The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 247 - 251

18th C

Speaking of life below stairs, cess pits were placed at the back of Georgian town houses, usually in the area at the rear of the house at basement level. They were emptied at night by night-soil men. I have in front of me an illustrated trade card from one John Hunt, Nightman and Rubbish Carter, showing in detail the way in which he went about his smelly business.

Some of the houses in The Circus, even today (including this one) have no access from the back. So Margaret Gainsborough had to make sure a servant stayed up late on the designated night to unlock the basement door permitting two night-soil men to enter. They had to tramp down the area steps, pass through the basement door, clump along the stone-paved lower hall leading out into the rear area , empty out the cesspit and then return with their foul-smelling wooden tub full of excrement carried on a pole slung between them. Staggering back past the kitchen, they returned along the hall and up the area steps, leaving their stink behind them, as they emerged into The Circus to empty their loathsome load into a horse-drawn cart waiting outside the elegant front door.

We were speaking of the MP's grooming habits earlier, recorded by Boswell. It is hard to believe but apparently true that in the reign of George III, in Margaret Gainsborough's day, the British army used 6,500 tons of flour for powdering the hair every year.

As for women of fashion at this time, their elaborate towering hairstyles of real or false hair, pomade and ornaments, could take as long as three hours to dress. And then to have it taken down and re-styled, they went through a process known as having the head 'opened'. One young Irish heiress noted that she had spent half the day at the hairdresser's in London. "My head has not been opened for over a fortnight." She admitted that living with the ornate hair towers became intolerable in the heat of summer. Her stylist told her of one of his clients who, because of the cost involved, allowed her hairstyle to remain untouched for so long that when the head was finally opened a nest of mice was found inside.

21st C

I have heard on the grapevine today that The Town House, across the way in Bennett Street, written about previously as having been the premises of a baker and confectioner from 1767 to 1903, a familiar part of the Gainsborough girls' childhood and, in my time, an upmarket bed and breakfast business, has just been sold and will now become a family home. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.

18th C

But, speaking of The Town House when it was a baker's shop, and remembering that the 18th C owner would habitually take in the Gainsboroughs' Sunday roast to cook it for them had they wished, it is interesting to note that Dr Johnson regularly used his local baker to have his housekeeper's pie cooked for Sunday dinner because that was the only day in the week the London baker did not bake bread and his oven was free to cook his neighbours' prepared meats or pies.

Street food was immensley popular in Georgian times. And the local takeaway was always busy. Nothing new there then. One particular alley in Covent Garden was full of small cook shops doing a roaring trade selling hot meat at all hours for people too poor to have facilities for cooking at home. Poor labourers and their large families lived in cramped quarters, often six or seven in a tiny room or two, too poor even to own cooking pots and pans. These hole-in-the-wall shops sold meat of all kinds as well as hot "soop." At this time meat was the main ingredient of an Englishman's diet.

Corner shops everywhere sold bread, often of poor quality, mixed with chalk, alum and bone ashes to make the mixture go further, causing illnesses of all kinds, including ricketts, which was common. These shops also offered cheap stale greens gathered up from left-overs on market stalls and sold on, as well as little slivers of cheese. Tripe shops concentrated on selling hot tripe wrapped in a scrap of old paper.

Amanda Vickery tells us in her book BEHIND CLOSED DOORS that takeaway food obtained by a servant from a nearby inn was the usual dining arrangement for bachelors. Taverns and coffee houses were popular with single men living alone. They often made a particular one a home away from home by becoming a regular, using it as a base to meet friends, rather like a man today might use his club.

P P. 244-6

Well, back to the 18th C .

We were talking about the way the Gainsboroughs used this house at No. 17 The Circus in Bath and I was reminded of an occasion when James Boswell visited the home of a friend, a member of Parliament for Scotland who had gone abroad, apparently in a great hurry, leaving his rooms in chaos.

Boswell and his companion, Colonel Donald Campbell (who had recently returned alive and kicking from the East Indies after twenty years service bearing no less than fourteen sword wounds and having a musket ball still lodged in his body) were so amused by the state of confusion left behind by the MP that they made a list of the appearance of the dining room after the servant had let them in.

