The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 282-293

18th C
Schoolgirls boarding at Belvedere House who had permission to make visits to private houses on Sundays had their names recorded on a slate the previous evening. Susan Mein's first outing was to 12 Brock Street, the home of Mrs Gambier, widow of a high-ranking naval officer, friend of her father and Susan's guardian in Bath.

On Sunday morning the girls were instructed to learn their prayers and catechism before leaving for church, the Misses Lee heading the procession heading down Lansdown hill, all the girls dressed in white frocks and carrying fans and prayer books. Teachers brought up the rear. The fans were used to cover the girls' faces when praying as the position of their particular section of seating made kneeling impossible.

After the service those lucky individuals permitted visits were collected by liveried servants. Susan admitted to being thrilled to see that Thomas, Mrs Gambier's footman, was the grandest of them all. He wore a cockade in his hat, carried a tall cane, and saluted Miss Lee before calling loudly for 'Miss Mein!' Her name was repeated until Susan reached Miss Lee's side when the man was instructed to take her to Mrs Gambier's house by the most direct route. He was reminded firmly of the hour she must return to school. Off went Susan with the smartly dressed footman walking close behind her.

After dinner Mrs Gambier took Susan to call on friends, the footman accompanying them. When they reached the host's house, the footman was required to knock at the door, then wait outside. Often there would be three or four men waiting for their mistresses to reappear, all wearing identifying liveries so that if a caller wanted to avoid an enemy currently visiting the house, she could check the livery and hurry by.

Bath was held in high esteem by the most fashionable people in the country at this time, when royalty and many aristocrats were among those taking the waters and provision of elaborate and expensive livery was highly competitive.

On this first visit to 12 Brock Street Thomas returned Susan to the school at the appointed hour, carrying on her behalf a gift of a cake which was stored in a large padlocked tin box with similar goodies brought back to the school by other pupils and not returned to them until the following afternoon, to be shared with friends.

On her birthday visit to Mrs Gambier her hostess invited Susan beforehand to choose her own menu for a celebratory dinner at the house. She chose her favourite meal of roast goose followed by damson pudding. The meal was served as requested but Susan never ordered the same again: her guardian made it quite clear that roast goose was less than delicate, a most unsuitable choice for a maiden.

The school's major event was the annual ball held each year in the Assembly Rooms around the corner from Gainsborough's House in The Circus. The girls all wore white muslin rocks with long, wide primrose coloured sashes and wreaths of primroses in their hair.

The day before the ball the most fashionable hair-dresser in Bath, Mr Pope and his two assistants, called to dress the girls' hair in the latest style. Overnight curl papers were used to produce a mass of curls all over the head with a row of kiss-curls surrounding the face, a painful process which produced a sleepless night for every one of the girls old enough to participate because of the tight curl papers they wore to bed, looking, in Susan's opinion, like porcupines.

These ugly painful affairs had to be endured until after dinner on the day of the ball when the hairdressers returned to uncurl and style each head, adding a chaplet of primroses only after the girls were fully dressed.

To Susan's dismay she was singled out from the rest by being the only pupil to wear two rows of pearls (sent in by Mrs Gambier) crowning her curls instead of flowers. She was devastated, but had to submit to the indignity of being marked out as diffferent from her friends.

Even by cramming two slender girls into each sedan chair, transporting all of them to the Assembly Rooms was a long process but eventually they entered the splendid rooms in procession and there beneath the famous sparkling candelit chandeliers the first person they saw was the Prince of Wales wearing a fabulous diamond decoration so often described by those who saw it. The Prince was dressed in a rich green coat with a white waistcoat. His hair was powdered white, frizzed out and worn in a queue but, Susan noted, not curled.

The girls performed several minuets before joining their families. Before leaving, they were assembled to make a"Bath Curtsey" to the Prince, and then retired to take tea in a private room befoe being sent back to school as fast as the sedan chairmen could haul them up the hill.

