When Georgian or Regency novels talk of Assembly Rooms, the locations are usually Almacks, or Bath, or Harrogate. But in the far west of England during this period a little oasis of wealth and culture was blooming. A gentleman visiting in 1790 claimed that Truro was "unquestionably the handsomest town in Cornwall." The centre of the town was High Cross, site of annual fairs and weekly markets complete with bull baiting. But with the town's wealthy citizens getting richer - Ralph Allen Daniell's nickname was "Guinea a minute", an indication of his reputed earnings - they wanted to raise the tone and build an elegant location for more genteel entertainment. They wanted Assembly Rooms. The money was raised by the sale of 28 shares costing £55 each. Lord Falmouth bought three. The Assembly Rooms opened in 1789, and among the people attending the ceremony was famous actress Sarah Siddons.
But while the wealthy danced, flirted, played cards and enjoyed lavish banquets, trouble was brewing. The Revolution across the Channel had unsettled local landowners who were worried about its possible influence on the lower classes here. By 1793 England was at war with France. When the harvest failed in 1795 riots erupted as starving miners flooded into Truro from the surrounding countryside to protest at the price of bread. Yet by 1798 spirits were rising once more with one of Nelson's victory over the French. Truro's Assembly Rooms were the perfect location for a glittering ball. This time though, motivated either by a sense of self-preservation or perhaps a genuine desire that the whole county share the celebration, in every town Cornwall's wealthy citizens contributed an ox or a sheep and many gallons of beer so the ordinary folk could rejoice with their own street party.
Jane Jackson. Dangerous Waters pub. Robert Hale Feb 2006.
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