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The Life of Thomas Wilson, Dancing Master
Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor
If you've spent any time reading the pages here at RegencyDances.org, you'll have noticed that we regularly quote from the works of Thomas Wilson. Wilson is incredibly important to anyone who researches Regency era dancing, he wrote most of the books we rely on; but very little is known about the man himself. I'm hoping to address that in this article.
A complete list of Wilsonian publications is available here.
Wilson wasn't particularly famous in his own day, but he was successful in his chosen profession. It's surprisingly difficult to find any biographical details about his life, outside of those hinted at in his own books. We know that he was associated with the King's Theatre Opera House, we know he hosted Balls, taught dancing, and wrote so many books. But what else is known?
I only know of one portrait of Wilson that ever existed, and unfortunately I don't have a copy. Wilson tells us in his 1811 Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore that the first edition of Treasures of Terpsichore included a
Wilson in Liverpool?
In the 1885 reprint of an 1852 book called Liverpool, a Few Years Since by An Old Stager, there's a curious passage recounting a local character who lived in Liverpool
Close to St. Anne’s Church was the house of a celebrated character amongst us, both then and long afterwards. We speak of Mr. Thomas Wilson, profanely called Tommy Wilson, the dancing-master, by his wicked pupils. A good fellow was Tommy, although a strict disciplinarian in “teaching the young idea,” not “how to shoot,” but how to turn out its toes and go through the positions. But, unfortunately, Mr. Wilson grew too ambitious, and, instead of contenting himself with fiddling for boys and girls to dance to, would preside over orchestras and concerts, and cater for the amusement of the public, by which we fear he did not grow too rich. He was a worthy, warm-hearted man in his way, and somewhat of an original, and withal possessing the good opinion of all who knew him.3
A similar retrospective called Recollections of Old Liverpool by J.F. Hughes in 1863 recalls that a
He also made a passing reference to Liverpool in the Danciad. He said that a fancy dress ball was held in Liverpoolwas bred to a mechanical business, which, before the expiration of his apprenticeship, he was compelled (with others) to relinquish, (that being entirely ruined through certain financial speculations of Mr. Pitt). Having some taste for dancing, as an amusement, he determined to endeavour to qualify himself so as to follow it, as a profession, and which was only effected after long and unremitting exertions, such as few individuals would encounter.
some years ago...
of the most magnificent description, at which all the families of rank within the surrounding distance of many miles were present. For variety of character and original costume, this splendid Ball has never been surpassed.. It's probably a reference to a Ball he hosted himself - he rarely praised Balls hosted by anyone else!
In one of his later publications, the 1821 The Address, Wilson revealed that he had been a professional
Wilson in Dunstable?
An 1845 article in The Gentleman's Magazine by J.D. Parry provides some further biographical clues. In an article about Dunstable we're told:
there is now in London another respectable and kind-hearted septuagenarian "artist" in his way, and of copious historical and antiquarian lore to boot, who has celebrated his native place in one or two of his poetical "placards" which everybody has seen, whom the writer knew, with his most beautiful and innocent assistant, Miss Margaret M___, 15 years ago, being no less renowned a personage than "Dancing Master Wilson."5
This brief passage reveals a lot. We learn that Wilson lived into his 70s, he was born around 1770, Dunstable was his
Wilson's 'placards' are discussed further in a London Journal article from 1834. This article makes many references to Wilson, and amongst other things says that Wilson
It may be significant that the Parry article mentions Wilson's
Wilson's Dance Academy
At some point Wilson opened a London Dance Academy at
In January 1811 Wilson wrote:
Figure 2 shows the price list at Wilson's Academy in 180810. I've also located the price list for 181111. Most of the prices were unchanged over those 3 years, but a few increased; they are the Scotch Minuet, the Allemande, the Ground Hornpipe, the Louvre & the Corsair Hornpipe. Wilson taught many different types of dance; there are social dances, stage dances, courtly dances, and international dances in his repertoire. He intended the public to believe that he was a master of his trade.