Belvedere House was highly regarded and according to Susan Mein the girls under the supervision of the popular Misses Lee were happy there. They were known locally as The Leevites. Physical punishment of any kind was never permitted and the Misses Lee were generous in providing treats.

Each girl was permitted sixpence a week pocket money, using some of it to send out for fruit and cakes twice a week. A mature pear tree in the garden provided a seasonal supply of the fruit free of charge to pupils and two or three times each half year girls who could afford to do so were actively encouraged by the senior Miss Lee to treat themselves to a feast. The school provided tea and sugar (expensive items), the pupils bought in buns and plum cakes and everyone (even, as Susan pointedly noted, those girls too mean to contribute) devoured everything on offer.

Susan's beloved and attentive father often called in to see her when on his way to and from London, always staying overnight at The White Hart Inn (which is still there in Widcombe, now a popular gastropub). Susan was invited to dine with her father after Billy the Boots from the Inn had been sent across town with a note to Miss Lee. A sedan chair was hired to carry Susan down the hill later that day to meet her father. (No telephones then meant communication even from one part of town to another took considerable time and effort on the part of several people).

Her father spoiled Susan by taking her shopping on each visit and she would return to school laden with gifts, a golden guinea nestling inside her purse.

Susan Sibbold nee Mein remained at Belvedere House for three happy years, leaving when she turned seventeen to live with her father in London. He was then employed by the Navy, serving on the "Sick and Wounded Board." His pecular thin, cold-hearted wife refused to live in London, apparently preferring life in Devonport, but Susan's sister Betsey also lived with her father and shared her London adventures.

Susan's last journey from Bath was one she never forgot. Travelling with her father in a carriage drawn by four horses they were delayed by a heavy fall of snow and had to spend an extra night at an inn on the London Road. Dusk fell long before they reached Blackheath, then noted as a particularly dangerous place populated by highwaymen. There were no houses, no lights, just a dismal bleak moor with a gibbet on a rise with two skeletons hanging from it, swaying in the wind. Doctor Mein had taken the precaution of hiding a pair of pistols in the front pocket of the carriage, but both father and daughter admitted to being nervous as they passed through this grim landscape late at night. They cheered up when the carriage rolled eventually into Oxford Street, bright with lamps on both sides and further decorated by chemist shops, all their windows lit from behind with a brilliant display of giant red, blue and green apothecary jars.

Later, Susan married a Colonel Sibbald and they produced a large family of nine sons and two daughters. He died in 1835 while Susan was abroad visiting two of their sons then living in Canada. After receiving this shocking news, Susan decided to spend the rest of her life in that country, dying there in old age in 1866.

Her account of life at school in Bath is valuable and quite rare in its detailed description of life at that time, in all probability giving us an accurate insight into the life of Mary and Margaret Gainsborough at school in London a few years earlier, and made more welcome as there is very little documented evidence directly concerning the Gainsborough girls in their teenage years.

The contrast between the girls' school described above and boys' schools in the 18th C could not have been more marked. Boys were regularly bullied and beaten unmercifully at school. James Boswell, a lawyer, was supporting a schoolmaster in a case brought against him in the House of Lords. Boswell consulted his friend Dr Johnson on his view of the matter, indicating that he thought his client might have been too severe in dealing out punishment to his pupils.

The redoubtable doctor asked if the master had broken any bones. Boswell replied that the man in question had not. Johnson asked if the master had fractured any skulls. On being told he had not done so, he said he blieved the fellow had nothing to worry about, adding that he himself had been beaten unmercifully at his own school, Lichfield, and he had survived.


21st C
You might remember that I am trying to get seats for public use in the foyer outside the Waitrose supermarket in Bath. I have had a letter from Nigel Huxley the Branch Manager which is reassuring. He tells me that they will be installing four benches "made from recycled packaging" within a few weeks. This pleases me, but I wonder if these seats will be strong enough to support me - will they be made from discarded cardboard cartons?

