Port Phillip might have been on the other side of the globe and its seasons might have been the wrong way round, but when it came to the expression of status, the ‘respectable’ citizens of Port Phillip looked, at least in this pre-Gold Rush period, to the practices of ‘home’.
Private Quarterly Assemblies were a normal part of English social life. Hundreds of people would flock to assembly rooms in London and the provincial cities like York and the spa town of Bath. They were formal events where entry was by subscription, and attendees were screened to ensure the quality of those who gained admittance. The most aristocratic was Almacks while Jane Austen’s books describe the famous Bath Assemblies and more humble affairs at provincial level.
And so to the Port Phillip Assemblies. They were established in the midst of controversy over celebrations for the Queens Birthday ball, which culminated in two balls- a public one and a private one. The success of the private ball prompted the establishment of a committee of twenty men to arrange Private Quarterly Assemblies. Membership, vetted by the committee, was limited to gentleman colonists and their families. Merchants were included, but tradesmen were not. As Edward Curr was to find out, squabbles between gentlemen settlers could bubble over into the Assembly committee. He had argued with Lyon Campbell over the hiring of a cook, and the matter was brought before the Assembly Committee which, much to his gratification, refused the demands to strike him from the subscriber list.
The Port Phillip Herald of 21 October 1842 has a report of the Assembly Ball held on 19th October in the long room of the new Mechanics School of Arts on Eastern Hill. I assume that this was the original Atheneum building in Collins Street, although it was not officially opened until December. Certainly the new building was a source of great pride, described as a building “that would do credit to a town three times as old as our metropolis” (PPH 11 Oct 1842). Tickets for the ball had been available from the Melbourne Club.
DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE. ASSEMBLY BALL. (PPH 21 Oct 1842)
The second private assembly ball of the season took place at the Mechanics’ School of Arts, on the evening of Wednesday last; and, notwithstanding the wetness of the weather, the coldness of the air, and the almost impassable state of the streets prevented so numerous an attendance as was expected, at eleven o’clock eighty guests had assembled, one half being ladies. The noble long room of the Institution was set apart for the ball, leading from which was an ante-room plentifully supplied throughout the whole evening with refreshments. Three large chandeleers [sic] with oil burners suspended from the ceiling, and innumerable wax-candles fixed in branches fastened all round the room, threw a brilliant light upon the handsome faces and splendid dresses of the ladies, and the happy countenances of all. A temporary orchestra was erected at the further corner of the room, containing seven musicians, who, to do them justice, played admirably from the first quadrille to the closing country dance. The waltz tunes were very well selected, and the time excellently marked. At half-past one o’clock the company went below to partake of a substantial supper, provided by Mr Howe, in the two left-hand rooms, which having been done ample justice to, the ball-room was again the scene of the stirring dance till daylight, when the company separated highly gratified at the evening’s festivities, which were considerably enhanced by the excellent arrangements of the stewards.
My, these Port Phillipians knew how to party! I thought that it was only clubbers of the late twentieth century who arrived just before midnight and continued on until daybreak. This is October, so it would have been completely dark when they arrived. And supper at 1.30 a.m.!!
Paul de Serville Port Phillip Gentlemen