The Circus

The Circus


18th C


For hundreds of years a huge workforce in Britain was employed in domestic service. As many as one eighth of the total population of London worked as sevants in 1770 when the Gainsboroughs occupied No. 17 The Circus.

Families with annual incomes similar to the artist's family would be expected to employ at least two female servants and a laundry maid. Male servants were much more expensive and therefore the number of men employed raised the status of the employer in the eyes of society. About that time it was considered necessary to be earning an income of £500 - £600 a year to retain more than one male servant. As a rough guide the conversion rate of sterling in the 18th C and the 21st C is approximately £1 = £60.

Using this rate Gainsborough would have required a yearly income today of £30,000 - £36,000 to employ a footman, a figure demonstrating the fact that the gap between rich and poor has decreased markedly in the interim, as a much higher income would be needed today to cover the cost of running a household plus paying the salary of a footman or a butler at current rates.

Gainsborough appears to have employed a footman only after he left Bath and had been living in London for three years. In that year, 1777, the painter was cursing his unidentified footman for refusing to go out to deliver a parcel because the man was terrified of being pressed into service in the Navy at the time of the American War of Independence. The British Government, strapped for cash, then introduced a tax of a guinea for each male employed. By 1780, however, families with business interests had learnt to evade this tax by passing off their male servants as apprentices. Nevertheless, this highly resented tax was retained in a modified form until 1937.

Pp. 210-213

21st C

Talking of baths and showers which we weren't given that neither featured in the lives of the Gainsboroughs, I have strong opinions on this subject and in particular those units used in just about every hotel I have stayed in over the past two years.

Why, in heaven's name, do hotel designers and owners believe that their guests want showers installed over high-sided baths no-one but a 21 year old Olympian athlete can climb into? Or, if you are a person who doesn't wash their hair every day, who wants a tropical torrent of hot water cascading down, often with painful force, from an overhead power shower situated so high that it is impossible to control or escape from.

One of the best if most expensive bit of kit I have purchsd in the last year has been my roomy walk-in shower (big enough for three!) complete with a wall-mounted, hand-held showerhead fitted on a snake-like connection. This allows me to stand under the fixed shower to wash my hair, or it can be taken off its mounting to target feet or any other bits requiring a thorough squirt yet, if required, keep my hair dry.

I know I am not alone in hating those wretched showers installed over high-sided baths: two of my young men friends and several younger women have complained about them too. As for those wretched high-sided free-standing baths installed in hotel bedrooms! They never have any shelves or surfaces nearby to place any of the stuff you need and anyhow, who wants to strip off and play to an audience in the clear light of day once you're past your prime?

Note to hotel designers and owners: bring back the walk-in shower space please! It is eco friendly, uses much less water and heating per person per day, offers a cleaner option and one which is much less likely to cause accidents.

And while I am enjoying a rant - why is there no seating provided for the disabled and elderly at the ticket office in Bath Spa railway station?
Queuing is almost mandatory whatever the time of day and often requires customers to stand for twenty minutes or more when buying tickets or planning a journey.

When I complained about the matter to a helpful member of staff I was told that they receive many requests for seats in the area but when the information is passed on it is dismissed by higher authority.

I decided to take up the challenge. I wrote to Mark Hopwood the MD of First Great Western and appealed to Bath's MP, Don Foster, for comment.

Mark Hopwood responded within five days, promising to investigate and reply fully as soon as possible. Don Foster immediately wrote to me, indicating that he shares my concern about lack of seating and says he has requested Mr Hopwood's comments. I am pleased by the rapid response of both men and hope their involvement might result in provision of seats. There is plenty of space for them in the current layout of the area concerned.

Pp. 205-209

18TH C

As we have seen the Gainsboroughs let out rooms in each of their former homes in Bath and did so again in order to help pay the rent of about £100 per annum to the owner of No. 17 The Circus, Hugh Penny.

Prior to Christmas Day 1766 the teenagers Mary and Margaret were likely to have helped their mother decorate the parlour. This was the ground floor room fronting onto The Circus which was used as a family room in which they entertained themselves and their friends. The dining room opened off it and armfuls of mistletoe and holly, rosemary and laurels would have been used to decorate these family rooms. The Christmas Tree was not introduced to England from Germany until 1789.

On December 25th the family might have enjoyed a typical Georgian Christmas Day starting withMary and Margaret receiving their Christmas Boxes, followed by breakfast at about 9 or 10 am. A popular Christmas breakfast included Yorkshire Pie and a Cheshire Cheese, according to Catherine Spence, former curator of the Building of Bath Museum, who gave a carefully researched lecure on the Georgian Christmas in Bath in 2002.

The Yorkshire Pie was a creation to be marvelled at: a receipe of 1765 included a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and a pigeon. Generous spices were added, a thick standing crust was made, and the corners of the pie were filled in with hare or woodcock. Georgian breakfasts tended to be 'manly' meals, usually heavy with meat.

