Skip to main content

The Assembly Rooms at Lyme

Here I am standing in front of the spot where the former Assembly Rooms at Lyme stood. Very sadly, they were demolished in 1927 to make way for the car park - a move I am not sure I shall ever forgive the council of the time for making. Fortunately, we have a lovely description left by the writer Constance Hill in her book, Jane Austen, Her Homes and her friends. This delightful book can be perused online and has wonderful illustrations by Constance's sister Ellen.

Constance is writing about Lyme around 1900, the book was first published in 1901 after the sisters made a tour of all the places of interest connected with Jane Austen:

At the town end of this "Walk" some thatched cottages nestle under the sheltering hill, and just beyond them stand the Assembly Rooms perched upon the eastern promontory of the bay. The scene in its principal features is the same as in Miss Austen's day; a sea wall being the only marked addition. A stretch of firm sands, lying between the points of the bay, forms a primitive highway for the heavily-laden waggons bearing freight from the harbour to the town. The sight of the horses up to their flanks in a flowing tide is what Miss Austen must often have looked upon.

The Assembly Rooms used formerly to be thrown open to company during the season twice a week, namely on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "The ball last night was pleasant," Jane writes on September 14, "but not full for Thursday. My father stayed contentedly till half-past nine (we went a little after eight), and then walked home with James and a lanthorn; though I believe the lanthorn was not lit as the moon was up; but sometimes the lanthorn may be a great convenience to him."

In former times there were no lamps on the "Walk," so that as Mr. Austen would have to traverse the whole length of it in returning home "a lanthorn or dark nights" would certainly "be a great convenience."

The ball-room is little changed since Miss Austen danced in it that September evening nearly a hundred years ago. It has lost its three glass chandeliers which used to hang from the arched ceiling, but these may still be seen in a private house in the neighbourhood. The orchestra consisted, we are told, of three violins and a violoncello. We visited the room by day-light, and felt almost as if it were afloat, for nothing but blue sea and sky was to be seen from its many windows. From the wide recessed window at the end, however, we got a glimpse of the sands and of the harbour and Cobb beyond.

Just outside this recessed window there is a steep flight of stone steps which leads from the Parade down to the beach. In former times this flight was much longer than it is now, part of it having been removed to make room for a cart track. On these steps the author of "Persuasion" effected the first meeting of Anne Elliot and her cousin, when his gaze of admiration attracted the attention of Captain Wentworth. Anne and her friends were all returning to their inn for breakfast, as the reader will remember, after taking a stroll on the beach.

The illustrations show a painting of the Assembly Rooms which can be seen in the museum at Lyme and one of my own which I did for a map in Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Lyme Regis.