In my last two posts, I wrote about what I learned of the cures of drinking the waters and bathing in them, in part on my recent trip to England and in part from Phyllis Hembry’s books about the history of English spas. While spa-going had its origins in the seeking of miracle (not television infomercial miracle, but ecclesiastical miracle) cures, as Hembry writes, there was a side effect that represented the birth of the holiday (or vacation, depending on what side of the pond you’re on):
“The nobility and gentry who responded to [a physician’s] appeal soon found that a sojourn of a week or two at baths or wells was not only a possible cure for disease but a pleasant relaxation from the responsibility of office or the management of estates, and a convenient means of enjoying the society of people of similar rank….So the new habit of going to the baths and wells became an accepted part of the social routine of the elite, drawing humble people there in their wake, and it was the origin of the secular English holiday.”
This was occurring as early as Tudor times, but the true heyday of the British spa, particularly of Bath, was in the early Georgian era, well before Jane Austen visited and later lived there. This was the era of Richard “Beau” Nash, who ruled as Master of Ceremonies from 1704 until his death in 1761. Nash did perhaps more to shape the leisure hours of the Georgians, both in Bath and elsewhere, than anyone else, and he did it by creating what might be dubbed a regime of fun, which Hembry describes:
“Apart from regulations for the rooms and the baths there was an accepted daily social ritual at Bath: a visit to the baths between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., a general assembly at the Pump Room for drinking the water while listening to music, and then diversions. Ladies withdrew to a neighbouring toy shop to read the news and to their lodgings for breakfast, which gentlemen took in a coffee-house. They had the choice of Morgan’s, which existed by 1736, or Stephen’s, on the Grand Parade by 1755 (in the 1770s kept by Ferry), where newspapers and domestic and foreign spa waters were available. Fashionable people often made this late breakfast a public party at the rooms and concert-breakfasts, where performers of rank joined the common band, were popular.”
Nash prompted the building of Bath’s original pump room, but the one you can see today was built between 1786 and 1790, and is now used primarily as a very grand tea room/restaurant.
You can see a bit more what it looked like in Nash’s time, albeit in caricature, in one of the drawings from Thomas Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath:
Sadly, nothing like an old Georgian coffee house exists in Bath today, but in London I went to the Jerusalem Tavern pub, a former coffee-house that still looks the part:
Public breakfasts, either indoors or al fresco, were very popular. In Nash’s time, they would have been held at Spring Gardens, where they were accompanied by music on certain days, and illuminations and fireworks on others. By the time Jane Austen was living here, Sydney Gardens, the “Vauxhall of Bath,” was another option for public breakfasts, and indeed provided some consideration as the Austen ladies were considering where to next let lodgings: “It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens; we might go into the labyrinth every day,” Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1801. And indeed, they lived in 4 Sydney Place from 1801-1804, so it is likely Jane attended not only the breakfasts, but possibly also the evening assemblies there, which were stealing some custom from the assembly rooms. Hembry writes that 3,000 to 4,000 people might attend! The gardens were impacted, however, by two waves of transportation, for the Kennet and Avon Canal sliced through them in 1810, and later the railroad truncated them. Albeit smaller than before, they remain the only Vauxhall-esque public Georgian pleasure gardens still in existence.
Continuing on with what Hembry has written about this regime of fun:
“Nash insisted that attendance at the Abbey service was the next social obligation, then from about noon two hours were allowed for promenading or taking an ‘airing’ on the surrounding heights….Guidebooks to spas in general normally described local beauty spots in extravagant language, for local doctors encouraged visitors to take exercise by walking or riding as part of the cure. Less strenuous riders used a small ring on the common, 600 feet in circumference, called Hyde Park. Exercise over, the main meal of the way, dinner, was followed by ‘evening’ prayers, a second visit to the Pump Room to drink the waters, a short promenade on the walks, tea-drinking at the assembly-rooms, and the night’s entertainment of balls, concerts, the theatre, or visits.”
