Romance of London: Nancy Dawson the Hornpipe-Dancer

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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Nancy Dawson

nancy dawson portraitNancy Dawson, the famous hornpipe-dancer, of Covent Garden Theatre, in the last century, when a girl, set up the skittles [a form of bowling] at a tavern in High Street, Marylebone. She next, according to Sir William Musgrave’s Adversaria, in the British Museum, became the wife of a publican near Kelso, on the borders of Scotland. She became so popular a dancer that every verse of a song in praise of her declared the poet to be dying in love for Nancy Dawson; and its tune is so lively as that of Sir Roger de Coverley. In 1760, she transferred her services from Covent Garden Theatre to that other house [Drury Lane]. On the 23rd of September, in that year, the Beggar’s Opera was performed at Drury Lane, when the playbill thus announced her: “In Act iii, a Hornpipe by Miss Dawson, her first appearance here.” It seems that she was engaged to oppose Mrs. Vernon in the same exhibition at the rival house, and there is a full-length print of her in the character. There is also a portrait of her in the Garrick Club collection.

Nancy died in Hampstead, on the 27th of May 1767; she was buried behind the Foundling Hospital, in the ground belonging to St. George the Martyr, where is a tombstone to her memory, simply inscribed “Here lies Nancy Dawson.”

From Wikipedia:

Nancy Dawson was the stage name of Ann Newton (c.1728-1767), a famous London dancer and actress. She rose to fame performing a solo rendition of a hornpipe between acts in The Beggar’s Opera at Covent Garden Theatre in 1759.

Her early life is unclear; she may have been born at Axminster, Devon. At sixteen she joined the company of a certain Griffin, a puppet-showman, who taught her to dance; and a figure dancer of Sadler’s Wells, seeing her performance, found her a place at his own theatre. As the story goes, her figure, novelty and technical excellence made her career.

In her second summer season at Sadler’s Wells Nancy Dawson was promoted to the part of Columbine, and in the following winter she made her first appearance at Covent Garden Theatre under Edward Shuter, in The Prophetess by Thomas Betterton. On 22 April 1758 the Merry Wives of Windsor was played for her benefit. In October 1759, during the run of The Beggar’s Opera, the man who danced the hornpipe among the thieves fell ill, and his place was taken by Nancy Dawson. From that moment she became a celebrity. The production enjoyed an unusually long run, and the house was crowded nightly.

Nancy Dawson was induced by an increase of salary to move to Drury Lane, where she appeared for the first time on 23 September 1760 in The Beggar’s Opera. Here for the next three years she dance in its frequent revivals, and in a variety of Christmas entertainments, such as ‘Harlequin’s Invasion,’ ‘Fortunatus,’ and the ‘Enchanter’ in which there also appeared Joseph Grimaldi and the Miss Baker who succeeded Nancy Dawson in popular favour as a dancer. On Christmas Eve 1763 a pantomime called the ‘Rites of Hecate’ was produced at Drury Lane, and on that day and the 26th of the month Nancy Dawson appeared; but her name is absent from the bills of subsequent representations.

The Hornpipe

From Sonny Watson’s

tbhp_M2The lively Hornpipe is really very characteristic of the English in nature and is a very old Celtic solo dance that is very much based on the sailor’s abilities during the dancing with the sailors originally performing it with folded arms. The steps are clearly ship wise such as hauling in the anchor, climbing or rigging ropes etc. The Sailor’s Hornpipe was most popular during the 16th to 18th Centuries but the original (Hornpipe) goes much farther back and was originally done by men only.

It is said that the English sailing ship and Royal Navy Captain James Cook (1728-1779) thought dancing was most useful to keep his men in good health during a voyage. When it was calm, and the sailors had consequently nothing to do, he made them dance —

Sailors’ hornpipe:


The Ballad of Nancy Dawson*

Of all the girls in our town,

The red, the black, the fair, the brown,

That dance and prance it up and down,

There’s none like Nancy Dawson.


300px-Dawson2Her easy mien, her shape so neat,

She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet;

Her every motion’s so complete,

I die for Nancy Dawson.


See how she comes to give surprise,

With joy and pleasure in her eyes:

To give delight she always tries,

So means my Nancy Dawson.


Was there no task, t’obstruct the way,

No shutter old, no house so gay,

A bet of fifty pounds I’d lay,

That I gained Nancy Dawson.


See how the opera takes a run

Exceeding Hamlet, Lear and Lun

Though in it there would be no fun,

Was’t not for Nancy Dawson.


Lithograph of Nancy Dawson c 1760Though beard and brent charm ev’ry night

And female peachum’s justly right,

And filch and lockit please the sight,

‘Tis kept by Nancy Dawson.


See little davey strut and puff,

‘Confound the opera and such stuff,

My house is never full enough,

A curse on Nancy Dawson”.


Though G[arric]k he had has his day

And forced the town his laws t’obey,

With Jonny Rich is come in play,

With the help of Nancy Dawson.


*Lyrics attributed to George Alexander Stevens. Tune attributed to Thomas Arne

Hear it performed here:


Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

5 thoughts on “Romance of London: Nancy Dawson the Hornpipe-Dancer

  1. I like the story about Nancy Dawson, about how she was a sensation as a hornpipe dancer and even replaced a male dancer. I also like the snippet about James Cook. I think its funny that James Cook made his sailors dance for exercise.


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