On one table was a stone basin filled with dirty water, a china water bottle and a tin water jug, a case of cut-throat razors and shaving gear. A set of dirty ruffles lay on one chair, sitting on top of soiled white and black stockings, a stock, a used towel and a dirty shaving cloth. A sleeveless flannel waistcoat and a dirty shirt were flung over the backs of two more chairs and on another lay a black waistcoat and a grey frock coat with black buttons. A set of combs, a pair of scissors and a stick of pomatum occupied another seat. On the carpet lay a length of blue and white check material, a tea-chest and abandoned closeby was a pair of shoes. A flannel powdering-gown (worn when the hair was being dressed) and a pair of slippers had been discarded on the floor. Numerous packets of letters, books, pamphlets and newspapers were piled on the chimney-piece together with a snuff-box. Two hats, a sword and belt and a belt without a sword hung on the wall. An extra long cane with a gold head stood in a corner.

The MP's servant looked on in amazement as Boswell and the Colonel, both amused and appalled by the mess, recorded every single item in a notebook. Boswell later published the list, giving us an accurate picture of one Georgian gentleman's dining room and his way of life when living alone.

Boswell mentions the chimney piece. Every room in those days before central heating needed a fireplace and the price of coal was an item which concerned every housekeeper at every social level. Indeed, it was one of the reasons why families chose to spend several months of the year away from the metropolis: coal in Bath was so much cheaper than in London.

In the front area of this house, below street level, are several stone vaults running out below the pavement. They were used by the Gainsborough family for storage and for the vital coal supplies.

The basement still has its own front door and a stone staircase leading up to street level which, in Gainsborough's day, was used exclusively by servants and tradesmen. There is also the remains of an iron lift or pulley by the gate which was used to lower heavy items to be stored in the basement vaults.

Pp 242-3

21st C

Last Wednesday, in fear and trepidation because the news media was full of accounts of London's burning buildings, homes in flames,rioting gangs, shattered shop fronts and looted homes and stores, I travelled up to the capital by train.

To my amazement everything at Paddington railway station seemed to be normal: the usual fast-moving queue for taxis at the station, a leisurely drive to Chelsea where I was staying, no sign of anything remotely resembling the chaos reported. There were no police about, no rampaging hoodies in sight, no sirens screaming, nothing but people calmly going about their normal business, hampered only by crowds of rubber-necking tourists enjoying London in warm sunshine on the King's Road.

I spent three days in London, travelling around Chelsea, the Strand, Piccadilly, the West End and Westminster, day and night, and saw absoloutely nothing unusual, nothing remotely resembling the scary images filling the newspapers and television screens.

Yet, living only 120 miles away in Bath, I had the impression from the news that London was burning. I can't imagine how many people in countries all over the world were as apprehensive as I was as they gazed at images of the devastation caused in areas outside central London. And I wonder how many intending tourists and business people immediately cancelled their plans to visit the UK because of those alarming photographs and their accompanying reports.

I am not, in any way, belittling the horror faced by so many families in the aftermath of the death and devastation that occurred elsewhere, but the media has, in my view, given a totally false impression that the whole of the capital is a no-go area. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Bath I have heard from friends that the many Language Schools teaching English to foreign studients in this city are suffering a marked loss in cancellations for the new term because of the way in which the new of the events last week were reported. If this is so, I can only assume the tourist industry as a whole will be similarly affected.

Pp 235-241

18th C

Major changes in furnishing houses occurred in the 1740s, at about the time of the Gainsborough's marriage in London. In Bath painted wainscots and marble fireplaces were introduced to John Wood's newly-built Georgian houses down in the centre of the old town. The former stained wooden floors were increasingly being covered by carpets, while expensive mahogany and walnut replaced the early fashion for oak furniture. The latest chairs were often upholstered and were much more comfortable, although this new fashion had its drawbacks. Mrs James Boswell struggled to mask her annoyance when that difficult house-guest, Dr Johnson, came to stay. He was known far and wide for his uncouth habits and on one occasion in the dark grey days of November 1773 he upset his long-suffering hostess by turning the candles downwards to improve the illumination of the book he was reading, ignoring the rivers of wax dripping on to the newly-upholstered chairs and the carpet beneath them.

Reception rooms had, until this time, been sparsely furnished by 21st standards, but mid 18th C items like free-standing screens, looking glasses and brass fittings were introduced, while extensive and more expensive lengths of fabric were used in bed hangings and covers. On marriage, Mary Gainsborough ordered no less than sixty yards of white satin and a similar quantity of white sarsenet lining to dress the bed.

By the time Gainsborough signed the lease for No. 17, Georgian houses were cosier, lighter and more opulent than ever before, with down beds, soft blankets and fine linen enjoyed by the family, if not by the servants who cared for them.