18th C

Returning now to the Misses Lee's Belvedere House in Lansdown. We left the girls back from their walk and about to have tea.
Teachers made their own. Sarah the maid served the pupils who were offered tea and thick slices of bread and butter. These 'doorsteps' were so substantial some of the girls couldn't manage them all and passed them on to hungrier friends.

At 6.30 pm lessons had to be learnt for the following day and then girls were free until supper: the little ones played with their dolls, the older pupils read or sewed gifts and trifles, or amused themselves with their ever popular scrapbooks. Supper was served in the dining room: they had eaten meat and vegetables in the middle of the day so bread and cheese and beer were served now or, if preferred, bread and milk.

At 8 pm all pupils kneeled as Miss Lee read prayers before they were dismissed to go up to bed. The first thing they did on returning to their rooms was to take off their frocks. There were no such things as coat hangers which were not invented until late in the 19th C, so all clothes were folded and stored in cupboards or chests. Putting on their dressing gowns - an essential item - the girls brushed their hair, put in curl papers and looked over the next day's lessons. Some then sat and talked while it was light in the summer. But in winter it was far too cold and dark and they jumped smartly into bed before the candles were blown out by the mistress in charge. Each girl kept her own laundry book, listing everything sent out to be washed every Monday morning.

Three teachers were in charge at bedtime. The two privileged older parlour boarders each had her own room. They changed their clothes and returned to join the Miss Lees in the sisters' private drawing room, frequently joining them in any of their social activities in the town,

As a new girl Susan slept in a small bed in a room occupied by the French mistress and two other teachers. Later she was moved into one of the larger rooms shared by eight pupils.

Everyone rose at 6 am and lessons began at 8 am when the girls stood to curtsey as the senior Miss Lee appeared in the schoolroom. The set books for Susan's group were an English Grammar, Guthrie's Geographical Grammar, and two or three French books. Susan was espcially pleased about the Guthrie because she knew it well from studying it at home.

For some specialized subjects individual tutors were employed. Mr Billy Perks taught writing and arithmetic. Susan was one of his favourites, frequently rewarded for good work with a piece of gingerbread or a plum, warm from his jacket pocket.

There were pianos in three rooms in the school and each girl took three lessons per week, with practice required each day under the eagle eye of Mrs Oaks the music teacher. On Tuesdays and Fridays Monsieur Becker the drawing master appeared. He was a favourite of Miss Anne Lee and she always sat at table with him, a fact which did not pass unnoticed by the girls.

Grammar and French were each taught on a particular day and on Wednesday Miss Fleming arrived in her privately owned sedan chair (a rare indulgence) to conduct dancing lessons. She was extremely tall and stout, but held heself erect while teaching the minuet and other popular dances in the school room and dining room, with Simon the fiddler providing the music. Miss Fleming continually admonished the young ladies to be a credit to Bath on the dance floor. Susan needed no urging: she love dancing and was so good at it that Miss Fleming often rewarded her with a bonbon.

But she met her match in the French class. Susan hated speaking the language and was devastated to learn on her first day at the school that speaking in French was mandatory for every pupil during school hours! "Getting the mark" meant bowls of gruel for disobeying this rigid rule by lapsing into English.

At one of her earliest meals Susan had been intrigued by the sight of two girls undergoing punishment for some (then unknown to her) misdemeanor. They were forced to sit alone at a small table in the dining room where they were served slices of dry bread and a pint basin each of thin watery gruel. They were not permitted to leave the table until the bowl was empty. She soon learnt that the "mark" also took the form of a physical token -a badge of misconduct - handed out to offending pupils. Sometimes a close friend would take the badge and eat the gruel as a favour.

Classes were held Monday to Friday but Saturday morning was spent mending stockings, sewing on buttons and doing other personal chores, while the afternoon was given over to free time, spent at the school.

Pp 272-275

18th C

Back to the 18th C school girls where we find Susan Sibbald approving of the menu offered in the dining room at Belvedere House on Lansdown hill, Bath. Apparently everyone ate well at this school: on Monday roast beef was served. Tuesday and Friday: roast shoulder of mutton. Wednesday: a round of beef. Thursday: boiled leg of mutton. Saturday: stewed beef and picled walnuts, a great favourite of the girls.

