Cheshire Rounds

In May 1803, a wedding was celebrated in the Rocks – the lower class area of early Sydney.  One of the dances was the Cheshire Rounds, an old dance which was part of the popular culture, particularly for the “lower orders”.

Rural dance by Thomas Rowlandson (1812).

It was reported in The Sydney Gazette  in the humorous style of editor George Howe, with a satirical look at the “Irish” and “bumpkins” of Sydney Cove rather than a serious eyewitness report.  It is assumed most of the readers would have been familiar with the three dances mentioned.

On the evening of Saturday the 7th instant a Celebration of Nuptials took place on the Rocks, at which a numerous group of congratulants assembled to greet the enamoured TOUCHSTONE and his beloved AUDREY.

Compliments at an end, the circling planet of the board was briskly courted, and a fiddler with his merry crowd, received a universal welcome: the merry dance commenced, and the fair bride led down the Country Bumpkin, which was performed in character. The Cheshire rounds and the Irish trot were also gone through with equal success, after which a contest for the BREECHES ensued, but was determined in favour of Madam Beatrice, and the ladies at parting, withdrew in triumph.

On Monday evening a grand serenade of CULINARY instruments waited on the new-married pair, which in harmony came little short of marrow-bones and cleavers. The musicians demanded a fee, imposed by custom, and which being complied with, the YOUNG couple were left to their QUIET.

Sydney Gazette, Sunday, May 15, 1803

The last page of the paper carries the official announcement and provides further details about the matrimonial couple.

Announcement of the wedding of Catharine Rourke to Henry Simpson. Sydney Gazette, 15 May 1803.

The wedding was held at The Rocks, one of the first areas settled in Sydney, which ‘was associated with those who had arrived as convicts from the beginning of white settlement’.  It was populated by a cross-section of the lower orders: labourers, convicts, maritime workers, tradesmen and women as well as attracting visiting seamen. Regarded as the rude, uncultured end of town,  popular culture thrived here, especially in the many public houses – music, dancing and singing as well as drinking, brawling and gambling.

This was a Catholic wedding with an Irish element. Historian Grace Karskens in The Rocks.  Life in Early Sydney states, “The glimpses we have of official weddings suggest that couples opened their homes to their friends for all-night celebrations…. Irish couples seem to have gathered Irish friends together for celebrations of drinking, singing and dancing which lasted three days.”

This celebration continued from Saturday to Monday, culminating with “‘a grand serenade of CULINARY instruments’, clanging and bashing pots, pans, spoons and basins outside the house of the newlyweds, the din described as ‘harmony little short of marrow-banes and cleavers’.  In accordance with ‘custom’ they refused to go away until a ‘fee’ was paid ‘which being complied with the YOUNG couple were left to their domestic QUIET’.”

Sydney in 1803. Barrington’s History of New South Wales

The Cheshire Rounds was published consistently in dance manuals from Playford’s The Dancing Master in 1701 through to Preston’s Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1801.  The music historian Charles Burney (1726 -1818), who was under the impression that no folk music existed in England, said, “The English have not a melody that they can call their own except the hornpipe Cheshire Round.”  It is also mentioned in the play The Recruiting Officer which was first performed by convicts in Sydney in 1789.

Transcribed from The Barnes Book of English Country Dances, Volume 1

Country dance: Duple minor longways.

A1 1 – 4 1st lady casts off, below 2nd lady, across below 2nd man and slips up to 1st place, improper
WHILE
1st man follows her, going below behind 2nd lady and then, facing his partner, slipping up the middle of the set, to end in 1st place, improper.
A2 1 – 4 2nd man casts up, above 1st man, across above 1st lady and slips down to 2nd place, improper
WHILE
2nd lady follows him, going below behind 1st lady and then, facing her partner, slipping up the middle of the set, to end in 2nd place, improper.
B1 1 – 2 1st cross and cast, WHILE 2nd couple turn ½ way with two hands and lead up.
3 – 4 All turn partner with two hands
B2 1 – 4 1st and 2nd couples four changes of a circular hey, without hands

Thompson’s Complete Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances, Vol. II. 1765

The original instructions for country dances were basic and terse with no directions for any but the first couples. Other dancers were expected to reflect or complement the actions of the leading couple with everyone dancing as much as possible.

Longways country dances were the most popular dances in the early colony.  Caricature of longways dance by Rowlandson, late 1790s.

In 1974 when Shirley Andrews, the pioneer of Australian dance research, published Take Your Partners she selected an 1809 version of the dance. This was not a traditional rendering but rather an attempt by the English dancing master, Thomas Wilson, to create something new. Wilson, in The Treasures of the Terpischore, delighted in updating old dances – not always successfully: in his new version of the Cheshire Rounds,  the “rounds” were completely removed and it bears little resemblance to the original dance. Without the excellent resources now available to researchers, it was Wilson’s version which Shirley Andrews selected when writing Take Your Partners and although it may have been danced in the colony at a later date, it would not be the version recorded in the 1803 Sydney Gazette.

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Sources

Karskens, G. (1998). The Rocks: life in early Sydney. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press

Scholes, P. A., & Ward, J. O. (2000). The Oxford companion to music. London: Oxford University Press.

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The information on this website www.colonialdance.com.au may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Dr Heather Blasdale-Clarke.

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