Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The dancing-master of Aberdeen

In the year 1742, some influential inhabitants of Aberdeen represented to the Town Council "that the town was at great loss for want of a right dancing master to educate their children". After a certain amount of thought, the Council resolved to advertise for a suitable person, and two candidates presented themselves to show their qualifications to the Magistrates, in front of a crowd of gentlemen and ladies in Trinity Hall.

James Stuart, of Montrose, was found to be better at dancing and teaching, and he was employed; but it seems he was unsatisfactory, for in 1746 the council resolved to advertise again for "a person of sober, discreet and moral character". They soon got a letter from Mr. John Dawney, dancing-master in Edinburgh, recommending as suitable a Mr. Francis Peacock. Apparently he suited the council, and on Valentine's Day of 1747 they made Mr. Peacock, then twenty-three, the official and sole Dancing-Master of Aberdeen during his good behaviour, agreeing to pay him seven shillings sterling per student per month, together with some money to organise the music.

Mr. Peacock seems to have liked Aberdeen, and very promptly married a local young lady and settled down. He taught the inhabitants of Aberdeen to dance; he became a prominent member of the Musical Society; he published books of music, and composed; he painted miniature portraits; he took care of business, became a man of means, was much esteemed in Aberdeen, and built himself Villa Franca, a country house.

Francis Peacock remained the dancing-master of Aberdeen for fifty years. He died in 1807 at the age of eighty-four, giving his name to Peacock's Close, where he had his school. Two years before he died, he had published a manual for teaching dancing, some of which the University of Aberdeen has very public-mindedly republished on its website. Mr. Peacock condemns affectation and gives advice on dress:

In short, any thing rather than gaudy cloaths; for these, at best, are but the trappings of folly, and will never recommend a man to the esteem of people of sense.

An advertisement at the front of the book recites his experience and tells who his tutors were. It also reveals that proceeds from its sales were destined not for Mr. Peacock himself, but for the Aberdeen Lunatic Hospital. How it sold I do not know, but surely it was well.

The above information about Francis Peacock's life is from Aberdeen Street Names, G. M. Fraser, 1911. The dates he gives, from the Council Register, don't quite agree with what the University has, I don't know why.

Why am I telling you this? Because it may please you as much as it pleases me. Here is another extract:

I may here observe, that there cannot be a greater proof of the utility of Dancing, than its being so universally adopted, as a material circumstance in the education of the youth of both sexes, in every civilised country. Its tendency to form their manners, and to render them agreeable, as well in public as in private; the graceful and elegant ease which it gives to the generality of those who practice it with attention, are apparent to everyone of true discernment.

The Lunatic Hospital - now the Royal Cornhill - still exists. As for the question of why city councils no longer employ dancing-masters, in Scotland or anywhere else - well, things have changed, and perhaps they may change again.


tangobaby said...

What a fantastic post. It would be nice if times change again, and dancing is seen as a positive and useful part of educating and socializing children. One can always dream, right?

koolricky said...

Hi mshedgehog, what a real investigation you went in to! Quite interesting!
Anyway, if you ever go to Aberdeen and want to dance tango there is a wee tango community lead by Sarah Morris, who comes from Edinburgh and was one of the first people I danced with! :oD
Keep on with the good work and, yeah, why do council not employ dancing masters anymore?

koolricky said...

Just to let you know that Ceilidh (read kaylee), the Scottish traditional dance is still taught in primary schools all over Scotland... So in a way there is a remain of those times!

msHedgehog said...

G. M. Fraser did all the research and my story is a summary of his; I just Googled for the contents of the book, and the links.

I have distant ancestors in Aberdeen, which is why my Mum happens to own Fraser's book. Maybe I will go there one day. In summer, I think.

The Masked Tanguero said...

Hey I live in Aberdeen at moment, ther is a great society here for tangueros led by Sarah Morris, tis great to hear that ppl like koolricky has heard of these lovely ppl too!!

Unknown said...

Mr Peacock is one of my favorite Characters of Aberdeen's past! When I came home for a visit last year I made sure to visit the Castlegait and get a picture of the close named after our famous Mr Peacock. A wee extra tidbit to add, I read long after his death the close became well known for prostitution and other illicit activities even murder! The close had such a bad reputation the council considered renaming it; thank goodness they decided against it otherwise I would have not been able to find it! :) My all time favourite story is 'The Mad Hatter of Aberdeen' Mr Samuel Martin 'Hatter to the people' whose premises eventually became E&Ms. :) So fantastic to see more and more people interested in learning about the colorful array of characters that came before us in Aberdeen. I keep saying it, promote the history and the tourists will come! xxxx

msHedgehog said...

And now that Unknown has reminded me of this post by commenting on it, I'll add that Cardiff County Council DOES now employ a dancing master, or rather a dancing mistress, in the sense that it employs a friend of mine to improve the public health and happiness with Zumba classes.

Paul Martin said...

my 3xGGranddad James Martin's brother was Samuel Martin . The hatter to the people. I only found that out this week whilst tracing my family history