We look at the original event that inspired Maggie's annual Grand Costume Ball
On March 28 there will be another crazy Grand Costume Ball at the Lowry Hotel for Maggie’s Manchester. The latter is the fine organisation that ‘offers free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their families and friends’. Maggie’s Manchester is housed in Withington in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
The dresses were almost without exception of the richest and most costly description.
The Grand Costume Ball is inspired by a bewitching painting held at Salford Art Gallery and called simply ‘A Fancy Dress Ball’. It’s by Arthur Perigal.
Two good buildings we lost in the nineteenth century were the second Assembly Rooms on Mosley Street and the first Theatre Royal on Fountain Street. During the great music festivals in the 1820s and 1830s these were linked to create space for musical performances, dances and fancy dress balls. One of the most extravagant fancy dress balls ever held in Manchester and possibly in provincial Britain filled the linked Theatre Royal and the Assembly Rooms, with wealthy and fashionable of the city and beyond.
The Arthur Perigal oil captures the colour and the glamour of an occasion which included many prominent citizens. These included the future first Lord Mayor of Manchester, Thomas Potter, the future first MP for Manchester, Mark Phillips, iron-founders such as the Galloway family and the textile magnate families of the Behrens, Houldsworths, McConnels, Tootals and Watts. The architect Richard Lane attended as did the editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor. The guest of honour was the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, who was dressed in ‘a fine French court dress’. Perigal himself went rather humbly as ‘an old gentleman of George II’s time’.
The Manchester Guardian report (was it penned by the editor himself?) relates how ‘The dresses were almost without exception of the richest and most costly description. There was a preponderance of brilliant coloured silks, plumes of feathers, gold, silver and other things calculated to dazzle the eye.’
Another Manchester Guardian article reveals how Mancunians 192 years ago, hated a party to end - just like nowadays. ‘After an evening, or rather a night, spent in the most satisfactory and delightful manner the party finally broke up about 7 o'clock in the morning. Nearly three hours before that time the quadrille band in the large ballroom fatigued with playing for so long, struck up ‘God save the King’ as a signal for the dancers to desist. The hint was not, by any means, well taken. The inhabitants of Manchester are generally disposed to welcome the national air with as much fervour as any of His Majesty’s subjects. On this occasion, their loyalty was not proof against their desire for amusement and they began to hiss most unceremoniously. The musicians were thereupon compelled to strike up quadrilles again and they continued to play until about 6 o'clock when the dancers somewhat reluctantly gave up their amusement.’
Perigal painted the work for multiple profit. He was very careful to capture the faces of individual guests to the ball hoping they or their families would order a copy of the painting, or failing that, a portrait of themselves in their finery. It didn’t work out for Perigal and the anticipated nice little earner never arrived. He eventually raffled the picture to cover his costs.
It was won by one Mr Peacock, who appears as the Knave of Hearts under the first crystal chandelier in the row of chandeliers on the left hand side of the main hall. In 1852 he presented it to Salford and it still sits proudly in Salford Museum and Art Gallery, a social record of the ‘cream of Manchester society’ from 1828. In a sweet final irony the gallery sits in a corner of Peel Park, named in honour of Sir Robert Peel in 1846, for whom the fancy dress ball in the Manchester Music Festival had been organised.
By the way the considerable sum of £5,000 was raised for charity through the festival, which would be well over £200,000 in today’s money.
No doubt the costumes in Maggie’s Grand Costume Ball in March will be just as extravagant. They certainly have been in previous years. Then again they mostly come from the Royal Exchange’s Costume Hire and thus were once part of productions put on by the theatre in the past. You never know you might be wearing a costume worn by Helen Mirren or Robert Lindsay, anyone really, who has strutted that prestigious stage.
Maggie’s Grand Costume Ball is on Saturday 28 March 2020, 7pm – 1am, The Lowry Hotel, 50 Dearmans Place, Chapel Wharf, Salford, Manchester, M3 5LH. Tickets are £99 per person. Book here. A reduced rate is being offered of £45 for hire of the costume which includes all accessories. Check out the Royal Exchange website. Literally, this event is going to be a ball.