Dawson, Nancy (DNB00)

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DAWSON, NANCY (1730?–1767), dancer, daughter of Emmanuel Dawson, a porter, was born in the neighbourhood of Clare Market, probably about 1730. By the death of her mother and the desertion of her father she was cast on the world at an early age. At sixteen she joined the company of one Griffin, a puppet-showman, who taught her to dance; and a figure dancer of Sadler's Wells, happening to see her performance, procured her an immediate engagement at his own theatre. Here, ‘as she was extremely agreeable in her figure, and the novelty of her dancing added to it, with her excellent execution, she soon grew to be a favourite with the town’ (Dramatic History of Master Edward, Miss Ann, &c.) 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 the auspices of Edward Shuter. On 22 April 1758 the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ was played ‘for the benefit of Miss Dawson.’ 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 her professional reputation was made, and she became ‘vastly celebrated, admired, imitated, and followed by everybody.’ The hornpipe by which she danced into fame was performed to a tune which was fitted with words in the shape of a song called ‘Ballad of Nancy Dawson,’ the authorship of which is attributed to George Alexander Stevens. This tune was for a long time the popular air of the day. It was set with variations for the harpsichord as Miss Dawson's hornpipe, was introduced in Carey's and Bickerstaffe's opera ‘Love in a Village,’ is mentioned as ‘Nancy Dawson’ by Goldsmith in the epilogue to ‘She stoops to conquer,’ and in another unspoken epilogue to the same play, and is still sung in nurseries to the words ‘Here we go round the Mulberry Bush.’ The ‘Beggar's Opera,’ by reason of the fashionable dancer, enjoyed an unusually long run, and the house was crowded nightly, to the detriment of the neighbouring theatre.

Though Garrick he has had his day,
And forced the town his law t' obey,
Now Johnny Rich is come in play,
With help of Nancy Dawson.

(Stevens, Ballad of N. D.) Nancy Dawson was induced by an increase of salary to move to Drury Lane, where she appeared for the first time on 23 Sept. 1760 in the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ Here for the next three years she continued to appear at intervals, dancing in all the frequent revivals of the piece which had gained her celebrity, and in a variety of Christmas entertainments, such as ‘Harlequin's Invasion,’ ‘Fortunatus,’ and the ‘Enchanter,’ in which last there also appeared the elder 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 the subsequent representations, and from that time until her death, which took place at Haverstock Hill on 26 May 1767, she would seem to have retired into private life. She was buried in the graveyard belonging to the parish of St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury, behind the Foundling Hospital, where her tombstone may still be seen, though some scandalous lines originally inscribed thereon have been obliterated. Beyond her beauty and graceful dancing, Nancy Dawson possessed no claim to recognition. She was of shrewish temper, heartless and mercenary, and of notoriously immoral life. Her portrait in oils still hangs in the Garrick Club, and there are several different prints of her in theatrical costume and otherwise. She has sometimes been confounded with the Nancy Dawson introduced by Captain Marryat in his novel ‘Snarleyow,’ of whom he remarks: ‘She was the most celebrated person of that class in Portsmouth both for her talent and extreme beauty.’ This lady was also celebrated in some ribald verses entitled ‘Nancy Dawson,’ but she died while William III was on the throne.

[Authentic Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Nancy D*ws*n, London (undated); The Dramatic History of Master Edward, Miss Ann, and others, the Extraordinaries of these times, by G. A. Stevens, 1763 and 1786; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 195, 3rd ser. ix. 140; Gent. Mag. 1828, i. 496; theatrical advertisements of the period.]

A. V.