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Bath, Somerset, England

Joanna Barker

The hot springs at Bath had been known for their medicinal properties since antiquity, but the development of the town as a destination for visitors from around Britain and abroad began in the early eighteenth century. One important factor was the building of a network of roads that began with the 1707 Turnpike Act: by 1743 the Bath Road ran all the way from London through Maidenhead, Reading and Newbury, with a chain of coaching inns along the route, and was a key facilitator in attracting tourists to the town. Bath benefited from a sheltered position and mild climate which enabled the tourist season to extend into the winter, so it would continue to operate at a time when other spas such as Tunbridge Wells had closed.

The first phase of development, starting in 1704, took place the old town around the Abbey and the old Roman baths, but it was the creation of a new town outside the old city boundaries in the middle of the century that led to major expansion, and made a visit to Bath an essential part of the social season. The new town was the result of speculative ventures by private entrepreneurs who leased land from local proprietors and built new lodging houses and centres of entertainment. The key architects of Bath’s new town were John Wood (1704-1754) and his son John Wood (1728-1782). The first important projects by Wood the Elder were the Queen Square, completed in 1736, and the North and South Parades, built in the 1740s. The new buildings were all in the neoclassical Palladian style, with pediments, columns and capitals in the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, and were faced with the honey-coloured local stone.

Wood’s final masterpiece was the Circus, which was begun just before his death in 1754 and completed by his son in 1768. Wood the Younger’s finest work was the Royal Crescent, built from 1767-1775, with its thirty houses fronted with giant Ionic columns and looking over green spaces from the top of one of Bath’s many hills.

As well as the new lodging houses, the town began to provide public buildings for its visitors. The first Pump Room, where invalids could drink the waters, was built in 1706, and substantially enlarged in 1732 and again in 1751. Thomas Harrison built an Assembly Room in 1708 and enlarged it several times. In 1730 Humphrey Thayer built the Lower Rooms to designs by John Wood. Thereafter balls were held on Tuesday’s at Harrison’s Rooms and on Fridays at Thayer’s, starting at 6pm and ending promptly at 11pm. Balls were opened by the highest ranking lady in the room dancing a minuet with her partner, followed by all the rest of the company in order of rank; this rather tedious display went on for two hours and was followed by more lively country dances which everyone could join.

The first theatre was built in 1705 but rapidly proved too small, and the New Theatre was established in 1723. William Simpson took over Harrison’s rooms and built a much larger theatre there in 1749; it was the scene of the success of a young Sarah Siddons, and was enlarged in 1775. Wiltshire’s Rooms specialised in concerts.

The various Assembly Rooms were also the home of Bath’s other passion: gambling at cards. So many naïve young men lost their fortunes to professional gamesters that in 1739 a Gaming Act attempted to put an end to public gambling, singling out Bath for particular reproof, but players reacted by inventing new games (including a form of roulette known as ‘EO’ or Evens and Odds) and even more abstruse ways of losing money. In 1755 all play except at cards was made illegal, so ladies turned to whist (or ‘whisk’) and noblemen were obliged to gamble in privacy.

There was no restriction on betting on horse races, which were regarded as a gentlemanly sport. The first record of horse racing in Bath is in 1721 at Claverton Down, and it became so popular that in 1777 no fewer than 800 carriages and 10,000 riders and pedestrians descended on the Down to watch the races.

The influx of visitors led to a demand for new shops, and Bath became a centre for the supply of luxury goods, including silks, laces and perfumes. Coffee houses were opened for gentlemen and tea rooms for the ladies, while bookshops and circulating libraries provided reading material. By the 1750s, some leisured families were choosing to live in Bath all year round.

Bath society was regulated by Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (1674-1761), who was the town’s official Master of Ceremonies from 1704 until his death. He established the price of subscriptions to concerts and theatres, controlled the timing of balls and assemblies, did his best to exclude known card-sharps, and even specified what people might wear: gentlemen in boots and ladies in aprons were his particular hates. In order to prevent duels, gentlemen were encouraged to leave their swords at home. Nash successfully promoted the idea that different levels of society should mix freely at Bath, and it was noted that aristocrats would converse there with merchant’s families whom they would decline even to recognise when they returned to London.

Elizabeth Montagu visited Bath with her parents in December 1739, and wrote to the Duchess of Portland describing her experiences, including dancing or playing cards with elderly men with gouty toes who took so much snuff they made her sneeze. Following her marriage in 1742, she continued to visit Bath every couple of years until 1764, but then preferred to take the waters in Tunbridge Wells, and did not return until April 1780, when she observed that she had not been to Bath since 1767, when the Circus was completed and the Crescent begun, and was ‘much struck by the beauty of the Town’. She made up for her absence that year, staying for six weeks in the spring and returning in August and again for two months in October. For several years after this she made a stay in Bath part of her annual schedule, speaking in 1786 of paying her “usual visit to Bath in the spring”.

By 1780, Montagu had inherited her husband’s estates, and no longer stayed in small boarding houses but was able to rent apartments in the grand new terraces. She objected to the generally small size of the rooms, which even in the grandest edifices were like ‘a nest of boxes’, and noted that in places the masonry was so bad that it let in the draughts. On her 1780 visit, she was disappointed to have to take a house in the Circus, but was then able to move into the spacious centre house in the Royal Crescent vacated by Lord Milford; this is now number 16 and part of the Royal Crescent Hotel.

Since she was by this time too old for dancing and had never enjoyed playing cards, she found her stay in Bath rather tedious, reflecting that ‘in point of society and amusement it comes next (but after a long interval) to London. There are many people established at Bath who were once of the polite, and the busy world, so they retain a certain politeness of manner, and vivacity of mind, which one cannot find in any country town. But all contracted societies, and where there are no great objects of pursuit, must in time grow a little narrow”. In 1783 she wrote to her niece with a similar observation on the superficial nature of Bath society, which ‘tho it offers but few amusements allows no leisure. Sauntering is the business of the place; Beaux in boots, & Misses in great coats visit all the morning, & having nothing better to do themselves, will not suffer others to anything that is better’. She spent her evenings at home with friends, but was happy for her nephew Montagu to go to the balls, where ‘he danced as many minuets, capered as many Cotillions, & skipped as many Country dances as any young Gentleman at the place'.

The final phase in the development of Georgian Bath took place in Bathwick, on the opposite bank of the River Avon from the city centre. Frances Pulteney had inherited the estate in 1764 from Montagu’s great friend William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath. Her husband, William Johnstone, took the surname Pulteney and used some of her vast fortune to build the Pulteney Bridge (designed by Robert Adam and lined with shops), and an area that included Great Pulteney Street, and Henrietta Street and Laura Place, named after their daughter, Henrietta Laura Pulteney.

The outbreak of war with France in 1793 brought financial collapse and a dramatic end to building in Bath; building was not to revive until the end of the Napoleonic wars.


Phyllis Hembry, The English Spa 1560-1815, a Social History, (London: Athlone Press, 1990).

Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.

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