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Music and Movement in Britain, 1793–1815

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 April 2021


The frequent references to the actors and events of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in the titles of the dance tunes of the period raise the question of how we should understand their significance. This article argues that the practice is one of a number of examples of music and song shaping people's lived experience and behavior in ways that were rarely fully conscious. Drawing on a range of music collections, diaries, and journals, the article argues that we need to recognize how significant aural dimensions were in shaping people's predisposition to favor the status quo in this period of heightened political controversy.

Special Forum: Music and Politics in Britain, c.1780-1850
Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies, 2021

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1 For recent exceptions, see Baycroft, Timothy and Hopkin, David, eds., Folklore and Nationalism during the Long Nineteenth Century (Leiden, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kirk, John, Noble, Andrew, and Brown, Michael, eds., United Islands? The Languages of Resistance (London, 2012)Google Scholar; Horgan, Kate, The Politics of Songs in Eighteenth Century Britain (London, 2014)Google Scholar; Jensen, Oskar Cox, Napoleon and British Song, 1797–1822 (Basingstoke, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Newman, Ian, “Civilizing Taste: ‘Sandman Joe,’ the Bawdy Ballad and Metropolitan Improvement,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 48, no. 4 (2015): 437–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Valladares, Susan, Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres, 1807–1815 (Farnham, 2015)Google Scholar; Jensen, Oskar Cox, Kennerley, David, and Newman, Ian, eds., Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture (Oxford, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Useful background can be found in Temperley, Nicholas, ed., Athlone History of Music in Britain in the Romantic Age, 1800–1914, vol. 5 (London, 1981)Google Scholar, esp. chaps. 4 and 6.

2 See Dennant, Paul, “‘The Barbarous English Jig’: The ‘Black Joke’ in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Folk Music Journal 110, no. 3 (2013): 298318Google Scholar; Porter, Gerald, “Melody as a Bearer of Radical Ideology: English Enclosures, The Coney Warren and Mobile Clamour,” in Rhythms of Revolt: European Traditions and Memories of Social Conflict in Oral Culture, ed. Guillorel, Éva, Hopkin, David, and Pooley, William G. (Abingdon 2018), 240–64Google Scholar. Porter claims that “Derry Down” is “strongly associated with the emerging oppositional cultures of the late eighteenth century” (245)—yet sixteen of the twenty-two uses of the tune for political songs between 1789 and 1815 that I have identified were loyalist.

3 Hopkin, David, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 G. M. S. Chivers, The Modern Dancing Master: Containing [ . . . ] Nearly One Hundred of the Most Popular Airs, Arranged for the Piano Forte, Harp, Violin, or Flute (London, 1822), 23.

5 The Juvenile Guide, in a Series of Letters on Various Subjects, Addressed to Young Ladies (London, 1807), 18.

6 The Polite Academy, or, School of behaviour for young gentlemen and ladies [. . .], 3rd ed. (London, 1771), 97.

7 Temperley, Athlone History of Music, 113–14.

8 Chivers, Modern Dancing Master, 27.

9 [Rees Howell] Gronow, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow: Being Anecdotes of the Camp, Court, Clubs and Society, 1810–1860 (London, 1900), 298. In Frances Burney's The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, vol. 1 (London, 1814), 178–79, one element in “Ellis's” conduct that persuades people of her respectability is her mastery of the cotillion.

10 Chivers, Modern Dancing Master, 25.

11 For first experiences of a dance, see Frances Burney, Evelina, vol. 1 (London, 1778), 34–36; Frances Burney, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, 3 vols. (London, 1796), 1: 140–42. Consider the importance of dancing in the social worlds of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) or Mansfield Park (1814).

12 Elizabeth Soane, diary (7 January 1806; 15 January 1805), Soane Museum, London.

13 See also Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (Oxford, 2015), 134, 148.

14 Jack Ayers, ed., Paupers and Pig Killers: The Diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1799–1818 (Stroud, 1984), 19–20.

15 Almack's had a restricted clientele with strict rules of admission. See E. Beresford Chancellor, Memorials of St. James's Street and Chronicles of Almack's (London, 1922), 208–9. See also Gronow, Reminiscences, 42–46.

16 Jane Fiske, ed., The Oakes Diaries: Business, Politics, and the Family in Bury St. Edmunds, 1778–1827, vol. 1, James Oakes’ Diaries, 1778–1800 (Boydell, 1990), 273–74, 285. See entries for Yarmouth on 19, 24, and 26 August 1791, and for Bury St. Edmunds on 12 October 1792, indicating up to eighty couples dancing.

17 Ayers, Diary of William Holland, 267. See also Abigail Gawthorne, The Diary of Abigail Gawthorne, ed. Adrian Henstock (Nottingham, 1980), who carefully records her daughter's dances; see, for example, 61, 66, 68, 75, 77, 80, 87, 89, 90, 92, 93, and so on.

18 Cecilia Brightwell, Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, 2nd ed. (Norwich, 1854), 29.

19 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Andrew Saunders, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1988), v, 267–68.

20 Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story, 4 vols. (London, 1791), 1:63 and 1:257–75, on the masquerade.

21 Mary Hays, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, 2 vols. (London, 1796).

22 Burney, Camilla, 1:136–79.

23 Sharon Turner, “My Autobiography,” 9 July 1794, Add. MSS 81089, fols. 367–68, British Library.

24 For resistance, see the Diary of William Upcott, Add. MSS 32558, fol. 41r–v, British Library. See also Cox Jensen's discussion of Joseph Mayett and Robert Butler in Napoleon and British Song, 67.

25 Erica Buurman and Oskar Cox Jensen, “Dancing the ‘Waterloo Waltz,’” in Napoleon's Hundred Days and the Politics of Legitimacy, ed. Kate Astbury and Mark Philp (Basingstoke, 2018), 208–32, at 227.

26 Peter D. Sumner, ed., Lincolnshire Collections, vol. 1, The Joshua Gibbons Manuscript (Rochdale, 1997).

27 Liz Bowen, Robin Shepherd, and Rosalind Shepherd, eds., Tunes, Songs and Dances from the 1798 Manuscript of Joshua Jackson, 2 vols. (Ilkley, 1998–2011).

28 The Village Music Project, accessed 29 July 2019,

29 This manuscript, purchased in Carlisle, formed part of the Frank Kidson collection, now in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London. It was transcribed by Anne Geddes Gilchrist; the original has since disappeared.

30 The Morgiana tunes are spin-offs from Sheridan's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

31 Chivers, Modern Dancing Master, 49, 44.

32 Moritz, Karl Philipp, Anton Reiser: A Psychological Novel, ed. Robinson, Ritchie (London, 1997), 316Google Scholar, 317.

33 Ayers, Diary of William Holland, 23.

34 Ayers, 61.

35 Skinner, John, Journal of a Somerset Rector, 1803–1834, ed. Coombs, Howard and Coombs, Peter (Oxford, 1971), 200–2Google Scholar, 398.

36 Ayers, Diary of William Holland, 35.

37 Ayers, 33, 121, 123–24.

38 Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers, Add. MS 16923, fol. 127 r–v, British Library.

39 Turner, “Autobiography,” 2 May 1794, BL Add. MSS 81089, fols. 347–48.

40 See Navickas, Katrina, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789–1848 (Manchester, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Galt, John, The Provost, ed. Gordon, Ian A. (Oxford, 1973), 57Google Scholar.

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