Public assemblies were often at the centre of polite social entertainment. Taking place mostly in the winter months, though also during the Assizes or race week, they were places to see and be seen. Here social gatherings, games, refreshments and particularly dancing were enjoyed, for the price of a seasonal or annual subscription.
During the early years of the 1700s York held regular assemblies at Kings Manor and later at Lord Irwin’s property near the Minster. Sensing an opportunity to capture the growing market in polite entertainments, a new building on Blake Street was commissioned via public subscription. The building, designed by Lord Burlington and based on a design for an ‘Egyptian Hall’ by Palladio, provided a sumptuous backdrop for the elite of the north to enjoy the pleasures of the assembly. Here guests could revel in a variety of entertainments, including balls, where minuets and country dances were enjoyed, musical concerts, as well as refreshments, card games and lectures. During the day the rooms were used by accredited tradesmen selling a wide range of goods, including coffee, chocolate, cakes, gloves and cards.
The building of the new rooms in the 1730s coincided with the move of the races to the Knavesmire and the creation of New Walk, which together helped to signify York’s position as the social capital of the north. Describing the rooms in 1736 Francis Drake declared, ‘here it is that York shines indeed, when […] four or five hundred of both sexes, out of the best families in the kingdom are all met together, […] the politeness of the gentlemen, the richness of the dress, and the remarkable beauty of the ladies, and, of late, the magnificence of the room they meet in, cannot be equalled, throughout, in any part of Europe.’