Friday, January 7, 2011

Tart of the Week: Nancy Dawson

The ongoing trend for celebrities in all ages is to have their great moment of fame and then to be cruelly forgotten, only leaving traces of their celebrity through time.  Such is the case of Nancy Dawson.  Googling the name today will deliver songs, and dances and nursery rhymes such as this one:
  • Nancy Dawson was so fine 
  • She wouldn't get up to serve the swine; 
  • She lies in bed till eight or nine,
  •  So it's Oh, poor Nancy Dawson.

  • And do ye ken* Nancy Dawson, honey? 
  • The wife who sells the barley, honey? 
  • She won't get up to feed her swine, 
  • And do ye ken Nancy Dawson, honey?  
But what do we ken about Nancy Dawson?  What little we do know is a tart-ly tale; certainly not altogether appropriate for children.

Nancy was born around 1728 into a poor situation in life but had aspirations for the stage.  She turned to prostitution for survival and then took up with a traveling puppet company where she learned to dance.  Her natural ability for dance opened up the opportunity to play Columbine, the ballerina in Commedia Dell'Arte and brought Nancy some recognition.  Nancy continued to take different dancing jobs, performing at various coffee houses in Covent Garden.  She was quite the go-go girl of her time.  Her dancing caught the attention of Ned Shuter, a renown comedian and became his mistress.  The relationship opened up more theater opportunities for Nancy.

Nancy was now comfortably situated in Covent Garden taking small acting parts here and there but her big break came in 1759.  In the wildly successful The Beggar's Opera the dancer who would dance to horn pipes in the play was ill and an understudy was needed immediately.  Nancy was given the role and when she pranced onto the stage she brought the house down.  She became such a sensation that she was hired to perform her horn-pipe dances in between the acts of the play.

Songs and poems showered Nancy with praise.  Of course this was 18th century London, so other songs and poems mocked her as well.  The signature song she danced to had the tune of what we know as Pop Goes the Weasel and words were added to immortalize the lady who made the song famous.
  • All the girls in our town, 
  •  black the fair the red the brown,  
  • Who dance and prance it up and down,
  •  There's none like Nancy Dawson!  
  • Her easy mien her step so neat,  
  • She foots she trips she looks so sweet,
  • Her every motion is complete,
  • I die for Nancy Dawson  
Popular sailor songs were song long after Nancy was alive and the Faithless Nancy Dawson was a popular dance which I feel I must have seen in at least one Jane Austen film.

Capitalizing on Nancy's fame were two books which may or may not have been published by her or with her permission; Genuine Memoirs and the appropriately titled, Nancy Dawson's Jests. Although far from a pure woman, Nancy seemed to have a good sense of  humor, a tenacity, and a very fine talent which is what truly made her famous.  After taking a few more rolls as Columbine Nancy retired to a comfortable house in Hampstead where she died in 1767.

*"Ken" is Scottish slang, still used today, meaning "know"


  1. Nancy was born around 1728 into a poor situation in life but had aspirations for the stage. She turned to prostitution for survival and then took up with a traveling puppet company where she learned to dance.

  2. I am sure you will want to correct a typo. It is "role," not "roll." Otherwise a very interesting Tart of the Week!

  3. How interesting this tart was! Especially for me, because I studied The Beggar's Opera in my History of Music class and I had no idea this had happened.
    Keep up the great blog! :)

  4. @Dorothy, Thank you for letting me know!

    @Anon, Thank you!

  5. «She lies in bed till eight or nine»???

    I must presume that is p.m.

  6. Another interesting Tart! sorry haven't been around in awhile Heather...missed you! Great post as usual:)

  7. @Fabu, One can only presume! (I thought that interesting as well considering Georgiana was known for arising in the afternoon due to her party-girl schedule)

    @Lucy, Thank you, and I love that you still come back!

  8. Yay. It's been so long since we've had a tart (you were becoming very tardy with your tarts!) This one was nice since she was talented, but she was born in 1728 and died in '67? Poor thing, so young.

  9. Poodle Bitch has added Ms. Dawson to her list of favorite humans of all time.

  10. This sounds like someone has substituted Miss Dawson's name into the well-known Mother Goose Rhyme named Elsie Marley: "Elsie Marley's grown so fine, she won't get up and feed the swine; Lies in bed 'till eight or nine, lazy Elsie Marley."