John Playford (1623 - 1686)

Picture of John Playford

John Playford was a publisher, based in London during the seventeenth century. Today he is famous among dancers as the publisher of The English Dancing Master - the first collection of English country dances. This publication was added to and amended over many years, through many editions - the work being handed on to Playford's son Henry. Playford did not write the dances himself and was not a dancing master - indeed there is some suggestion that the dance notations in the book were produced by a group of people.

It is interesting to note that this work was first published at a time when England was in the grip of puritanical fervour (see the dedication to the first edition, the historical context page and the biographical details on William Prynne), a time at which it is commonly perceived that anything as frivolous as dancing would have been severely frowned upon. Some of Playford's actions suggest that he may himself have had Royalist sympathies.

 Later, after the restoration (of the monarchy), Playford and his son continued the publication of this successful volume, making corrections, adding more dances and changing the selection of dances as fashions changed. One interesting historical reference to the publication is to be found in the diary of Samuel Pepys.

At first Playford's business included publication of 'tracts' (the equivalent of modern newspapers), carrying news of the progress of the Civil War, though he later specialised in music publishing, on which he had considerable influence. Some people have, rather extravagantly, referred to him as "the father of music publishing". His shop would seem to have been the only music shop of account in London at the time and was a centre for London's musical community. Playford acted as publisher to composers such as Locke and Purcell.

The First Edition of The English Dancing Master

 Click here to see a picture of the cover of the original 1651 edition.

 Click here to read the dedication of the first edition.

There is a project to provide an online version of the first edition.

There is some confusion over the precise date of publication of the first edition - some books quote it as 1650, others as 1651. This is due to the difference between the current way of handling dates, and the `Old' calendar which was in use at the time, and in which the year did not start in January! On his copy of the first edition, George Thomason, another publisher who was based in St Paul's Churchyard, dates his receipt of the volume as March 19th 1650: i.e. March 19th 1651 as we now reckon dates. Thomason's is the copy now in the British Library.

The English Dancing Master contains both the notation of the dances and the accompanying music. Unfortunately, the dance instructions are not explicit and would seem to have been produced as reminders for people who already knew the dances. This has led to the proliferation of interpretations available today. The English Dancing Master and its dances were neglected for many years, but they were researched by Cecil Sharp earlier this century. It was his pioneering work that lead to the resurrection of Playford's dances

Original copies of The English Dancing Master are held several libraries such as the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, the most complete set of all the editions being held at the British Library. Modern reprints are also available.


Born. Son of a Mercer (dealer in textiles) from Norwich. Possibly attended Norwich Cathedral School.
Apprentices himself in London as a 'stationer' ( a published and book seller).
Start of the English Civil War.
Apprenticeship ends. Takes up his freedom and secures the tenancy of the shop in built in the angle of the porch of the Temple Church. He is soon appointed Clerk (member of the choir) in that church. Playford starts publishing by producing tracts (newspapers) describing the progress of the civil war.
Charles I is executed. Playford is licensed, with Tyton and Cole, to publish official accounts of the trial and execution.

During the spring there are further royal executions, but the sale of execution speeches is forbidden. Playford, Tyton and Cole contrive to print them anyway and in November a warrant is issued for their arrest. Nothing more is known about Playford for the next year!

On November 7th Playford pays the 6 pence fee for registering for publication "a book entitled The Dancing Master" (the ledger includes the word 'English' in the title, but added as though it were an afterthought). All publications had to be registered before they were released, but this also gave the publisher copyright protection, which may have been apposite given the comments in the dedication of the book. The book was probably at the presses at this stage.
Publishes the The English Dancing Master, probably in mid March. This may have been his first book (as opposed to the tracts), but he also published several others during the year in conjunction with the stationer with whom he had been apprenticed:.
Charles II restored to the throne. Playford, Tyton and Cole's tracts relating to the royal executions are published in England's Black Tribunal. All three are later "rewarded for services" by the king.
John Playford's son Henry takes over the business. He moves the shop to Fleet Street.


  • Became vicar choral (member of the choir) at St Paul's Cathedral.


  1. Playford's English Dancing Master 1651: A Facsimile Reprint with and Introduction, Bibliography and Notes. Margaret Dean-Smith. Published by Schott & Co. Ltd, 48 Great Marlborough Street, London W1, 1957.

This page last modified Tue Apr 2 1996 11:38:50

Rhod Davies

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