Its a common misconception that our strait-laced great aunts and stern grandfathers were all tucked up in bed in flannel nightgowns and night caps by sundown; they often danced till dawn, and only walked home in time for morning milking. Charles Dickens, who never liked Ambleside much anyway,complained in "Household Words" that he had never heard such raucous revellry and drunken hallooing making its way home in the early hours as he witnessed in Ambleside; but of course there was also entertainment with rather more decorum, requiring white gloves and a Master of Ceremonies, and it is these dances and balls which elderly people describe this week in this series on leisure.
There were several formal balls held each winter at Ambleside Assembly Rooms, and although anyone that could afford the price of a ticket could go, people soon split into their social orders:
"There was the Conservative Ball, the Liberals, the Boys Brigade, and the Fire Brigade in the Assembly Rooms... and down the stairs under, where they have the sale rooms now (more recently Zeffirelli's Arcade), it was all beautifully done then, all decorated and great long trestle tables done out with flowers and everything. It was very funny, there were three classes of people at these dances, there was probably the Redmaynes, and those from places like Loughrigg Brow all at the very top against the orchestra. And then there was, well, I was amongst them, and my friends and farmers and such like, then down at the very bottom, I always laugh about it, was what they called the Laundry Clique, a lot of girls, the laundry then that Bernard Horrax had, there was a whole lot of them, and they always had the bottom of the floor. They always called them the Laundry Clique because they always stuck together down there."
The formal Ball was at its height just before the First World War in Ambleside:
"The elaborate ones were held - I've heard them talk - before World War 1 ,now they were balls. They were terrific shows, the competition for dress and rules and regulations,and all the cards you'd to sign and all that for dances - they were probably booked up a week before the dance was on. And even the men - I've talked to all the chaps, you see you daren't go unless you'd a suit on and you'd got to wear gloves, and such elaborate dresses, the women wore gloves and the men wore gloves and if you didn't be getting booked up a week or two before, he said, the card was full for many of them long before they had the dance.They were the most elaborate affairs - we only had four big Balls in the winter season but they WERE the Balls, absolutely fabulous.
"They used to have the catering in the basement, sometimes the Conservatives had a big one, and the Liberals had what we called a soiree and perhaps the ladies would do some of the catering and some would be let out...
"Now between the Wars we had some, we thought they were fabulous, but still everyone was dressed in a suit to start with when first I remember, it wasn't a thing to go dressed anyhow; and most of them had dancing shoes, these glassy shoes, and they'd also got an orchestra, good band or orchestra. But they were strict, of course, a lot of MCs were terribly strict. They wouldn't allow anyone to take drink in, they used to search people and if anybody was a bit unsteady they used to turn 'em out, and anybody they found out had got passed them, they used to turn them out the same!"
Entertainment in Grasmere tended to be a little more sober:
"The Grasmere Citizens Association used to meet in Grasmere Hall about once a month, under the sponsorship of Mrs Rawnsley.And they had a lecturer, they had light refreshments and then they had a dance. It wasn't a barn dance, it was a dance. And it was very carefully supervised by Mrs Rawnsley to make sure that the young people didn't misbehave in any way. And everybody went with gloves and hats, and if you were invited to Allen Bank for tea, again you went with gloves and hat and it was all terribly prim and proper."
Not so in Langdale, it would seem, where enjoyment spilled over into the early hours, and long after the Ball was over, the Band played on:
"Our main entertainment really as far as the War was going to the Hunt Ball, but then they used to last 'til three in the morning, we used to have a real session in them days with a knife and fork supper.
"I've come down after being at work down Colwith Brow there, and I've heard music coming to my ears when the wind was blowing on t'bike - we'd have listened to it that long the night before that next day, after being four hours at work, I've come down there with the wind blowing, and I could hear the band playing in my ears."
"I had a good do one morning. I sat up one night with a cow that was calving. Next night was Hunt Ball, so I had two nights up practically. I sat down to milk a cow next morning, put me head up nice and quietly against it, you know, and dropped off to sleep. The bucket was dropped, the cow knocked me down into the muck, that wakened me up again, I'll never forget that one, by gum! That cow did land me one, spilt all t'milk, I wakened up alright!"
If everyone enjoyed it all so much, why did the balls and dances simply fade away? Television is the obvious answer, but in Ambleside there was never any doubt about why it all ended. In the end, everything hinged on safety rules and regulations, bureaucracy won the day, and fixed seating robbed the town of its best and biggest dance floor:
"It was alright until the ruling came in that the seats had to be screwed to the floor, and that finished the Assembly Rooms. Whenever there was a dance, all the chairs were shifted to the side and it was alright. But when they screwed them down, the floor could no longer be used as a dance hall."