As today marks the start of Women’s History Month there was no way we were going to let it pass without celebrating the life of Axminster-born woman Nancy Dawson.
Nancy Dawson is believed to have been born at Coaxdon, Weycroft, Axminster in 1730 and was (according to James Davidson – generally the most reliable of sources) a barmaid at The George in her youth. Nancy longed for more however, and it wasn’t long before she left Axminster for the bright lights of London.
Nancy became a dancer and gained work at Sadler’s Wells, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. In October 1759 the hornpipe that she danced in the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ was to turn her into a celebrity – so much so that there are still portraits of Nancy on display at the National Portrait Gallery and in the British Museum today. The dance was performed to a tune (thought to be attributed to the English composer, Thomas Arne), which then had words set, a song called ‘The Ballad of Nancy Dawson’ attributed to the English actor, playwright, poet and songwriter, George Alexander Stevens (1710 – 6 September 1780).
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.
Her 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.
Though 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.
Nancy used to visit friends and relatives in Axminster, dancing for the amusement of her friends at the local inns. It is believed that Nancy’s metropolitan ways were often remarked on. A Mrs Burch told James Davidson that she had seen Nancy Dawson dance a minuet at the Dolphin Inn in petticoats trimmed with silver lace. Nancy was to retire from the stage in 1763 and died three years later on 26th May 1767 at Haverstock Hill. Nancy’s public reputation was as a beautiful and graceful dancer, but with a shrewish temper and a heartless, mercenary and immoral approach to life.
The information above comes from ‘Notes on Axminster’ by Major W H Wilkin (1933), which can be found in Axminster Library.
More information on Nancy can also be found on our website here: https://axminsterheritage.org/…/2016/03/Pen_portraits.pdf