At some point Wilson's Academy moved to
An 1822 advert in the New Times newspaper (6th March, 1822, with thanks to Alan Taylor for the discovery) indicates that Wilson was running four separate academies at that date. His
Wilson published a review of his impressive successes to date in 1822 (Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle 24th March 1822):
Mr Wilson, Teacher of Dancing, though so well known to the Public, still feels the necessity of an Advertisement, in hopes of increasing his Pupils, and improving his finances; for although he has had Eighty-six Public BALLS, danced at Twenty-four different Theatres (including Five years at the Opera House) taught almost innumerable Ladies and Gentlemen and Children, having qualified upwards of Thirty persons to become Professors, besides occasionally giving instructions to nearly One Hundred more, having Ten Professional Apprentices, and written more than Ten works on Dancing, besides several Dramatic pieces; having also invented Six new species of Dancing, having now open Four Academies for Dancing, at different parts of the town, which he superintends personally, and where he continues occasionally to teach in Twenty-five different departments of the Art; he has yet his fortune to make; but as he still hopes of keeping his carriage (so requisite to professional eminence) he is determined, in order to facilitate so desirable an object, to be always at home, to give lessons privately (if required) at any time, at his residence Old Bailey; or at his Western, Central or Northern Academies; he considers it only candid towards other Professional persons in general, to say that he cannot engage, like some Teachers, completely to qualify any one for the Ball Room in only a few Lessons; nor can he boast of the lowest prices.
Figure 4. Dates of Wilson's Balls
A later 1832 advert mentioned a new repertoire of dances including the Waltz Cotillion and
Whigs, Tories, and Radicals. - The forthcoming meeting of Parliament, the present political state of the British empire, and the great excitement amongst the various parties, make it self-evident that new steps must be instantly taken to guide the vessel of State. Consequently, DANCING MASTER WILSON, of 18 Kirby-street, Hatton-garden, a well-known Inventor of New Steps, takes this opportunity of informing his Majesty's Ministers, the Bishops, Knights of St. Stephen's, and others, that he has a large assortment of New Steps and Figures, adapted to Whig, Tory, and Radical interest. Amongst others, he has some Cheering Capers for the Radicals, Consoling Steps for the Whigs, and some thorough-paced Movements for the Tories, that require no pledges, together with a new version of the well-known dance called Ratting, in which the performers may change sides witheclat.
Wilson's Public Balls
Wilson claimed to have hosted at least 89 Public Balls over his career (though there may have been many more), I've found dateable evidence for seven of them. His 56th was in 181018, the 64th in 181419, 71st in 181620, 73rd in 181713 (see figure 3), 75th also in 181721, 81st in 182022, and 89th in 18227. I've plotted them on a graph in Figure 4; if we extend that graph backwards, then it's likely that he started hosting Balls around 1790, when he was approximately 20. If my assumptions about the date of his Holborn Academy are correct, then this is before the Academy opened. It's possible that Wilson was being disingenuous, and didn't start counting at zero. He himself warns us in the 1824 Danciad that some dance masters began numbering their Balls from 20.23
Wilson was careful to feature fashionable dances in his Balls. His 1814 Ball introduced the increasingly popular Waltz, and the 1817 Balls featured the Quadrille in their titles (see Figure 3); they weren't advertised for his 1816 or earlier Balls.
The 1814 Ball was hosted at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. This venue may sound a little basic, but the Grand Ballroom shown in Figure 5 suggests otherwise24. A report in the Berkshire Chronicle for 27th August 1825 described the Crown & Anchor as
It's worth reflecting on who attended Wilson's Public Balls. I've only found one brief first-hand account from an attendee who wrote in 1822 (Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 21st April 1822):
We know that Wilson advertised in newspapers and magazines. I therefore suspect that his clients were often from the wealthy middle classes. Perhaps the daughters of prosperous tradesmen who wished to experience a society Ball. The advertisement in Figure 3 is especially interesting. We learn that the Ball features the most fashionable dance styles from Almacks and elsewhere, and that stewards will keep out undesirables. One fascinating detail is that it will open with aLast week on the same evening, after looking in at Almack's, we joined a party, by appointment, at Wilson's Fancy Dance Ball; both were crowded by the gay and affluent votaries of fashion; and Quadrilles were predominant. At the latter place we particularly noticed some interesting new Quadrilles and fancy dances, which detained us there till we were obliged to retire.