Arthur Trimnell, upholsterer of Westgate Street, Bath, guaranteed to use nothing but "curled hair" (presumably horse-tail) to stuff his chair seats.
Damasks and silks now replaced the coarser fabrics used for bedcovers twenty years earlier. Architect John Wood noted then that Bath matrons, their daughters and their maids were hard at work with needle and thread between seasons transforming the popular fabric fustion (a thick, twilled, short-napped cotton cloth, usually dyed in dark, serviceable colours) with floral crewel work to give their beds what was in Wood's opinion "a gaudy look."

Wood-panelled interiors were giving way to brightly painted walls. When we moved here the walls of Gainsborough's parlour were scraped back to reveal a stencilled pattern dating from Regency times - no sign of Gainsborough sketches, however. In Georgian houses separate dining rooms were rare. All reception rooms were used for entertaining and one or two small folding or drop-side tables were often set up in front of the fire by servants who then served an informal meal to the family, removing the tables afterwards.

A set of folding doors often separated the pairs of rooms on ground and first floors. Known as "weddding" or "marriage" doors, these could be folded back to open up the reception areas for a large evening party or closed for more informal use.

Circus kitchens were situated in the basement, with a flight of stairs leading down from the rear of the main hall. The original staircase remains in place in No. 17.

In this house this broad stair rising from the ground floor entrance hall leads to a landing with a large window overlooking the garden, rising again to the first floor area which in Margaret Gainsborough's time was reserved for her husband's professional activities. His clients were shown up to the drawing room (used as his exhibition room) by a servant. This handsome room lined with paintings on three walls, its three tall windows facing The Circus and with a coal fire burning brightly in the grate, saw many a famous sitter taking tea while the artist prepared his paints and adjusted his easel in the adjoining studio.

An internal staircase leading to the first floor was inserted in the late 1940s but part of the original studio remains, facing the garden at the rear of the house. Gainsborough had the central section of the three-part Venetian window in his studio lengthened upwards, one storey in height, to admit more of the northern light much favoured by artists. The outline of the extension to the window, now filled in, can be seen clearly from the private walled garden but it is not visible from the street.

The stairs rising through the main hall from the first floor led to bedrooms occupied by the Gainsborough parents and perhaps their daughters on the second floor. Somehow accommodation had to be found for Thomas's nephew Gainsborough Dupont and for his niece Sophia, both children of his sisters, who spent a good deal of their childhood living with their uncle in The Circus.

Gainsborough Dupont was the second son of Sarah, Gainsborough's second sister and her husband Philip Dupont, a carpenter in Sudbury. The boy was apprenticed to his uncle in 1772 and remained with him until Gainsborough died. Dupont was generally considered to be a second-rate painter whose work was adequate but not good enough to satisfy the Royal Academy which refused three of his attempts to become an academician. Gainsborough was always kind to his relatives and paid Dupont generously.

Sophia was born in 1762, daughter of Gainsborough's sister Susan Gardiner, and the little girl spent much of her childhood under Margaret Gainsborougjh's supervision in Bath.

In addition to the family, No. 17 had to provide accommodation for the female servants, paying guests and visiting family and friends and their servants.

Gainsborough was known to be fond of his horse, a grey, a gift from his friend Walter Wiltshire, which was probably stabled at the rear of the garden in what is now Circus Mews. When he left Bath to live in London he was determined to keep the horse with him and chose to ride him all the way to the capital in order to do so.

The garden, about 50 metres in length, is fully enclosed within high stone walls. When the Gainsboroughs lived here the servants' lavatory was most likely housed in the rear area of the basement, or in a lean-to in the garden, then most probably used as a yard.

Family and guests were provided with chamber pots in their bedrooms and sometimes a commode, a piece of furniture designed as a cabinet which, when opened, contained a wooden seat over a removeable porcelain pot which, like the chamber pots, were emptied into buckets to be carried all the way downstairs by the maid responsible for the unpleasant task of emptying the slops. A chamber pot was often provided in the dining room in large houses, placed behind a screen and intended for the use of gentlemen who freqently drank a great deal at dinner.

One foreign aristocrat described an occasion on which he found a number of chamber pots lined up on the sideboard. To his discomfort he realised he was required to relieve himself in full view of his fellow guests who all continued to drink and talk. after the ladies had left the room. "One has no kind of concealment," he reported, adding that he found this practice of the upper English classes indecent and totally unacceptable. Ladies, of couse, retired to their hostess's dressing room to use her commode in relative privacy.