The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 226 - 234

18th C

Church Court Records and household inventories reveal that at the time the Gainsboroughs lived in The Circus it was customary for servants to sleep all over the house, sometimes on temporary beds in passages or even in the drawing room or parlour. Few lower ranking sevants like housemaids enjoyed anything approaching a room of their own. Most slept on a truckle bed erected in any available space late at night. A truckle bed was portable and had to be folded up and removed early each morning before the family were up and about.

For their few personal possessions most indoor servants possessed nothing more than a box or trunk which could be locked against theft, a major problem for each head of every 18th C household. Living-in servants, sedan chairmen, workmen of all kinds, itinerant salesmen, milkmaids and pedlars were in and out of the house every day, making the safe-keeping of any valuables a constant headache.

Houses like No. 17 The Circus open right onto the pavement and are still considered public property at times. The other day the laundryman was admitted carrying a heavy load and he left the front door slightly ajar. I went out immediately to close it and found in the main hall two tiny polite Japanese ladies who had followed him in. They bowed. I bowed. I asked if I could help them. One of them bowed again and replied that they were here to view Mr Gainsborough's paintings. Two hundred and fifty year s too late! I replied, and hoping they understood that this was not a public gallery but a private house, I showed them out, all parties bowing politely once again as the door closed.

Theft was rife in Gainsborough's day and it was a rare master who could trust his servants not to steal. Valuables of all kinds, from leaf tea to silver candlesticks were always locked up and the key to safe boxes and cupboards were kept on the individual's person, as Amanda Vickery describes in her book, BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, Yale University Press, 2009, pp 26-38. Her research revealed that people of all classes invented secret places in which to hide their valuables: a hole in the carved leg of a wooden bed perhaps, or a hollow below a brick loosened in the hearth might keep a gold ring safe.

Servant girls often had no privacy even if they were lucky enough to sleep in a drafty room under the eaves. Given no choice, they found themselves sharing not only the room, but the bed as well with other maids and, at times, with complete strangers, in the shape of maids of visiting houseguests, for instance. Securing their few personal possessions was vital.

Not only were servants under constant surveillance by their masters, but the opposite was also true: indoor servants constantly spied on their employers.

As head of the household at No. 17 (houses were not numbered until the 1760s) it was Thomas Gainsborough's responsibility to make sure the building was secure before he went to bed each night. Most of these houses have wooden shutters installed behind window panes, secured by heavy horizontal iron bars. External door locks were reinforced with iron chains and bars, many still in place today.

In the 18th C burglars soon discovered that they could be freed after arrest if they could prove they entered a house through a door or a window carelessly left open, even though breaking and entering a house at night was a hanging offence.

The time-consuming ceremony undertaken by the master of the house every evening, locking all doors and securing all windows and shutters on all five floors, was therefore a vital task, however tiresome.

As mentioned earlier the Gainsboroughs were great believers in making the most of the financial opportunities offered by letting out rooms to lodgers in all their houses in Bath and later in London. Rooms allocated depended on the social status of the individual. Accommodation on the first floor at the front was most popular and therefore the most expensive, as it is today, while ground floor rooms were the most accessible. Basements and cellars were notoriously damp and rooms immediately under the roof were known then to be draughty.

The population in Georgian England expanded rapidly, creating a high demand for houses in towns. Accommodation in No. 17 was stretched to the limit from the start, requiring space for family, including nephews and nieces, valuable paying lodgers and on occasion (but not too often if Margaret had any say in the matter) visiting friends and their servants, as well as the family's own servants.

The parlour on the ground floor at the fron was , used as a family room and for private entertaining. The most spacious area on the first floor became the artist's exhibition room, reserved for displaying his paintings, mostly portraits, many of them of beautiful women rather oddly described by 20th C author Rebecca West as "looking like cats...all feline in appearance."

The exhibition room boasted three large windows overlooking the stone-paved Circus at the front, facing south, with Gainsborough's studio at the rear, having a view of the garden and stables. The rooms in the basement included the kitchen and those on the second, third and fourth floors were in constant use and their purpose frequently changed according to demand, using portable tented beds completely enclosed in a set of curtains, a piece of furniture which could be moved from room to room at will, swiftly converting a sitting room into what we might call a bed-sitter today. The fabric used for the "ceiling" and all four sides of a tented bed was usually striped or checked cloth and the bed being totally enclosed gave the occupant complete privacy when dressing, while effectively hiding the bed so that the room could be used with decorum as a sitting room in any company, male or female, throught the day and early evening.