Twice a week "choke dogs" were on the menu. These were currant dumplings. On other days rice pudding followed the meat course. A few of the wealthy girls, including Susan and her new best friend, Sophy Templer, remained at table to enjoy a glass of port wine, an extra cost to their parents, while the rest of the pupils returned to the schoolroom.

In summer they remained there after the mid-day meal doing needlework until 4 p.m. when everyone donned walking shoes, bonnets, spencers or tippets and with three teachers supervising, left the school, walking in crocodile formation, two by two, up the hill and into the adjacent countryside above Landsdown, an area much frequented by Thomas Gainsborough who frequently rode his favourite horse up the hill and stayed to sketch the landscape.

Leaving the town behind them the girls were free to walk in small groups, the adults following some distance behind. They were all due back at school by 6 p.m for tea, although not everyone took the fashionable Chinese treat presumably, like port wine, it involved an additional cost. At 6.30 p.m. lessons had to be learned for the following day and when that was done, the girls were free to amuse themselves until suppertime.


21st C

They say if you want to get anything done, contact your member of parliament, especially if he or she happens to be in power at the time. This is certainly true of my local MP, Don Foster, who is unfailingly supportive whenever I request assistance.

My latest concern is, not for the first time I might add, lack of seating in public places for those who, like me, older people, mothers with young children, need a place to rest weary legs.

Bath's only Waitrose supermarket in the city is enlarging its premises and the whole area previously containing individual stores, coffee shops and restaurants was vacated overnight after Christmas.

As a rsult in the whole deserted area there are no chairs or tables which previously offered seating and refreshment for the elderly or disabled. Only one park-like bench capable of accommodating three smallish people at most remains in this empty echoing space.

The supermarket itself is so limited in size it has always been a problem to move a trolley through its cramped and crowded aisles. One backless form situated next to the exit is the only seating available in store.

So, my campaign is for provision of temporary seating in the main entrance of the building to be used throughout the twelve month rebuilding project which involves major changes to the interior, including relocating the escalator.

Don foster has kindly taken up the cause and with his help and, I hope, the assistance of Bath Branch Manager, Nigel Huxley and the Managing Director of Waitrose, Mark Price, we might see some seating appear shortly. So far Don Foster has replied to my letter but I have heard nothing from Messrs Huxley and Price.

Pp. 262-269

18th C

Children of the wealthy in Bath were not the only girls offered education in mid 18th C. A charitable school for the poor was established at Batheaston, just outside the town, and an account of it published as a novel in 1763, the year before Molly and Margaret left to board in London.

Two women, Lady Barbara Montague and her friend, Sarah Scott, founded the charity which aimed to educate young females to take positions as housekeepers, nursemaids or governesses. Families like Gainsborough's wealthy neighbours in The Circus and his friends living in nearby country mansions proved eager to employ these girls because they had been thoroughly taught their different trades and, perhaps more importantly, they were actively encouraged to recognize themselves as social inferiors, destined to serve their superiors, usually for life. It was extremely difficult for 18th C women in service to escape the confines which bound them.

Other forms of education existed and were followed by individuals. A form of shorthand called "Rich's and Weston's Shorthand was in use by at least one travelling scribe as early as 1755. He used this system to take notes from his illiterate customers at fairs and markets before composing letters and documents on their behalf.

In 1837 Isaac Pitman invented a new form of shorthand (or phonography) which was taught in the institution he set up in Bath for that purpose. His system became world-famous and won him a knighthood in 1894. This business lingered on. When I was given my first computer not so many years ago I learned how to use it by enrolling in Pitman's Computer Course for Beginners in Bath.

Susan Sibbald nee Mein was one of ten children. Desperately unhappy at home in the presence of an unusually frigid mother who showed her no affection, Susan begged to be sent to boarding school in Bath. Belvedere House owned and run by the three Lee sisters was highly recommended to her father who agreed to take his daughter to view the school.