Minuet Waltzdisplay dance involving Wilson and a young pupil (caricatured in Figure 1 perhaps?). The Minuet had fallen out of favour by the mid 1810s, but Wilson was promoting himself as an elite dancer (of the King's Theatre), so an elegant and modernised Minuet would be a good way to introduce the evening, and to promote himself as the master of ceremonies.
Some of Wilson's Balls had special themes. The Morning Post for January 5th 1809 contains an advert for Wilson's Grand Naval and Military Ball25 (see Figure 6)
The same newspaper for December 29th 1815 contains an advert declaring Wilson's First Winter Ball in 181626. It also says that he had
An advert in The Morning Chronicle (11th January, 1821) described Wilson's 82nd Ball, a Christmas Ball, and Twelth Night Entertainment. It promised to feature:
The last Wilsonian Balls for which I have definitive evidence were held in 1835 and 1836. An advert in The Morning Post for 8th April 1835 reports
Figure 6. Advert for Wilson's 1809 Grand Naval and Military Ball.
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
I've found evidence for around 50 Wilsonian publications in the years between 1808 and 1830, most related to dancing, several running to multiple editions. I intend to write a further article on Wilson's books, so I'll not go into all of the details here.
The first book I know about is the 1808 An Analysis of Country Dancing28. This work was dedicated to Madame Deshayes, a principal dancer at the King's Theatre Opera House (see Figure 7). It sought to catalogue and explain all of the figures used in English Country Dancing, at that time. It was published through the financial assistance of a list of subscribers, and sold out within 3 years. A second edition was published in 181129, and appears to have sold out immediately. A third edition was also published in 181130 (see Figure 7); it had a print run of 2000 copies, and had sold out by 181431. Wilson's influence and fame must have been growing during this time. A curiosity in the third edition is that the dedication changes to Madame Angiolini, another principal dancer at the King's Theatre Opera House; I don't know why. He also changed publishers between the first and third editions, moving from W. Calvert to James Gillet. He worked with at least 6 different publishers throughout his career.
The list of subscribers for three of Wilson's works are known: the 1808 Analysis of Country Dancing32, the 1811 Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore33, and the 1816 Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing34. There are a few subscribers that appear in more than one of these lists, most notably a Mr. Thomas who prepaid for 6 copies of 'Analysis', and 6 of 'Terpsichore'. A valuable customer.
Wilson was kept very busy in the second half of the 1810s. He published approximately 15 new titles between 1815 and 1820, not including subsequent editions of earlier works. He had been working on a major update of the Analysis of Country Dancing since at least 181631, but publication was regularly delayed by more urgent projects (he announced it multiple times in 181635, and again in 181936 with double the number of engravings). He eventually released this Magnus Opus in a completed form as The Complete System of English Country Dancing in 182037. It could be argued that this work came to market too late, interest in Country Dancing having significantly reduced by 1820. His works on Waltzing and Quadrilles were more timely.
It's not clear how much Wilson made from his publishing, but he tells us in a footnote to the 1816 Companion to the Ball Room that
Figure 7. Title pages to the First and Third editions of An Analysis of Country Dancing
The author has, on dancing, published more39
Wilson published many other works, the last of which appears to have been the c.1846 The Art of Dancing. He also produced a number of
Wilson and the King's Theatre
The one widely known biographic detail of Wilson's life is that he was a Dance Master from the King's Theatre Opera House (see Figure 9 for an image of the Theatre40). He proudly announced this on the cover of most of his books, and it's repeated in the contemporary reviews of his work. However, I've not found any corroborating evidence to describe his involvement there. The King's Theatre is also referred to as The Italian Opera House in many sources.