Wealthy people were constantly on the move. One widow of advanced years with a house in Berkshire spent six months every year in the City district in London, paying a total sum of twenty-four pounds and three shillings for rented accommodation and all meals for both herself and her maid for the entire period. This was at a time when decorative Worcester and Bow porcelain teapots might be bought for anything from one shilling and sixpence to four shillings each. The drinking of tea was a fashionable cremony much indulged by Georgian society.

Tea first came to England in the 1650s when coffee houses in London began to sell Chinese "tcha" "tay" or "tee." Tea was heavily taxed almost immediaitely and along with the hated Window Tax, it paid almost the entire costs of the Royal Navy in the 18th C.

By the time the Gainsboroughs came to Bath tea was beginning to replace small ale, the common drink of the average labourer, but the cost was high and tea was a popular item with smugglers who found a ready market for it. Servants of the wealthy saved used tea leaves from the drawing room teapots and sold the product on to unscrupulous tea merchants for profitable recycling to the poorer classes.

Tea bowls wsere used up to about 1770 when cups with handles were introduced. Tea drinking became so poular that by 1784 there were no less than 672 registered premises in Bath and Bristol out of a total number of 2769 shops, according to Brian McElney, founder of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Houseguests as opposed to paying lodgers could be difficult. Travelling the countryside was so rigorous, demanding and dangerous that visits to friends and relatives living far away tended to be lengthy affairs lasting weeks if not months, a situation that at times caused quite a few headaches for the unfortunate hosts.

Margaret's daughter Mary Gainsborough was three years old when a country parson complained bitterly on learning that two of his close female relatives were coming to stay for the summer. Even though they offered to pay for an extra washerwoman and provide quantities of soap he was horrified by the expense the additional laundry would incur. Extra coal would be needed to heat the copper to boil the linen and the thought of the costs involved, not to mention the continual fuss and upset caused by endless quantities of damp clothing of both visitors and family hanging about to air all over the house, caused him nightmares.

Mrs Gainsborough obviously agreed with his views and the writer Fanny Burney was of the same opinion, remarking that, in additon to being expensive, a constant stream of visiting relations was tiresome in the extreme and caused trouble with the servants who had to deal with the extra work involved, as well as having to share their accommodation with visiting maids and footmen.

Ignoring the problems involved, Gainsborough insisted on inviting his friends to stay. On one occaion he could not, in fact, find room in No. 17 for his friend James Unwin because Margaret had already invited a female friend of her own who, with her son and servants, had decided to extend her stay with the family to include Christmas and beyond. Gainsboro9ugh was not pleased about this decision and immediately offered to take nearby lodgings to accommodate Unwin, explaining to him that they had never in their lives had more than "a bed and half" to spare at any one time.

Pp 223-225

21st C

On my first trip to UK from Australia in 1966 I stayed with my brother and his wife in Mile End in London. They were both teaching in the East End on their first visit to England. She was employed in the school at Victoria Docks which featured in the film BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. At the time the school, with an all-white studentship , was rough, dirty and grungy, offering a tough experience for a young Tasmanian woman.

My brother , on the other hand, taught at a comprehensive school in Dagenham, where the children of newly-arrived West Indian employees of Dagenham's car industry made up a large proportion of the pupils. This school was well-run and the West Indian children were described by my brother as being "lovely kids", well-behaved and a joy to teach. He must have been quite popular with them too. The day he left the post to return to Australia the staff gave him lunch at the historic LORD NELSON pub on the banks of The Thames. When he returned to school in a somewhat merry mood that afternoon all the school kids grabbed hold of him, lined up behind him and ordered him to lead a conga line, dancing right around the school before they let him go.

I was reminded of my visit to Mile End today because when I was there I had my hair cut by a lass at the local hairdresser. She was about nineteen or twenty and amazed me by telling me she had never been to London, meaning the centre of the city. She had lived all her life in the East End but had never travelled out of the immediate area.

Yesterday another twenty year old, a carer who lives in Bath, told me she had had a lovely time the previous day.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I went to London for the first time!"

I could hardly believe it. A modern young woman with silver studs adorning her nose had driven herself to London with a couple of female friends as passengers. She had once been taken there briefly as a baby. The train jouney takes one and a half hours and the drive by car takes about two hours. But in all those years she had never been back .

