Georgian Dancing-Masters in Norwich

J-G Noverre_(in_pencil)_(NYPL_b12149384-5247709)

Probably Jean-Georges Noverre
New York Public Library

For the upper and middle classes, the Georgian period was one of intense social activity, both in the home and in public assemblies. Since dancing was an essential part of many gatherings, the ability to dance gracefully became an essential part of the skills of every person aspiring to gain a reputation in polite society.

Towns and cities throughout the country built assembly rooms to accommodate the wealth of public partying, while those who owned large mansions — and even some living in more modest properties — used any suitable spaces to host exclusive private parties and balls.

Dance was also a part of the curriculum at many schools. Not only did it add to pupils’ social graces, it helped improve their deportment and general appearance. Those who taught dancing, however, occupied a more ambivalent position. While the profession was seen as necessary, dancing-masters were often the butt of critical humour, based on their supposed foppish ways, a situation made worse by the fact that many of them were born or trained overseas. They may have been essential to Georgian polite society, but that did not mean that they were treated as anything other than slightly superior servants.

Dance and Theatre

Interludes of dance were often included in theatrical performances of the time, as were complete ballets. It was due to this custom that Norwich’s most famous dancing-masters, the Noverre family, first came to England in 1755, when the actor-manager David Garrick brought Jean-Georges Noverre’s ballet company from France to perform Les Fêtes Chinois at the Drury Lane Theatre.

It proved to be an ill-fated arrangement. War between Britain and France broke out during their visit and London exploded with anti-French riots. At one point, Augustin Noverre, Jean-Georges’ younger brother, was caught up in these disturbances. The story is that a scuffle between the cast and the rioters took place on the stage of the Drury Lane Theatre, both sides using swords, and Augustin Noverre injured someone. As a result, the Noverre family fled to Norwich and were hidden there by descendants of the Hugenot weavers.

A more likely, if less colourful story, claims that the family decided Augustin should remain in England when the rest of them returned to France at the end of the engagement. Augustin then became ballet master at Drury Lane, holding that post until David Garrick retired from the theatre in 1776. After that, Augustin continued as a dancing-master, a profession he had held throughout his time at the theatre.

The Norwich Noverres

There is good evidence that Augustin Noverre stayed in London for most of the rest of the century, combining this with periods practising as dancing-master in Norwich. Other London-based dancing-masters did the same. Unfortunately, accounts of his life conflict, dating his arrival in Norwich at various times after 1776. The only firm evidence we have comes from the advertisement given below, which appeared in the Norwich Mercury of 31st August, 1793 and was aimed at establishing his son Francis as a Norwich dancing-master in his own right. In it, Augustin describes himself as “Mr Noverre of London”, which might either settle the matter or be seen as put there simply to make him sound more fashionable and important.

Mr Noverre of London, wishing to establish his SON in Norwich, and having been greatly encouraged by his Friends to such an undertaking, begs leave to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen of this City and County that his son, Mr F Noverre, has just arrived from the Continent (where he has been for some time under the tuition of his uncle Sir George Noverre) and intends opening an Academy for young Ladies and Gentlemen on or before Michaelmas next, of which timely notice will be given by Mr Noverre, whose present address is at Mrs Milligan’s in St Stephen’s. Mr Noverre has not a doubt but that his son’s assiduity in his profession will give perfect satisfaction to any Lady or Gentleman who may honour him with their support.

By 1797, the poor tax records show father and son both residing in Norwich, in a street very close to the Assembly House. The ‘Sir George Noverre’ of the above advertisement is the elder brother, Jean-Georges, mentioned earlier, here given the British version of a title awarded him in France. Jean-Georges had, as noted earlier, returned to live in France and died there in poverty in 1810, ruined by the Revolution.

Augustin’s son, Francis, had been born in Britain and seems to have had a British wife. His family stayed in Norwich and prospered there, becoming closely associated with the Assembly House and the Theatre Royal. Francis himself was a highly respected citizen of Norwich and one of the original directors of the Norwich Union insurance company. The family did so well that they added a large wing to the original Assembly House in 1840. This was to house the balls they held there, as well as the Noverre Academy where which they taught dancing. In the 20th century, this wing became a cinema and is now a gallery, shop and exhibition space, still carrying the Noverre name.

Other Local Dancing-Masters

The Noverres were not the only dancing-masters in Norwich, though they may have been the most famous. There were many. The following three extracts from local newspapers of the time reveal some of the others practising this profession.

Norwich, Feb. 22, 1782

The Public are respectfully informed, that at Mr. BROWNE’S, Dancing master, in St. Michael-at-Plea, A BOARDING and DAY SCHOOL, For Young Ladies, WILL be opened on Tuesday the twenty-sixth of March, under the Direction of Mademoiselle Morel, a Native of’ France, who has been employed in the Education of several young Ladies of Fashion in this Kingdom, and of Mrs. Webb, who was English Teacher at Mrs. Olier’s, Bloomsbury square, six Years, and at Campden-house, Year and a half.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 2 March 1782)

DANCING

MR. GOSNOLD, Dancing-master, having taught Dancing for these thirty Years, in Norwich and many Parts of England, with the greatest Reputation:— He teaches his young Pupils every Tuesday and Thursday at his house in Sir Benjamin Wrenche’s Court, at Thirteen Shillings per Quarter; and as he has an elegant Room, intends opening an EVENING SCHOOL, every Tuesday and Thursday, for the Winter Half Year, for the Reception of grown-up Ladies and Gentlemen, at the above mentioned Price. The School opens Tuesday, September the 30th, at Half part Six each evening.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 20 September 1783)

MR. LALLIET, assistant to Mr. VERON, DANCING MASTER, will attend every Monday at Mrs. Wicksted’s Boarding-School, Yarmouth; at Beccles every Tuesday; and for the accommodation of the young Ladies and Gentlemen of Yarmouth, Mr. Lalliet will attend every Saturday from Ten o’clock in the morning till One and from Three to Six at the Star Tavern upon the Quay.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 24 March 1792)

*Note:* The best, most detailed source of information on the Noverre family is “Mr Noverre’s Academy: A Georgian Dancing Master in Norwich” by Maggie Marsh, published in 2005 by the Norwich Early Dance Group, to which this article is much indebted.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to Georgian Dancing-Masters in Norwich

  1. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    How clever of David Garrick bring the Noverre ballet company from France to perform Les Fêtes Chinois at the Drury Lane Theatre. Had I been around then, I would definitely have seen it.

    Nonetheless I think it was a brilliant idea to include dance in theatrical performances back then. First of all I am not sure there would be a separate, well-enough heeled audience in Norwich for complete ballets, and secondly the facilities were already in place.

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    • At that time, Norwich was the second or third largest city in the country after London and well-supplied with gentry and rich merchants. There were also plenty of grand houses nearby. It was never going to rival London, but it was right up there with Bristol, Manchester and Dublin. The Noverres did very well out of Norwich; much better than they would have done in London, I suspect.

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