The Circus

The Circus


21st C

The latest buzz word in England is 'narrative.' Everything described on radio or television must have a 'narrative' associated with it. The subject is immaterial. If you talk about a plumbing problem, a work of art or a football match you must describe the narrative behind it. Buzz words are catching and this one is no exception. The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers alternatives like 'tale' or 'story' but they are ignored: the 'narrative' is king.

The original stone stable at the end of the garden here at No. 17 is unique: it is part of the only surviving original layout of house, garden and stable remaining of John Wood's plan for The Circus. The stable was used to house Gainsborough's favourite horse and now it is due for partial demolition. The current owner uses the building as a store for his tools of trade. He has now been granted permission to demolish most of the stone stable alongside the original 18th C cobbled laneway leading to it in order to erect a domestic dwelling on the site. The officers of the local authority's Planning Department deemed the unique historical connection to be unworthy of concern and as a consequence we lose yet another link with John Wood's world-renowned 18th C architectural gem.

18th C

The winter of 1766 was memorable. Thomas and Margaret Gainsborough with daughters Mary, known as Molly, the sly older girl then aged sixteen, and her sister, Margaret, known as Peggy (described as the more sensible of the two) aged fifteen, moved from Lansdown Lodge to what was then regarded as the most fashionable address in Bath: The Circus, arriving here at No. 17 at the end of the year, in time for Christmas.

A few weeks later a massive snowfall enveloped Bath. Snowdrifts buried Gay Street, the steep access road leading up the hill from the lower town to The Circus and remained there for over two weeks, virtually imprisoning the locals. These unusually deep snow drifts made journeys by foot, horseback or carriage impossible. The teenagers must have felt trapped behind their Bath stone walls - nowhere to go and no-one to see but themselves wandering about the new house still smelling strongly of freshly painted walls.

Pp 195-198

18th C

The city was so popular when the Gainsborough family moved several years later to The Circus (called then The King's Circus just as the main hot water bath was known as The King's Bath) that people like the Rev. Edmund Nelson, father of the illustrious Horatio, made the ardouous cross-country journey from Norfolk to spend most of his winters in the spa town. Lord Nelson's sister, Susannah, was apprenticed to a milliner in Bath and another sister, Anne, died there after dancing all night at a ball and catching a chill when leaving.

Nelson himself chose to convalesce at Bath in 1780 after returning from service in Jamaica where he became seriously ill through drinking water contaminated by the poisonous Machineel tree. Bath doctors "physicked" him four times daily, and he travelled by sedan chair to The King's Bath to drink the waters three times each day. The standard prescription required a patient to drink from three to six pints of the foul-tasting water daily. If you visit Bath today you can taste it for yourself from a fountain in the Pump Room above the Baths. Nelson was so ill that chairmen were engaged to carry him to and from his sick bed. He survived and went on to enjoy popularity as the country's most famous naval hero.

However, the family's close connection with the spa town continued for many years. Nelson's father died in Bath and the hero's long-suffering wife Fanny was at the old man's deathbed. Nelson, however, refused to return to attend his father's funeral, preferring to remain with his mistress, the glamorous Emma Hamilton, at Merton, the house he had bought for her in Surrey.

In the autumn of 1763 Gainsborough moved the family out of the "smoke" at Abbey House to take up residence in a detached house now known as Lansdown Lodge, situated high above the town on Lansdown Road, This attractive building offered a garden, splendid views across the city below and a healthier atmosphere for the girls, all for £30 a year. Leaving Margaret there, Gainsborough went back down the hill each day to work in Abbey House where he kept his studio and exhibition room, while letting out the remainder of the house, the shop to his sister the milliner and other rooms to lodgers, bringing in a welcome extra income. The Gainsboroughs continued to let out rooms in their own house when they moved here to 17 The Circus three years later.

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18th C

In November 1954 the "Great Bath" was drained so that a certain Professor Ian Richmond might take measurements. He found to his utter amazement that the forty-five sheets of lead lining the bottom of the Bath and placed there by the Romans almost 2000 years earlier were still water-tight, reported The Bath Chronicle on 28 November 2003.

Bath's renowned architect, John Wood, described the baths used in Margaret's time as being made up of simple cisterns receiving the hot waters, with small dressing cells placed around them, and flights of steps for the bathers to descend to the bubbling waters below. However, the Georgians chose to ignore these cells, preferring to dress in their bathing costumes before leaving home. Between 6 am and 9 am they then stepped into sedan chairs which were often carried up into the client's own bedroom by a pair of chairmen who then trotted off down the hill to the baths, and then waited for the client to reappear for the return journey.

