In the early 20th century novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, there are several references made to something called a water-party, with no elaboration other than that it's happening on a Wednesday and people are expected to bring presents.

I was curious, so I googled the term several ways, and found nothing. What does a water-party mean in the context of Georgian England, or possibly in the context of the early twentieth century if it's an anachronism? Or is it just an odd way of saying a party on or near the water?

1 Answer 1


As you suggested, a water-party is a party on water - as can be seen from this 1812 chapbook cover.

enter image description here Source: Victoria and Albert Museum. Note: Chapbooks "are small cheap publications of a popular nature purchased either at booksellers in towns or from chapmen (from early English 'ceap' meaning trade) and pedlars in rural areas."

This page of Regency Definitions describes a water-party as a social event

on a boat with pauses to view gardens

Perhaps the most famous water-party was when George Frideric Handel was commissioned by George I to compose Water Music

to accompany a vast water party organized by the court for the evening of July 17 and 18, 1717

According to the newspaper the Daily Courant, the River Thames was practically covered with boats for this event, making it quite possibly the biggest ever water-party.

enter image description here Painting of George Frideric Handel (left, with right arm extended) with King George I of Great Britain, traveling by barge on the Thames River while musicians play in the background. The painting is an artist's rendering of the first performance of Handel's Water Music in 1717. Attrib: By Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman (1819-1888) (P.M. History. Januar 2006, S. 29.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Water-parties were one of the many possible 'activities of the ton' (pronounced 'tone'). The ton are described here as

High society; the elite; generally the wealthiest and those of rank, with royalty at the top; in today's terms, the 'in' crowd, such as Hollywood stars. To be "good ton" was paramount, and opened most any door in fashionable society.

Other social events included the card-party, balls, the garden party (breakfast outdoors), the Venetian breakfast (an afternoon party) and a rout ("a crowded party with no music or dancing or places to sit but people went because it was a place to see and be seen").

The Georgian era in England is commonly used for the period 1714 to 1830/37 (so Georges I, II, III, IV + sometimes William IV 1830-7) and includes the Regency Era (strictly speaking, 1811–1820). The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792, well within the Georgian era, so the reference is not anachronistic.

A water party is also mentioned in Jane Austen's Emma (published 1815/16):

"And then, he saved her life. Did you ever hear of that?--A water party; and by some accident she was falling overboard. He caught her." "He did. I was there--one of the party."

Another reference to water parties can be found in Sports in the Western World which mentions that members of the Cumberland Fleet (a yacht club founded in 1775 and named after George III's brother, the Duke of Cumberland)

...sponsored "water parties" on the Thames

The term 'water party' is still in use today, though with a far wider range of meanings and social groups (see, for example, Urban Dictionary and babble.com).

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