Chronicles: Victorian Balls at Steephill Castle

Here we have two descriptions of elaborate parties held by Mrs Hambrough at Steephill Castle in the early 1860s.  Both are from members of the Thompson family, who were living in Bonchurch in 1863 and 1864, and whose two teenage daughters enjoyed the social life of Ventnor  – though it appears that their mother was perhaps not  always so keen.

The first extract is from Alice Thompson’s diary.  She was seventeen, and clearly found all the dressing up, dancing  and subdued flirting great fun.  The photograph below shows her in more serious mood shortly before her marriage in 1877 (she will be familiar to some readers as the poet Alice Meynell).

Mama and I went to a ball at Mrs Hambrough’s, Steephill Castle.  I wore a ravishing yellow tarlatan of the palest possible tint by night, made exquisitely, with a plaid echarpe over one shoulder, a red rose with its leaves in my hair, and one at my waist.  Off at 9.15.  In time for the first quadrille.  Glorious fun,  Captain Sewell many times watched me going round and told Douglas how well I danced (who told me).  I  had no regular flirtation, and no particular compliments, save that truest of all, that the men quarrelled to dance with me.  I would willingly have given a certain Mr Bury a dance had I been free as he very much desired it.  To this dance there were no drawbacks.

As Alice’s account describes,  Victorian balls and parties followed a strict pattern.  A lady was expected to dance with all who asked properly, and not to show preference for one gentleman over another. When asking for a dance, a gentleman would stand at a proper distance, bend his body gracefully, and ask Will you do me the honour to dance with me? remaining  in that position until the lady said With pleasure sir, or I regret I am engaged sir. During a dance, he would entertain his partner with small talk and, these being the days of crinolines,  steer her carefully round the floor, guarding her from collisions which might  damage or tear her ball gown.

There was also a well established code of dress.  Unmarried ladies wore  gowns in delicate shares of pink, light blue, or apple green, made of light material, for example tarlatan, tulle or lace, worn over a silk slip. Little jewellery was worn, perhaps just a single bracelet, and flowers or small feathers were worn in the hair, though a tall woman would avoid wearing anything on her head, as that would add to her apparent height.  A gentleman wore formal dress with a low cut waistcoat to display his shirt front, patent leather boots and white kid gloves, with his hair well dressed without too many curls.

When Alice  was away from home at Christmas,  her mother wrote to her with a rather jaded account of the New Year ball which she had attended with Alice’s eighteen year old sister Elizabeth (known as Mimi).  The ball was held by a family she refers to as ‘The H’s’,  presumably the Hambroughs at Steephill Castle again.

I wish thee a happy New Year, and I wish we were all together this Day. The H’s ball was splendid – a profusion of pink wax lights, a flow of champagne .  . .   I wore my grey dove with tulle and red camelias – pretty when viewed at  home but bald and poverty-stricken when contrasted with the furbelows of society.  Really, what lavish absurdity to the tired looker-on the whole thing is . . .   At  midnight  Miss F would introduce me to her papa although I told her I was too done up to open my lips – and he began a conversation upon Pre-Raphaelitism and Turner which put the finishing touch to me – and I then retired . . .  I was so utterly exhausted I had to go up into the bedroom and there lie covered up ’til 2.30 in a torpor.  I seemed to be listening for a week to  hideous gallops, waltzes, etc., drumming up thro’ the floor – all of which Mimi pronounced delicious . . .  Also every now and then poor Miss Johnson was brought up to be sick by her mama . . .   Lovely bedroom and fire blazing and Mrs. H. so kind.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Extracts from the diaries of Alice and Christiana Thompson and photograph of Alice from Alice Meynell, A Memoir, by Violet Meynell (1929); illustration from Howes Ball room Handbook (1858).  This article first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2018.