A Brief Intro to…the History of British Dating

#HumansOfLSA : Tim Wilson
8th February 2018
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A Brief Intro to…the History of British Dating

Whilst there is much debate about the origins of graffiti, those who believe it started in the 1960s, site the street gangs of Philadelphia, who would brand the walls as their own with their tagging. Darryl McCray, a Philadelphian high school student, was the graffiti artist who helped the medium’s rise to fame. He would trail around the city marking his nickname ‘Cornbread’, next to each gang’s writings, impressing them all with his relentlessness, and giving him free entry to all gang territories.

A romantic chap at heart, Cornbread made the most of this notoriety and used his tagging to gain the attention of a girl he was lusting after. He started off by plastering Philadelphian walls with ‘Cornbread loves Cynthia’. He covered the walls of her bus route to school, and smothered the block where she lived with the phrase. In another chivalrous move, he would check which desk she sat at in each class, and would make sure it was etched into every one of them. His creativity and motivation in catching her intrigue proved successful, and the origination of graffiti ended up being the perfect love story.


In the spirit of street art’s beginnings, its only fair to look at some of our own courting rituals here in Britain, and how it all began:

The beginning of marital relationships weren’t particularly affectionate or romantic, but instead were opportunities for prosperous business dealings between two families. During the medieval period (dating from the fifth to the fifteenth century), with relatively short lifespans and a short window of opportunity to procreate, it was common to marry off your children at the age of puberty (twelve-years-old for a female and fourteen-years-old for a male). To get married, you needed to be given a ‘wed’ as a sign of consent. This would take place at a ceremony known as a ‘wedding,’ where the most common object for a wed, was a ring, a familiar sight to us all now.  

Shakespeare’s plays are a source highlighting the changes in courtship from the medieval – or old age – to the new. Romeo and Juliet exhibits a couple who long to be together due to their romantic love for one another, whilst A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Hermia being forced into an arranged marriage, rather than being given permission to pursue a modern love match. This was indeed the state of Britain at the end of the Elizabethan era, going from the sixteenth into the seventeenth century: a clash of the old order with the new. Love dealings had been based on a financially successful match, however, the modern 1600’s was populated by young adults gaining courage to marry based on physical and personality-based attraction (although, their pecuniary situation was still strongly featured in the decision).

The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown Artist (1588)

All of these changes meant that it was no longer your parents’ responsibility to find you a match, but it was instead something that would happen to you, or something that you had to make happen. This excitement quickly took on an element of stress during the Georgian period (1714-1830), as the focus on how to woo the fairer gender became a popular topic of conversation and speculation. Shakespeare’s Juliet plays hard to get for fear of seeming too keen, resolving to appear ‘perverse’ and to ‘frown’, hardly what we would consider becoming in the twenty-first century! Nevertheless, this was the start of romance: a time when you could entice a lady with words alone.

All this wooing would have to be worth it, as it was no easy feat getting married between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Firstly, a church would have to grant you permission to marry by giving a marriage certificate or by having the banns read (meaning that your intention to marry your betrothed must be announced in a church on three Sundays!). After this, you were still required to wait a month before being able to wed. This set a trend of marrying in secret to avoid the long wait. Shakespeare himself followed this protocol when marrying Anne Hathaway, with his first daughter – Susanna – being born six months later (an intimation as to why some might have been in such a rush to get married).

With the emergence of the first newspapers, 1695 saw men starting to post advertisements looking for appropriate wives. In 1727, Helen Morrison was the first woman to submit an advertisement to a newspaper claiming that she was looking for ‘someone nice to spend her life with.’ Instead of receiving invested responses, she received a reaction from the mayor, who had her put in an insane asylum for a month. Helen, instead, was expected to demonstrate her readiness to find a match by attending a ‘coming out’ ball. These balls gave both sexes the opportunity to seek a match by trialling their chemistry through dancing, conversation and social links.

Although opportunistic locations for matchmaking, these balls were exhausting, starting late in the evening and continuing well into the night. It was customary for male suitors who had danced with you the night before to visit you the following morning. Given the late nights these gentlemen were having, the morning after the night before could have been any time until mid-afternoon. Despite – or most probably because of – this newfound freedom for couples and the ability to find a love match, the courting scene in Georgian Britain was governed by some very strict dating rules called ‘The Rules of Assembly’:

  • You could only dance with someone you had been introduced to, and had a social connection with (cutting out a vast number of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes)
  • If you declined an invitation to dance with someone, you had to forego dancing for the rest of the evening
  • If home alone, a woman could not receive a male guest    
  • No physical contact with your intended until marriage (unless you needed steadying on a cobbled road)
  • No flirting with a gentleman (but you could flirt with your fan…)
  • No dates after dark
  • Men could not stay for a prolonged period of time in a woman’s house
  • No riding alone in a carriage with a member of the opposite sex (unless they are a family member)

The perfect place to get to know your betrothed would have been in a fashionable Pleasure Garden. The most stylish were Ranelagh, Vauxhall and Kensington Gardens. In these open spaces, you might be invited to go for a round (a walk around the park), buying you some alone time with your significant other, giving you a little privacy to get to know them. With so many rules surrounding the conducting of romantic relationships, these gardens were some of the only places to achieve the privacy that a flourishing romance needs.