"Did you like it?" I asked.

"It was a wonderful experience," she replied. She had had her first ride on the underground ("overcrowded and too hot for comfort") and saw her first performance of a musical comedy in the capital.

I am left wondering just how many people are not curious enough to make the effort to visit one of the great cities in the world when they live within its shadow.


18th C

On becoming mistress of 17 The Circus Margaret Gainsborough was nearing forty, a plump, attractive brunette with two rather troublesome teenage daughters to control and a husband who was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest portrait painters in England; a man who was highly popular, a spendthrift who rebelled against the restrictions of domesticity imposed upon him by his wife. Margaret's life was now cast in stone. She had no option but to follow the path which was determined on the day she married Thomas twenty years earlier.

In Georgian times marriage was first and foremost a social contract, a state considered necessary for both male and female if each were to achieve a satisfactory lifestyle. For the majority of young blades and for ALL young women, making a good match was by far and away the most important goal in their lives. Marrying for love, a romantic idyll, rarely became an issue. Marriage was the only avenue open to a young, well-born gentleman who wanted to satisfy his sexual appetite and achieve the social requirements of his Christian upbringing. Amanda Vickery's examination of private diairies of 18th C bachelors reveal an inner struggle faced by many young men who were using prostitutes while at the same time searching for a suitable wife, a virgin, usually to be discovered within the social circle of family and friends. After the wedding ceremony, of course, with home and family creating a stable domestic and social background, a man was free to act as he pleased, taking his pleasures as liberally as he liked, without social restraint.

Thomas Gainsborough, although not born a gentleman, was an example of a man of his time who made a good marriage financially speaking, gaining a pretty wife and sexual freedom to indulge his roving eye. Margaret had no recourse but to accept her husband's behaviour once the ring was on her finger.

Young women were brought up knowing that their future happiness and position in society were totally dependent on their marrying well. Margaret had a private income but, as an illegitimate female child of an aristocrat, without a husband, she would have had no position in society in spite of her ancestral line .

The lot of the ageing Georgian spinster was dire, becoming increasingly miserable as she aged. Most women in this situation had no money of their own and were alarmingly dependent on the generosity of their relatives, many of whom were unbelievably miserly in their treatment of the spinster sister or sister-in-law forced by circumstance to share their lives.

The only area in which the Georgian wife might hope to express herself was in the management of the home. This she expected to be free to manage personally, coping with all affairs relating to the family and the residence, including the hiring of household servants. Above all, she wanted to have her own position as prime female made clear to her mother-in-law who was often a major source of irritation if, as sometimes happened, the older woman lived under the same roof and was relucant to move elsewhere.

Margaret might have experienced difficulties of this nature when she and Thomas first returned from London to live with the senior Gainsboroughs in Sudbury although there is no evidence of any problems between the two women. Trouble frequently occurred, however, when a young woman married the beloved only son of a widow. Mother and son might have lived happily together in the family home for some years before the son eventually chose a wife. The older woman often fought like a tiger to retain dominance on the domestic front before admitting defeat, causing major disruption in the relationships of all three concerned, according to Amanada Vickery.

Mothers warned their daughters to beware of a fiance who assumed control over the choice of wallpaper or the domestic timetable. Here was a tyrant in the making! Common Law favoured the husband in all matters. A wife's only real area of authority was confined to the decoration and management of the marital home, but only provided the husband permitted it. Woe betide the woman who was refused that freedom, warned a concerned mother, wary of the dominating attitude of her daughter's suitor.

The keeping of household accounts was usually left to the wife, but many husbands kept a close eye on expenditure, querying the very last detail should it appear suspicious. As we have seen, laundry bills were unbelievably high: Amanda Vickery describes one family, minor gentry who were wealthy enough to keep a coach and horses, who claimed their washing bill covering the needs of three children, a toddler and two infants, cost thirty-three pounds in 1745, euivalent to the yearly wage of TEN maids.

In addition to coping with endless laundry chores Margaret's duties included finding material and organizing the making up of Thomas's extensive wardrobe of shirts, a major task. One young fellow relied heavily on the support of first his mother and then his sister in this matter. Amanda Vickery reveals that on a regular basis this peacock sent his soiled linen home three hundred miles away to be laundered, mended or renewed, and returned.

The most arduous problem faced by housewives in the 18th C was, undoubtedly, the employment and management of servants, especially those who lived in and were forever present, seen or unseen.