Many long years later, at the age of seventy, Susan recorded her personal recollection of her colourful life, including a long description of her school days in Bath. The resulting manuscript was published in 1926, edited by her grandson, and is drawn on here to illustrate the life the Gainsborough girls probably experienced as boarders at a similar institution in London.

Travelling by horse and carriage from Devonport, Susan Mein and her father, a doctor occupying a senior post in the Navy, stayed overnight at the popular White Hart Inn in Bath before being taken next morning by sedan chairs up the steep hill above the town to view the school. Susan's immediate impression was unfavourable. Then fourteen years old she thought the thick venetian blinds or "jalousies" covering all the windows facing the street made the building look more like the severe facade of a nunnery than a girls'school. She was reprimanded rather sharply by a friend of the family who warned her not to judge a book by its cover. (Mrs Gambier, who accompanied them, had agreed to act as Susan's mentor and chaperone while she remained in Bath). The girl soon discovered that the windows in all the rooms where the pupils studied and lived, far from being dark and miserable, enjoyed splendid, wide-ranging views over the town below.

Belvedere House accommodated fifty-two boarders and two parlour boarders, older girls who were chaperoned by the Misses Lee and who enjoyed the social round in Bath after school hours. Twenty day girls also attended the school. They were all taught by three teachers and two governesses under the direction of all three Lee sisters. The school was so popular there was always a waiting list for places. A boarder was permitted visits to specified houses of friends or relatives living in the town on Friday or Sunday, and also on the pupil's own birthday.

The school-room itself was a vast space, lit by an enormous venetian window and heated by a fireplace at each end. Each of the seventy-two pupils of all ages sat in orderly rows on forms with four teachers or governesses sitting at tables facing them. The girls' desks, presumably of a small folding design, were hung on the wall when not in use.

Susan, admitting to feeling quite nervous, joined the class just before mid-day twenty four hours after arriving to take up residence. On the stroke of noon the Misses Lee left the school-room. The girls were instructed to put away their books - everything always had to be placed neatly in its correct place, and woe betide the delinquent who failed to do so. The day girls put on their outer garments and left for home. Susan and the other boarders were told to don their "terrace" bonnets to protect their complexions before going out to enjoy the fresh air on the stone-flagged terrace running across the width of the rear of the the mansion. Iron railings guarded steps leading down to the garden below which was strictly out of bounds. The girls had to be content with walking about the terrace and enjoying the extensive panoramic view of Bath that lay before them.

Pupils were aged from eight years upwards, the two parlour boarders being the oldest at nineteen. Susan described them as a merry lot, the younger girls playing games she described as "Threading the Needle," "French and English," "Fox and Geese," while others danced round and round the terrace, performing Sottish dance steps with skipping ropes, all joining in to Susan's delight.

She teemed up with another new girl, Sophy Templer, and arm in arm they walked up and down, not joining in, but observingf the others (which was apparently the expected behaviour of new girls) for an hour before the bell rang.

Removing their bonnets the girls crowded into the dining room where they were seated accoding to age at three long wooden tables. In the middle of the room stood a round table bearing dishes of joints of hot meat. Three governesses seated there carved for everyone, including the Misses Lee and all teachers and pupils. Two servants ran about serving the meal. If Susan wanted a second helping she was told she had to lean forward and put her right elbow on the table. If only a little meat and more vegetables were wanted, she must extend her hand with thumb touching forefinger. By this method the noise of unnecessary speaking was kept to a minimum.


18th C

In the autumn of 1764 when the Gainsboroughs were living in what is known today as Landsdown House on Lansdown Hill, the girls' lives were changed dramatically: they were sent away to a boarding school in Chelsea, London. Molly was then 14 and Margaret just 13 years old.

