2012 – Forget the crisis and dance; reconstructing Master Treby’s years of dancing and pleasure 1802-1815

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Master Paul Treby, a Devonshire gentleman of considerable means, decided that it was time to keep a diary. Almost nine years of war were over and peace negotiations had begun. January 1802 was an ideal time for reflection. In the preface he wrote

When the golden age of youth is succeeded by the iron one of old age I shall say to myself I might have passed my youth more usefully than in hunting, shooting, dancing and instead of the hounds I might have followed some gentlemanly profession for instance that of arms…

At the same time the Calmady family of Langdon Court were improving their estate and making their house more fit for dancing and entertainment. French Naval Officers, held prisoner in a Cornish town, were teaching young ladies to dance and breaking a few hearts in the process and poor Elizabeth Philips was searching for her missing husband, Thomas, who been drawn into the army reserve. 1802 was a momentous year for many people. How aware these individuals were of the Treaty of Amiens is unrecorded but the latter reflected the nation’s “long weariness with war.” Civilians were “delighted to be at peace” as income tax was abolished, the volunteer regiments disbanded and the size of the navy dramatically reduced. In Devon the Grand Fleet at Torbay was broken up and 40,000 sailors were discharged. There was dancing in the streets of Plymouth and dancing in the halls of the ‘three towns.’ The crisis and challenge of war was over. Except it wasn’t for after a single year of peace hostilities with France broke out again and continued to 1815.

This paper is an examination of social life in a local community during a period of national crisis. Master Paul and his neighbours lived out their lives against a backdrop of war and its financial and social implications. Yet despite the shadow of this war Paul and his friends found many excuses to seek out opportunities to dance and places in which to find new dance partners. Using evidence from his recently discovered handwritten diary, contemporary news reports, handbills, sermons and other primary sources, this paper explores how, for some at least, dancing would always be more important than warfare.

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Catherine Bowness