The celebrated hornpipe dancer called Nancy Dawson was born in London about 1730, the daughter of a staymaker, William Newton, of Martlet Court, Covent Garden, and his wife Eleanor Newton. There are a number of romanticised fabrications concerning her young life and affairs. She may have performed at Sadler’s Wells and Drury Lane earlier, but her first noticed appearance was at Covent Garden on 1 February 1758, when she danced in the chorus of “The Prophetes”s. She was under the auspices of the comedian Edward Shuter (q.v.), with whom she had a domestic alliance for many years. On 22 May 1758 she was billed for dancing a hornpipe. After three years at Covent Garden dancing in choruses and offering her hornpipe, Nancy went over to Drury Lane, where she danced similar fare. She also made her first speaking appearance on 20 March 1760 in the droll “The English Sailors in America” and on 29 April 1760, for her benefit, she played Colombine in “Harlequin Statue”. The tune of the hornpipe by which Nancy danced into fame and on which she traded the rest of her short career was almost certainly written by the eminent theatrical composer Dr Thomas A. Arne. It is still sung, in a less sophisticated form, as ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.’ It became a popular household tune, and it and Nancy were often mentioned in the press of the day. A full eight-stanza version of the lyrics – beginning with ‘Of all the girls in our town’ – appeared in her “Authentic Memoirs” [1761?] and was published in “The Vocal Magazine, or Compleat British Songster” (1781).
Nancy Dawson’s name appeared in the Drury Lane bills for the last time on 27 December 1763. Why she retired so abruptly is not known. She died on 9 June 1767 at Haverstock Hill, and was buried on 12 June in the cemetery of St George the Martyr, Bloomsbury, behind the Foundling Hospital. A large stone pylon marks her grave. In her will she made a number of bequests, to her parents, her brother William Newton and his wife Bridget and to neighbours and friends. To her paramour Ned Shuter she left a mourning ring. Contemporary memoirs accounted her a woman of great beauty and grace, with a shrewish temper, who led a ‘notoriously immoral life.’ But these accounts are largely colourful legends, no doubt highly inflated, yet possessing some kernel of truth. In addition to the portrait of her at the Garrick Club (G0148), an anonymous picture of her striking a pose in her hornpipe dance is in the Library of Worcester College, Oxford. (BDA)