Francis Noverre arrives in Norwich

The following notice appeared in the Norwich Mercury on 31 August 1793:

DANCING ACADEMY. 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.’

First, the useful facts: Augustin has a temporary address in Norwich. His base is London, which enhances his status and the tone of the advertisement. His encouraging friends may have been exactly that, or a ‘puff’ commonly used in advertisements – as anyone reading it would have known.

Augustin is apparently very deft for one who was not at ease with spoken English, but he may have read and written English fluently. I suspect Francis wrote the notice, but it carries more weight with Augustin’s name on it.

Jean-Georges’ English alias seems to have been generated by his family, not his theatre managers. His niece, Louisa, used it when annotating a letter from her uncle congratulating her on her marriage. The use of the anglicised version in 1793 is understandable, the sansculottes have taken to regicide and are to be loathed, but emigrés and distinguished aliens currently received sympathy in England.

And England is where ‘Sir George’ has been since December 1792. In the current state of hostilities he is interned as an enemy alien, and he lives with his nephew Charles in Great Marlborough Street.

Francis may have ‘just arrived from the Continent’ – but not from his uncle’s recent tutelage. Possibly he has not come from France, where he, too, would have been interned awaiting an exchange or in search of a sea-captain to be bribed for a passage home.

Where and when might Francis’ tuition fit into his uncle’s recent history? At the end of the 1788/89 season at the King’s Jean-Georges went home to Triel, Seine et Oise. The King’s burned down and opera/ballet in London went through three years of chaos during which time Jean-Georges remained in France. This is the most likely time for Francis to have been taught by his uncle ‘on the continent’.

When Jean-Georges returned to the re-built King’s in December 1792 cross-channel travel was permitted. Jean-Georges and his French dancers travelled on valid passports. The dancers from the Paris Opéra had formal leave which two of them, the Hilligsberg sisters, abused by remaining in England for good.

The King’s season opened on 26 January 1793. On 2 February the English press reported the execution of Louis XVI and London reacted with revulsion and monarchism. On 16 February the King’s presented an additional divertissement by Jean-Georges: a ‘Pas de trois et de quatre’ to the ‘Favourite Air of God Save the King, with variations’. Jean-Georges, who had enjoyed Marie Antoinette’s patronage, must have feared for himself and for his family in France, but he did not keep his head down; on 23 April he presented the spectacular Iphigénie en Aulide with its huge cast and processions, after which he took a curtain call and was crowned with laurels to great acclaim.

When the season ended in June Jean-Georges was interned ‘for the duration’. Madame Noverre, in France, was hard put to prevent the authorities – who had issued Jean-Georges with a passport – from requisitioning his property, including the Opéra annuity, and declaring him a traitor. Jean-Georges insisted to the authorities that he travelled legitimately and intended to return home when it was possible. He did not return until 1795.

If Francis was ‘on the Continent’ and under his uncle’s tuition before December 1792 he may have returned to London with Jean-Georges. Therefore ‘he has been for some time’ in London, plotting a crafty advertisement with his father, in which his uncle may have colluded. More to the point, after the King’s season ended in June Jean-Georges, marooned in London, would have had time to teach his nephew, if, in fact, he ever did so.

There is no hard evidence of Francis’ early life before his arrival in Norwich as a professional dancing master. When his uncle was living in Great Marlborough Street in 1788, Francis would have been 15 years old, in training for his profession and ideally placed for extra tuition from his uncle, but I suspect that his Master was his father. Dancing masters often had training in stage dancing, but there is no evidence that Francis appeared with his uncle’s ballet company; it wasn’t his milieu.

So why all the persiflage? The advertisement in the Mercury was just an elaborate ‘puff’.

Francis was twenty when he came to Norwich. He boarded for a time with Mrs Milligan. Chase’s Directory, 1783, gives her address, as previously noted, but does not include her in the list of boarding-house keepers. Her status is not clear. By the end of the year Francis moved to Assembly House Yard; his first Poor Tax payment was made at Christmas 1793. His sister Louisa may have lived with him as housekeeper; on 11 February 1798 at St Stephen’s Church she married Richard Mackenzie Bacon of Taverham, proprietor/editor of the Norwich Mercury. Francis, who gained a useful brother-in-law, was a witness of the marriage together with Harriet Brunton whom he would shortly marry. The third witness was H. Day whom I cannot identify, except for his membership of a family active in civic affairs. We have to assume that Augustin was present to give his daughter away.