In Nash’s day, the assembly-rooms would have been what were referred to as the Lower Assembly Rooms, in Jane Austen’s time, for the Upper Rooms did not yet exist. Their building was prompted by a later Master of Ceremonies, Captain William Wade, who recognised the overcrowding of the Lower Rooms, which sadly have not survived. Thankfully, though, the Upper Rooms, by architect John Wood the Younger, are fully restored and owned by the National Trust:
I did a balcony tour, and so was able to look at them from a different vantage, the one the musicians would have seen:
On the tour, I also learned that the reddish tint to the stone that can be seen in the tea room below was caused by smoke from bomb damage, during World War II.
In the basement of the Assembly Rooms is an excellent fashion museum, which gives you a chance to see dresses that might have been worn in the rooms above:
In today’s Bath, there’s also opportunity to view the Old Theatre Royal and the New Theatre Royal. The new theatre is still a functioning theater, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the performances taking place during my trip (they do offer tours, but they’re infrequent), so I decided to make do with taking exterior photos, and visiting the Old Theatre Royal, which has had a much more interesting history since it ceased being a theatre in 1805, when it was replaced. Jane Austen would certainly have attended the old theatre and may also have attended the new theatre just before she left Bath.
The old theatre went on to have an interesting history because after its time as a theatre, it served as a Catholic church for a period of time, and then since 1865, it has been a Masonic lodge. My tour was led by a mason from the lodge who spent a lot of time trying to dispel the notion that the masons are a secret society, which did have a whiff of “the lady doth protest too much.” But I found the tour very interesting, for he helped us envision what the building would have been like in its days as a theatre, and I also gained a better understanding of how Masonic principles were involved in the architecture of Bath. (More on that in my next post!)
I also toured the Theatre Royal in Brighton, which, although heavily altered in the Victorian era, still retains some of what the Prince Regent would have seen, in attending the theatre there.
In Nash’s era and long afterwards, this public, regimented entertainment was financed through subscriptions. Upon coming into Bath, the nobility and the gentry would pay their subscription for virtually everything they were to do, from circulating libraries to church.
Church was the Abbey, in Nash’s time, but later more private and exclusive chapels were raised, and the upper classes gravitated towards them, leaving the Abbey for the locals. The local tradespeople also used the Guildhall for their public entertainments, for while there was more mixing of the classes allowed at Bath and similar places than elsewhere, some were still left out. The subscription was the equalizer: it was kept high to discourage those outside a socially acceptable range. For those who fit within that range but were at the lower end, these public entertainments gave them an opportunity to form new social connections with the very highest of society. As Hembry vividly describes:
“One evening in December 1779 nearly twenty dukes and lords and Count Manteufel from Saxony were in the Pump Room. A brilliant assembly of nearly sixty nobles, several distinguished foreigners and 800 ladies and gentlemen attended a concert at the New Rooms that month, the elegant scene enhanced by 480 wax candles and a blaze of jewels.”
Part of the reason why this worked was because Nash established extremely strict rules of etiquette that were published and known to all. Everything from the conduct of the chairmen to the clothing to be worn in the assembly rooms (until 1787, ladies’ hats were banned) was strictly regulated, making it much more difficult to create an accidental faux pas, provided one followed the rules. Rules similar to Nash’s were adopted at most of the major urban spas, and later seaside resorts.
One must wonder, I think, at all of these fairly powerful Georgians submitting themselves to the regulated entertainments dreamed up by a man of a comparably lowly background (his father was a partner in a factory). But Hembry provides an excellent explanation:
“We may wonder why so many proud and spirited people of rank submitted to the ritual of an institutionalized social routing which detailed rules for specific occasions, which set a precedent for other urban spas….The explanation may be that social ceremony was a substitute for the lost glamour of the Stuart court; the first two kinds of the new dynasty were often absent in Hanover, although some social life focused around the Prince of Wales at Leicester House. By contrast, the social ritual at Bath under the ‘King of Bath’, Beau Nash, offered stability, continuity and high fashion.”
This would not last, however, and the decline of interest in public entertainments was to lead to the decline of many spa towns, including Bath. That will be a topic for a future post, however. Next time, I’ll be talking about the buildings of Bath and other resorts, and how they influenced the people who lived in them.