The Assembly Rooms, Haverfordwest

15th January 2016

This is the Assembly Rooms as we see them now – after conversion

This is the Assembly Rooms as we see them now – after conversion
Situated at 5 St. Mary's Street, Haverfordwest

I have delayed writing anything about The Assembly Rooms in Haverfordwest because there is an absence of any meaningful documentation relating to the early years of the life of this building. The Blue Plaque on the wall outside, placed there many years ago by The Civic Society, suggests that it was built in the early part of the 18th century, which I shouldn’t really cast any doubt on as an executive member, but there are just ever so slight – dare I say it – doubts as to how old this building might be.

It’s a pity, and an irony, that so little should be known about this place because of all of the buildings in the town, this one was for many years, the absolute centre of upper strata social life of the county. Every town of any size had their own Assembly Rooms, and every year the landed gentry moved, from their country estates where they spent glorious, stress free summers, to their Town Houses for the winter; made bearable for the poor souls by the succession of Balls held in the Assembly Rooms during ‘The Season’. (‘The Season’ lasted traditionally from just after Christmas until June which seems quite a long period...but then there was quite a lot of socialising to do.)

One of the few early descriptions of arrivals at a Ball, portrays carriages waiting to offload their cargos, or else of ladies being conveyed there in sedan chairs. It is perhaps a wonder that the site was chosen, in that fairly steep hills have to be ascended from practically anywhere in the town to arrive there. During the Victorian and Edwardian period, the Assembly Rooms and The Season were important calendar events for debutante Balls, giving young ladies the opportunity of ‘coming out’...although I think that the phrase might mean something else now.

The problem is that there are potentially three conflicting dates relating to the properties that stood on this site. The building that was knocked down to make room for the Assembly Rooms was, The White Hart, a Coaching Inn, from where we are told, the first mail coach left Haverfordwest for London on the 7th July 1787 (prior to this the system had been to use ‘Standing Post’ or Post Horses). But a well documented event is recorded in 1785, two years earlier, when Prince William later William IV, danced we’re told, in The Assembly Rooms whilst the ship that he was serving on (HMS Hebe) was anchored off Milford Haven. And in addition, isn’t the argument between General Sir Thomas Picton and land agent Charles Hassal (which ended in a subsequent duel with Hassal besting Picton) supposed to have taken place in The Assembly Rooms in about 1785?

So, might one of these events need correction...or perhaps The Assembly Rooms were located in a different building in the town when Prince William visited or when the Hassal/Picton argument took place. This is indeed possible; a lease document of the property next down to The Assembly Rooms, on Tower Hill and dated 1804, describes the upper boundary as being next to, ‘The New Assembly Rooms’. That description supports the possibility of an ‘Old Assembly Rooms’ doesn’t it...and I have a vague recollection of ‘The Kings Arms’ in Dew Street as having possibly served this purpose but of course, information that might take us in that direction is just as sparse; I’ll just have to dig deeper...(or wait for readers to educate me further).

In amongst all of this, I have recently discovered gold in the Pembrokeshire Archives. Anything bearing the name of ‘The Assembly Rooms’ is extremely rare. It sadly doesn’t throw any light on the above, but is a minute book dealing with the later life of the Rooms and records the meetings of the ‘Committee for the Management of The Assembly Rooms’ which was brought into life in 1863. The list of names of those invited to serve on this committee reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of mid 19th century Pembrokeshire; Lord Milford, Lord Cawdor, Baron de Rutzen, Lord Kensington, Capt Lort Stokes, Capt Lloyd Philipps, Rev Martin, Mr Scourfield MP and others, with the power to add to their numbers if they felt the need.

On the 19th September 1863, Mr Eaton Evans, solicitor, acting as chairman and secretary, reported that Lord Cawdor and Capt Lort Stokes had declined to be members but that Capt Lloyd Philipps and Baron de Rutzen had accepted.

It was decided to place an advert in the, ‘Pembrokeshire Herald’ and the ‘Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph’, for parties willing to become tenants of the Assembly Rooms to make their applications. It was agreed in the meantime that ‘Mr Harvey’ should have permission ‘to make use of the rooms for his singing class’. The next meeting was an anti climax in that no one attended, but Mr Eaton Evans records that there had been one answer to the advert from a ‘Mr Ribbon’. Nothing seems to have come of this.

On the 17th October the committee decided that ladies should pay 3 shillings for tickets to the forthcoming Hunt Ball and men 6 shillings. It should perhaps be pointed out that at roughly this time female agricultural workers were receiving 4 pence per day and would have had to work for 12 days to have afforded a ticket (not that they would have been allowed to buy one, or had anything appropriate to wear) and men would have had to work for six days.

In January 1864 Mr Eaton Evans obtained estimates for the introduction of gas (for lighting) into the Rooms but this was postponed as no tenants could be found. He was also instructed to obtain estimates for potential repairs to the roof and we are possibly seeing here for the first time the high cost of maintaining such a building.

On 23rd April a ‘Mrs Cole’ applied, was found to be suitable and it seems was able to hammer out a remarkable deal to her advantage. It was decided by the committee that she was to have the rooms rent free, was to be given three tons of coal annually and was to be allowed to ‘sub let’ ‘the card room and tea rooms’ and possibly the ‘downstairs lounge’. This itself tells us more about the internal layout of the building which it seems might have been far more commodious than previously thought. It is however quite easy to imagine Georgian Dandies sitting down to a few hands of cards in between dances.

We are unfortunately told no more about the intriguing Mrs Cole... three tons of coal in itself deserves further comment. The only restriction imposed on her was that the actual ballroom was to be for the sole use of the committee.

In 1864 repairs to the chandeliers cost the committee £16 10s but not until 1868 was gas finally introduced at a cost a £40.

There follows a huge gap in the minutes lasting until in April 1888 when an application to use the Ballroom by the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry was refused on the grounds that the committee did not want to run the risk of damage to the dance floor. This was the last committee meeting. Whether the demise of the committee had anything to do with the list that appears alongside isn’t known;

Lord Kensington dead
Captain Higgon dead
Baron de Rutzen dead
Capt Stokes dead
W F Roch dead

The Assembly Rooms became a casualty of the shift in social disparity and were used in the last century as an extra class room for Tasker’s School for Girls, and were also used as the Church Hall for a period, by St Mary’s Church.

During WW2 the ballroom was used for dances and the sprung floor allowed disreputable young men to, in collusion with each other, create such a spring action on the floor as to have the young woman that they might be dancing with, suddenly be shot upwards, to what advantage I’m sure I don’t know.

This is the Assembly Rooms prior to conversion into flats in the 1990s

This is the Assembly Rooms prior to conversion into flats in the 1990s

The Assembly Rooms were converted into flats in the early part of this century and I had the opportunity to briefly enter the building but sadly only had access to a small part which didn’t really give me any flavour of what might have been.

The building seen from Dark Street

The building seen from Dark Street