Francis reinforced his professional beginnings in Norwich with an advertisement in the Mercury on 20 September 1793. The style is so similar to that of Augustin’s advertisement that I am sure Francis wrote both of them.

Mr F. Noverre has the honour of acquainting the Ladies and Gentlemen … that his DANCING ACADEMY commences at the Assembly Rooms on Tuesday next for young Ladies and Gentlemen, and will be continued on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 o’clock. Terms 1 guinea per quarter and 1 guinea entrance, but no entrance will be required of those who have been taught by other masters. Private tuition and schools attended. Mr Noverre is to be bespoken with at Mrs Milligan’s.’

The terms quoted are standard for the period. 1 guinea per quarter covered two lessons a week by the early 1800s.

Behind the genteel suavity a battle was being fought. Norwich already had dancing masters in plenty and while they kept the rules regarding fees they poached each others’ territory like a set of pirates. The practice of longest standing was that of Edward Christian whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather had run a dancing school at 3 Redwell Street. They had succeeded to the practice originated by John Boseley dating back to 1693. Francis Noverre challenged a century-old practice which had once been fashionable but was now in decline. It was also encroached upon by John Browne, Augustin’s ex-pupil, who had recently moved to 12 Redwell Street. I suspect that the Noverres knew what was going on in their own profession in Norwich. Augustin and Francis may have done a recce before Augustin’s notice appeared in the press. They knew where the weak spot was and they were in the fortunate position of being able to afford the best and most fashionable premises.

The Christians had always held classes and scholars’ balls at their own premises. The Assembly House was a smarter address at a higher rent. There is no precedent for the event advertised by Edward Christian in the Mercury on 22 September 1793.

‘Mr Christian’s Annual Ball for his Pupils, Friday next, Assembly House, 6pm. Tickets 6/- from Mrs Back at the Rooms.’

After this additional expense Edward retreated to his own premises from which he issued a defensive challenge in the Mercury on 28 September.

‘MR CHRISTIAN having been solicited to open a private ACADEMY for giving instruction in REELS, SCOTCH STEPS and present modes of COUNTRY DANCES, begs leave to inform … he will for 3 months give attendance 2 evenings every week at his own rooms for that purpose. NB. 1 evening for ladies, 1 for gentlemen.’

Segregation seems counterproductive but it was common practice in dancing schools.

No further capital letters were fired by either side. Edward remained at Redwell Street in a practice which lingered. In 1794 he advertised in the Mercury. ‘Mr Christian denies he intends to retire.’ (He was then only 44, but twice Francis’ age). Shortly afterwards John Browne issued a copy-cat notice. Evidently their pupils were disappearing in the direction of young Mr Noverre. When John Browne died in 1799 debts were called in; the pupils who stayed with him failed to pay him.

Francis held the high ground and the best premises. He advertised in the Mercury on 20 September 1794:

‘Mr Noverre has the honour of acquainting Ladies and Gentlemen … his FIRST ANNUAL BALL, since his establishment here will be held at the Assembly Rooms, 25 September. Tickets 5/- from Mr Noverre, St. Stephens, near the Playhouse Plain. No admittance without a ticket. Room opened at 5pm. Dancing to begin at 6.30 pm.’

Francis’ direction is confusing; it could be domestic (Assembly House Yard), or professional. Playhouse Plain was the area in front of the Assembly House and not, perversely, the area in front of the neighbouring theatre.

Francis won the opening skirmish and the battle. Edward Christian moved his diminishing practice to 11 Redwell Street a few years before he died in 1804. In 1805 Mr Bailey bought the practice from Edward’s widow and moved it upmarket to 1 St. Stephen’s Street, where his galleried Great Room was often let for concerts. When Bailey retired in 1812 Francis bought his practice to add to his own and employed Bailey’s assistant, Mr Harwood. In 1813 Harwood defected to set up his own practice in Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court. This well-sounding address, serially used by dancing masters, was actually the Great Room of the Lobster Inn. Francis remained in practice at the Assembly House, a location for which, once established, no further ‘puffs’ were needed.

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