Christmas Plum cakes were made early in December to be left to mature before being eaten at their best two or three weeks later. Yule or Spice Cake was another popular receipe at this time, often eaten with cheese and a glass of wine.

In Georgian times the giving of gifts at New Year was more popular than at Christmas, but tradition required wealthy families to contribute Christmas Boxes (in the form of money) to their servants and to the poor.

The writer Jonathan Swift recorded his dismay at having to give as much as half a crown as a Christms Box to each of the many servants of his friends when staying with them. Another guest told of a porter who regularly received about £80 in Christmas Boxes at a time when a footman earned something like twenty to thirty guineas a year.

One village shopkeeper gave various amounts of three pence, six pence and a shilling as Christmas Boxes to three children in his family. In his role as overseer of the Church Poor Funds in a village of about 350 souls he paid a penny to each of the thirty registered poor.

Attendance at the Christmas church services was unavoidable and could be painful. One aristocrat writing to a friend about her experience that year, 1766, complained about having caught a cold in church where she was forced to sit through a service lasting no less than three and a quarter hours.

Christmas dinner was served to the Gainsboroughs between 3 and 4 p.m. The family and their friends wished each other "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" and perhaps exchanged presents. They enjoyed a soup called "Christmas Porridge" made of dried raisins, plums and spices stewed in a broth. The rich added wine, the poor beer. "It is a great treat for English people," wrote a Swiss visior with evident distaste. "But not for me!" He was much happier with the Christmas pies available in England but only as a special treat at Christmas. These contained chopped meat, currants, beef suet and other good things and were very popular.

After the lavish meal the Gainsboroughs and their guests would retire to the parlour for tea, followed by games and music. Thomas was an enthusiastic amateur musician and loved nothing more than to play on one of his nine instruments with friends who were musicians, and at least one of his daughters, Margaret, played too, but not always to her father's pleasure. He complained to a friend of her "damned jangling upon the harpsichord." However, later in life she became so proficient a player that Queen Charlotte herself let it be known that she would like to hear Margaret perform. The younger daughter, who could be difficult, refused to do so.

Later in the evening of that first Christmas Day spent in No 17 the servants would be called in to receive their Christmas Boxes and in some cases they were invited to join the family and their guests in taking a glass of wine and raising a toast to the season - a rare opportunity indeed for servants to socialize with their masters.

Pp 202-204

18th C

The view from the first floor windows of No. 17 is today much as it was on the first Christmas the Gainsboroughs celebrated here in 1766. Nothing much has changed in the intervening 240 odd years except, of course, for the presence of the massive London Plane trees now so dominant in full foliage in the summer but reduced to skeletal sculpture in winter.

In Margaret Gainsborough's day The King's Circus, as it was then known, was paved in stone and consequently extremely noisy, as all sound, even today, is magnified as it bounces off the surrounding stone facades. Straw had to be put down in front of any house where a resident might be lying on a sick bed in order to deaden the constant clatter of horses' hooves and carriage wheels bumping over the stones. Horse-drawn drays and heavy waggons pulled by teams of oxen were constantly passing through, delivering anything and everything to householders setting up in the newly-built residences, transporting bags of flour to the baker's shop around the corner and bringing in endless supplies of coal to fuel the baker's ovens and to keep the Gainsboroughs' and their neighbours' fires burning over this spectacularly cold Chirstmas.

Itinerant hawkers and peddlers filled the crisp cold air with their piercing cries advertising their wares and a constant stream of residents, their visitors and lodgers and everybody's servants rushing about this new and extremely fashionable and expensive part of Bath created a constantly changing scene for anyone with the time to stand and stare. I do it myself today, and the constant passing parade of tourists make it endlessly interesting.

The Gainsborough girls would have been frequent visitors to the baker's shop situated less than a minute away around the corner in Bennett Street. Now known as The Town House, an upmarket bed and breakfast establishment, the premises were then owned by John Wood himself. He sold it in 1767 to two cabinetmakers when it was described as a dwelling, complete with a baker's oven and a vault adjoining it. Before the street received its name, the shop was listed as being the second house from the corner of King's Circus, destined to be "in the street to be called Bennett Street."

This building, No. 7 Bennett Street, was remarkable in that it remained a baker's and confectioner's shop from 1767 until 1903, as recorded in original documents lent to me by a former owner. Given the usual love of sweets exhibited by most teenagers, it is easy to imagine that Mary and Margaret Gainsborough were likely to have been more than familiar with the itnerior of the shop and its contents. In addition, of course, the local baker was regularly engaged to cook large joints of meat in his ovens for nearby Georgian households. This was a common custom and one most probably followed by Margaret Gainsborough and her servants.