At the King's Bath, accompanied by one of the bath's guides, the bather would steep himself in chest-deep hot bubbling water for about twenty minutes, rubbing shoulders with all and sundry, of both sexes, at the busiest early morning sessions which were considered to be the most beneficial time to bathe.

Each person was fully dressed according to contemporary illustrations. Officially men were required to wear drawers and a waistcoat, and women a shift described as "decent", but obviously extremely revealing when wet. These clothes were available for hire if necessary. Everyone, male and female, wore a hat - choosing from a wide variety of the most bizarre and elaborate headgear imaginable.

One of the difficulties encountered by bathers using the King's Bath was the complete lack of lavatories on the site before 1784, raising the question of contamination of the waters when taking into account the length of time elapsing between a bather leaving the bed chamber and returning to it. Neither was there any privacy for the bathers. Spectators enjoyed spying on them from various vantage points, including the windows of the Gainsborough family and their lodgers in Abbey House. That site is now covered by a part of the extension to the Pump Room completed in 1897.

Margaret and her husband must have been greatly entertained by the early morning spectacle of the vast array of male and female forms stewing in the steaming waters below their windows although they might have had doubts about exposing their young daughters to the view.

Health was not always the prime reason for the popularity of bathing in Bath. Sexual titillation and even open prostitution played a part. Women took advantage of the flimsy wet cotton shifts clinging to their curves to flirt with handsome young men. And it was not unknown for young blades to sail past them on their backs, presenting their manhood to all and sundry before sinking out of sight below the surface.

Respectable young ladies were fully aware of this vulgar side of life in Bath and often referrred to it in their letters to one another, writing in a slightly risque' fashion about sex and marriage in the spa town. The hunt for a husband was, of course, the primary function of a visit to Bath for many young Georgian ladies.

As bathing became more popular in Margaret's day the Duke of Kingston opened an exclusive suite of private hot baths in the 1760's. These were intended for the use of wealthier visitors. They were situated on land to the south of Bath Abbey and they offered for the first time the opportunity for people to bathe in peace and privacy, enjoying individual changing rooms, hot chocolate and refreshments, and even waiting rooms for sevants. This competition finally prompted the Corporation to introduce similar improvements to their own baths later in the century.

The promise that hot mineral waters would restore health for an amazing range of ailments including leprosy, fertility problems, deafness, fits and obesity attracted many thousands of visitors to Bath.

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18th C


"Twas a glorious sight to behold the fair sex
All wading with gentlemen up to their necks
And view them so prettily tumble and sprawl
In a great smoking kettle as big as our hall."

So wrote Christopher Anstey in the "New Bath Guide," which Margaret Gainsborough might well have read when it was published in 1766, the year the family moved into this house in The Circus.

Gainsborough was always deeply concerned about his own and his family's health. He was highly strung and not at all robust.
Presumably he and Margaret bathed in and drank the famous Bath waters like the majority of residents and visitors. Just how frequently the Gainsboroughs visited the King's Bath below their windows in Abbey House is not known, but clearly they had every opportunity to pop down every day had they wished to do so.

In the four years he lived there Thomas painted his first masterpiece, a full-length portrait of Ann Ford, a beautiful amateur musician who was soon to marry Margaret's old bugbear, Philip Thickness. In this period too, Gainsborough's work was first exhibited by the Society of Artists in London.

He was pushing himself too hard at this time and in 1763, exhausted by overwork, he became seriously ill. Situated as it was, in the lowest part of the town, Abbey House suffered from the smoke and dirt and polluted air so well documented by contemporary writers, but it also offered instant access to the waters, Bath's greatest gift to the afflicted, or so it was believed in the 18thC.

The original Roman spa was known as Aquae Sulis. It was then and remains now the only area of hot water springs in the UK. This natural spring of hot water appeared magical to the Romans, who were notoriously fond of bathing, and the baths were popular for three hundred years from 1 AD to 4 AD.

As the Roman Empire declined, the number of pilgrims visiting the spa fell and the Roman buildings around it collapsed. The hot water flowed away into the river Avon below, largely ignored by the world. In medieval times the church owned the land around the springs and the monks are believed to have used the hot waters rising within the grounds of the Abbey for medicinal purposes.

In the 12th C Bishop John de Villula built The King's Bath. The Cross and Hot Baths were probably built about the same time. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1550's ownership of the baths passed from the Abbey to the Bath Corporation. Its current successor, Bath and North East Somerset Council, now runs them as a highly successful tourist attraction visited by the majority of Bath's three million visitors each year.