These guidelines stretched into the Victorian period (1837-1901), when it was customary to talk to your intended (indicating the start of courting). This would then escalate to walking (with an accompanying supervisor), and then having more regular meetings until getting engaged (which would follow shortly after). During the stages of wooing, there were four things deemed appropriate that a female could accept: sheet music, confectionary, books and flowers.

For those living in Victorian England, flowers were a very important part of courtship: they were a way of declaring their romantic feelings for one another. Flowers had been a strong feature in Britain, even long before Britain was known as such. It is believed that the Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, and ever since then flowers have been used as a greeting, message or farewell.

In the seventeenth century Shakespeare included the meaning of flowers in Hamlet, where Ophelia, in a fit of lunacy, states:

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. That’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end”

Ophelia’s speech signifies the importance of flowers and botanical substances: she declares rosemary as being for the past, and says that the flowers withered when her father died.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852)

Come 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu added to this interest. As the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey, she brought the historical Turkish use of flower meanings back to Britain. It wasn’t until 1809 that Joseph Hammer-Purgstall published his Dictionnaire du language des fleurs, giving Victorians who had been struck by Cupid’s arrow a way of communicating their romantic feelings that they weren’t able to verbalise aloud. These dictionaries on floriography described red roses as being a sign of true love, whilst daffodils connoted hope, pansies signified thought, irises were a symbol of good news, and delphiniums denoted the ability to transcend space and time (probably a very useful flower during the Victorian era!).

However, these flowers had the ability to convey more detailed messages as well: mimosa represented chastity due to its leaves closing when touched or in the dark. Pink roses implied lesser affection than giving red roses, whilst yellow roses were considered emblematic of friendship and devotion. White roses hinted at virtue and chastity whereas black roses have a longstanding connection to dark magic and death. During the 1850’s the meaning of flowers was transferred onto beautifully decorated pieces of jewellery, transmitting a message from the wearer, or from that of the jewellery gift-giver.

Moving into the twentieth century, courtship quickly became a thing of the past, making way for a new phenomenon: dating. The focus was taken away from marriage, and shifted to falling in love. Dates were more casual, had fewer rules, and generally became more enjoyable with less concerned voyeurs taking part in the event. With a changing dating scene, and beautifully dolled up Hollywood actresses, the 1920’s saw the emergence of women donning make-up to attract members of the opposite sex. Up until then it was considered obscene to wear such substances, with Queen Victoria declaring cosmetics as being ‘vulgar.’

From the 1930’s on there were magazines dedicated for those actively looking for love – and no one was put in a mental institution for placing adverts in them! There were also matchmaking clubs that could be joined, and by the 1960’s online dating had emerged in a basic form. Throughout this, the dance hall had managed to retain its popularity amongst dating couples, and by the 1950’s you could dance with whomever you wanted to – whether you knew them, had been formerly introduced to them, or not. However, it was throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s that the cinema became the most popular location for courtship. With its dimmed lights giving a sense of privacy, it gave youths the ability to be ‘alone’ appropriately.

Since the 1960’s there has been a boom in online dating, and the entertainment industry has seen an intensification of popularity within the genre. Starting with Cilla Black’s Blind Date, running from 1985 to 2003, there are now countless TV programmes on this topic, including Love Island, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Sex Pod, First Dates, Undateables, Celebs Go Dating, Take Me Out amongst others, saturating our screens. It is easy to see how phrases such as ‘swiping right’ and ‘Netflix and chill’ have been incorporated into our everyday vocabulary – and the British public love it!

These shows do more than entertain us, they also provide us with a nostalgic throwback to how we used to date centuries ago. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette follow the blueprint of six months of courtship before making a marriage proposal, a narrative that might seem familiar to Georgian Britain. We get caught up in stories ending with successful love matches, much like the matches of Elizabethan Britain, where it was a new and exciting world of freedom and free romance. It’s also far more entertaining and less stressful watching others go through the highs and particularly lows of affection within their lives, than it is experiencing these events in our own lives.

Throughout the trends and traditions: weds and roses, jewellery, poetry and online photos, it’s hard to tell which method works best in winning someone’s heart. What is indisputable is that in a long line of romantic declarations, Cornbread’s scrawling started quite the trend, and the writing’s on the wall with that one.