, including a dinner at Devonshire House, a breakfast fête at Carlton House, and a ball at Mrs Crewe’s in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair.
The fête at Carlton House on 18 May 1784 was attended by approximately 600 fashionables, many of whom donned Fox’s colours of blue and buff, as well as ‘Fox laurels’ and ‘Fox medals’ around their necks. The company assembled for a dejeuné at the breakfast fête at around noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, with dancing between four o’clock and seven o’clock, before a supper.
The Prince of Wales spent the afternoon dancing country dances and cotillions with his friend and ally, the duchess of Devonshire, a choice that was both conventional and political. As the highest-ranking woman at the fête, custom obliged the Prince of Wales to dance with her. Beyond precedence, it was also a statement of political alliances and victory, acknowledging the Cavendish family’s financial support during the campaign and the duchess’s role in canvassing for Fox.
The Prince of Wales also honoured Sophia Walpole (née Churchill), the wife of Horatio Walpole, later 2nd earl of Orford. Walpole was elected MP for King’s Lynn in 1784, a staunch member of the opposition, and the duke of Portland’s cousin by marriage. As the duke of Portland was the duke of Devonshire’s brother-in-law, dancing with Sophia Walpole was a similarly potent demonstration of the opposition’s political networks.
Dancing was a regular feature of the social and political season in Georgian Britain and was deftly used to great effect by political hostesses and their leader, the Prince of Wales. Balls were integral to the political process, consolidating party spirit by strengthening the links of personal identities to a faction, and signalling collective identities to the bon ton.
Hillary’s seminar takes place on 29 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here
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E. Chalus, Elite Women in English Political Life 1754-1790 (2005)
P. Deutsch, ‘Moral Trespass in Georgian London’, Historical Journal (1996)
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K. Gleadle and S. Richardson (eds.), Women in British Politics 1780-1860: The Power of the Petticoat (2000)
Harriet Guest, ‘Speech and Noise at the Westminster Elections’, Republics of Letters (2017)
Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (2009)
Paul Kelly, ‘British Parliamentary Politics, 1784-1786’, Historical Journal (1974)
Nicholas Rogers, Whigs and Cities: Popular Politics in the age of Walpole and Pitt (1989)
A. Vickery, Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present (2002)