Wilson declared his association with the King's Theatre in 'Analysis' in 1808, and continued to do so through to the 'Danciad' in 1824. Yet throughout, he used the phrase
Could he have been invited to London from Liverpool to train as a dance master at the Opera House? I can't say, but it makes a good story. Perhaps he left in 1805 to start his own Academy.
Whatever his role was, he retained access to the dancers. He dedicated several of his books to them, and listed them as subscribers. There was another Dance Master known to have been at the King's Theatre in the late 1810s, a certain G.M.S. Chivers. Wilson is particularly scathing about Chivers in the 'Danciad', suggesting a personal animosity41. Could Chivers have replaced Wilson at some point? Another teacher, Mr. Cunningham, advertised his dancing services in 1818, also with the phrase
Wilson is very important to modern researchers, he documented the dancing styles of his day to a much greater extent than any other contemporary writer. However, as a modern researcher it's possible to put too much emphasis on his work. He often complains in his books that other dancing masters get things wrong, and that his way of doing things are the only correct way; this implies that other contemporary dancing masters were likely to have disagreed with some of Wilson's teaching.He published an advert in his 1821 The Address that listed the new dance forms he'd invented and shared with the world:
The Quadrille Country Dancing, first introduced at his Waltz and Quadrille (being his 79th) Public Ball.
It's difficult to find any independant contemporary accounts that recognise Wilson as a dancing master of influence, but one 1817 review in La Belle Assemblée stands out. They report:
Anyway, that's it for now. The information I've located about Wilson is fragmentary; if anyone out there can fill in some of the gaps, do please get in touch.
1. Wilson, 1811, Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore
2. Cruikshank, 1817, Waltzing-Vide Wilson's Rooms
3. An Old Stager, 1852, Liverpool, A Few Years Since
4. J. F. Hughes, 1863, Recollections of Old Liverpool
5. J. D. Parry, 1845, The Gentleman's Magazine
6. Leigh Hunt, 1834, London Journal, Dancing and Dancers
7. Wilson, 1824, Danciad
8. Wilson, 1808, Analysis of Country Dancing, first edition
9. Wilson, 1811, Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore
10. Wilson, 1808, Analysis of Country Dancing, first edition
11. Wilson, 1811, Analysis of Country Dancing, third edition
12. Ackermann, 1814, The Repository of Arts
13. Ackermann, 1817, The Repository of Arts
14. The London Morning Post, Oct 10, 1823, News
15. Scott & Taylor, 1829, The London Magazine
16. True Sun, Sep 24, 1832, News
17. The Sunday Herald, Apr 21, 1833, News
18. Wilson, 1811, Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore
19. Ackermann, 1814, The Repository of Arts
20. Harvard, Illustrated Ticket to a Ball (WorldCat Entry)
21. Ackermann, 1817, The Repository of Arts
22. McLeod, 2012, Wilson's advert quoted in Lesley-Anne McLeod's Blog
23. Wilson, 1824, Danciad
24. 1848, Illustrated London News
25. The Morning Post, London, Jan 05, 1809 News
26. The Morning Post, London, Dec 29, 1815 News
27. The Morning Post, London, Feb 12, 1816 News
28. Wilson, 1808, Analysis of Country Dancing, first edition
29. 1811, The European Magazine, and London Review
30. Wilson, 1811, Analysis of Country Dancing, third edition
31. Wilson, 1816, The Description on the Correct Method of Waltzing
32. Wilson, 1808, Analysis of Country Dancing, first edition
33. Wilson, 1811, Supplement to the Treasures of Terpsichore
34. Wilson, 1816, The Description on the Correct Method of Waltzing
36. Nichols, 1819, The Gentleman's Magazine
37. Wilson, c.1820, The Complete System of English Country Dancing
38. Wilson, 1816, The Companion to the Ball Room
39. Wilson, 1824, The Danciad
41. Wilson, 1824, The Danciad
42. La Belle Assemblée, 1817 Varieties Critical, Literary, and Historical
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