This decision must have been difficult for Thomas Gainsborough, as he was a most affectionate father and fond of their company. But perhaps Margaret recognized the benefits the girls might accrue by making influential friends in the larger environment of London, bearing in mind the matter of finding suitable husbands in the not too distant future. One of the reasons Gainsborough agreed to the plan was that it enabled him to achieve his aim to have the girls taught to draw.

He told his friend James Unwin that it was his intention, too, to teach both girls "to paint landscape." He believed both were capable of it, given time and effort. His reason for doing so was to give them the means of becoming financially independent in future, should the need arise.

A year later, in November 1765, Molly and Margaret were still boarding at Blacklands School for Girls, a building facing Chelsea Common, quite close to what is now Sloane Square. The school remained active until 1820, attracting pupils from well-known families. Betsy Boswell, the daughter of James, was one of them.

We know something of the routine probably followed by Molly and Margaret through the eyes of a pupil who was a boarder a few years later at a girls' school in Bath: Belvedere House in Lansdown, just a few minutes walk up the hill from The Circus. This school was run by the Lee sisters in a handsome mansion on Lansdown Road. An unashamedly expensive establishment, it catered for the daughters of aspiring and wealthy gentlemen. In its advertisements the Misses Lee made clear the emphasis offered was on dancing and drawing lessons, and along with the usual curriculum, they assured prospective parents that their daughters would receive instruction in "Purity of manners and self-respect taught by example."

The three Lee sisters Sophia, Harriet and Ann were all highly popular figures in Bath society, enjoying the intimate friendship of celebrities like actress Sarah Siddons and the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs Siddons sent her youngest daughter, Cecilia, a precocious child, to attend their school, and the actress herself starred in Sophia Lee's play "Almeyda, Queen of Granada."

Why, I wonder, were the Gainsborough girls sent away to board in London when there were clearly acceptable schools available in Bath? I suspect that Margaret assumed her daughters, who could be wayward from time to time, would benefit from the discipline imposed on them as boarders, and she might have been persuaded by the thought that in London the girls were more likely to meet a more cosmopolitan group of fellow students who, in turn, might be expected to provide introductions to well-connected young men, their brothers and their friends perhaps who, in turn, might prove to be suitable husbands. This was, of course, the main concern of any aspiring 18th C mother of teenage daughters. In this respect, however, Margaret Gainsborough was doomed to fail.

Now why, you might ask, were respectable women like the Lee sisters, so well-placed in Georgian society, concerned with running a school, not for the benefit of the poor as might be expected, but for personal profit? Their history is intriguing.

The Lee girls had enjoyed a privileged upbringing but after their mother's death their father found himself in financial difficulties. He was sent to the debtors' prison, leaving his poor girls to fend for themselves. Eventually he was rescued by his daughter Sophia's success as a writer. Her work was so popular that she was able to pay off her father's debts and then set up the school to take care of her own and her sisters' futures.


21st C

As far as historical research is concerned a writer is at the mercy of all other writers interested in the same subject. It is impossible to keep up to date because new research reveals previously unknown detail all the time, as in the following instance.

Some months ago I wrote here that neither Margaret Gainsborough nor her husband the renowned portraitist had ever left these shores. I was wrong. Susan Sloman, a specialist in eighteenth century art, published a new book "Gainsborough's Landscapes: Themes and Variations," in 2011 to mark the opening of an exhibition of Gainsborough's work currently showing at the Holburne Museum in Bath.

At the opening of the display Susan Sloman told me she had recently discovered that Thomas Gainsborough had, contrary to my earlier comments, visited Europe, but only once, and then late in life, in 1783, five years before his death. I was really intrigued to learn of this, as I had often wondered why he had never travelled beyond the land of his birth. And I am still puzzled by his failure to visit more of Europe's excellent collections of great art in the 18th C.

There is no evidence to indicate that Margaret accompanied him on this brief trip to Antwerp, the sole reason for the journey appearing to be his desire to see one particular painting then hanging in Antwerp cathedral, Ruben's DESCENT FROM THE CROSS, widely recognized at the time as a fine example of good composition.