Archive for the ‘Bath’ Category

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.


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Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,

“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.

In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”

In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.

Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.

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Workhouse Gate in Ireland in 1846

The Irish Famine began in 1845 and did not end until 1852.  In less than ten years, Ireland lost approximately one quarter of its population. One million people died of malnutrition and disease, and a further one million emigrated. It is hard to imagine the scale of the suffering involved, yet “emigration” seems such an inadequate word to use in relation to those who left their country, family and friends, and journeyed across the world. True they were leaving by choice, but it was for most, a choice between life and death. Like other emigrants they were also in search of a better life, but “better” meant any improvement in the daily battle to stay alive and feed their families. The migrants all had dreams and hopes for the future, but they also had fears, and few can have really known what lay ahead of them.

Exactly where the migrants travelled to and in what numbers is difficult to determine precisely as many made their own arrangements rather than using government channels. It is known that in the three years 1847-49, at least 182,000 people emigrated to Canada, and 550,000 to the United States. Despite the availability of assisted passages fewer went to Australia as prospects appeared more limited and there was a fear of being treated as indentured servants, in the same way as convict labour. The journey by ship to Australia was also much longer and sea-travel was dangerous particularly for passengers in “steerage” class. For many these were “coffin ships.”

The passengers to North America and Canada paid between £5 and £6 for their passage, a huge amount of money for someone who earned on average, around £20 to £30 per year. The payment included a daily ration of bread and water for the journey, which took anything between 6 and 12 weeks. Bedding, cooking utensils, and any other food they had to provide themselves, and few had little more than the set of clothes they wore. Their accommodation was dark, damp, dirty and over-crowded. Already weakened by malnutrition and fleeing from Dublin where Typhus was endemic, many fell prey to disease.  The Quebec “Morning Chronicle” reported on July 24th 1847 that of the 57,000 emigrants that had set off for Canada since May 8th,  7,000 had died of typhus,

2,200 had died at sea,

1,000 after arrival but before landing,

and 3,800 since leaving the ship.

They had brought typhus with them and fever was already raging in some Canadian cities. It’s hardly possible to imagine the “welcome” they must have received.

Many of the migrants though, could not afford the long sea journey to America and the colonies, and settled in England, mainly in the larger cities where there was at least a prospect of finding work. In Manchester, most of the migrants ended up in “Angel Meadows.” These 33 acres close to the city centre housed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in “purpose-built” housing.  The dark streets, passageways and alleys that linked the housing, were dangerous places frequented by gangs known as ‘scuttlers.’  A London journalist, Angus Reach, visited “Angel Meadows” in 1849 and reported:-

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish.”

The back-to-back terraces had one room in the cellar, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The cellar rooms, accessed via a dark passageway below street level, were the cheapest, the first floor rooms the most expensive. Each room housed an individual, or more likely, a family, or group of people.  Outside privies (toilets) were provided at the rate of 1 per 100 inhabitants. The journalist, Reach, visited one basement room and wrote this:-

“The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive… the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place.”

The Angel Meadows area of Manchester was eventually demolished and paved-over, together with the former burial ground of St Michael’s Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers. In fact, most of the rookeries and slum areas that fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain have been demolished and built-over, including the “Avon Street” area of Bath. It’s a good thing. Slums should be demolished. But we should remember the struggle of generation after generation for decent housing, sanitation, health-care, education and democracy.

The people who lived in Angel Meadows andAvon Street deserve to be remembered. If nothing else they are part of what made us who we are. They  help us to understand and empathise with those who are going through the same thing now, no matter which part of the world they live in, or come from. They also show what people are capable of, given the opportunity, and help us value what we have now, thanks to their sacrifices and struggles in the past. It’s easy to think of the Irish migrants as the “lucky” ones, the ones who escaped. After all, the descendants of those who survived are now respected members of their communities. Yet for many, it was no easy escape, but one that often took generations to achieve.

For those who want to read more about Coffin Ships, the “Great Hunger” and Irish Migration to Canada, there is an excellent piece with several good illustrations on J.G. Burdette’s Blog – “Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine.”

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There was mayhem at the Bath Fair of 1839. For years the event had been held at Lansdown, high above the city on the flat-lands that abounded the Bath Road. They had been largely peaceable affairs and widely enjoyed. In the early morning farmers would congregate to buy and sell livestock. In the afternoon the local population all gathered to see the wonders of “Wombwell’s Menagerie.”

“Wombwell’s Menagerie” was essentially a travelling zoo with tigers and elephants and other exotic animals, together with merry-go-rounds and swings,  stalls and sideshows. But the fair always attracted a large number of more informal drinking-booths, dancing-tents, contests of skill, and games of chance.

At ten o’ clock on the night of the 10th August 1839 the Sangers, owners of “Wombwell’s Menagerie,” decided to shut up shop earlier than usual. The crowd had been more boisterous than usual and from early evening fights had begun to break out around the showground. But as the Sangers began packing up the tents and stalls, “Carroty Kate” arrived at the head of a large contingent of already drunk residents of the Avon Street area of the city. George Sanger described her as:-

 “a red-headed virago, a big brutal animal, caring nothing for magistrates or gaol, who had long been the terror of every respectable person in Bath and its neighbourhood.”

Kate’s gang soon began looting the drinking-booths and beating their owners. Anything they could not drink or carry, they smashed. Booths and stalls were wrecked and burned. Many, including children, ran and hid in the surrounding fields and woods in fear of their lives.

Eventually Kate and her gang headed back to the city. But James Sanger loaded his blunderbuss, gathered the showmen together and set off in waggons, pursuing them. They caught a dozen of the fleeing rioters, including Kate. The men they tied together with tent ropes, like a human chain. Then as though it was a tug-of-war contest they dragged them back and fro through a deep pond. When they were half-drowned the show-men dragged them towards the waggons.

One of the rioters shouted,”Are you a-going to kill us? Ain’t you done enough?”

“Not half enough,” one of the showmen replied.

A captive called out, “Murder! Murder!”

“Shut it!” came the answer. “Save your breath for the next scene. You’ll want it then!”

Their captors tied them, two by two to the wheels of the waggons and flogged them with riding whips. After two dozen lashes each they sent them back to the city, barely able to walk. Then they turned to Kate.

The proprietor of a wax-works tent, a woman, shouted, “We’re not going to drag ‘ee through the pond, bad as you wants washin’, nor use the horse-whips to ‘ee, but you’re a-going to be made to smart all the same.” Four of the women in the party then held Kate over a trestle while two others beat her with canes before releasing her.

The rioters who escaped capture by the show-folk fared little better. They were met by the police as they entered the city. Another skirmish ensued. Several were arrested and later transported. One of the rioters though, severely injured a policeman with an iron bar. He was later tried and hung, for wounding with intent to murder. History does not record what became of “Carrotty Kate.”

Avon Street was a dangerous place to be – and to be from.

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Painting by William Hardwick from Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Drownings in the River Avon were relatively common in Bath in the middle of the 19th Century. Many were accidental, or at least that’s what the Coroner’s Court often concluded. A substantial number though, were suicides. They were regularly reported as such in the local paper, but were rarely seen as newsworthy by the national press.

The people who had taken their own lives in the River Avon were for the most part un-newsworthy because they were usually poor. They were part of the nameless, faceless masses exploited by the Industrial Revolution, routinely marginalised and vilified in the press. Popular opinion was that they were lazy, ignorant and dirty; given to drinking too much, and begging, or they were itinerants, migrants without roots, who did not want to work and were content to live in squalor.

Yet it was in “The Times” newspaper archive that I first read of the incident that now forms the prologue to my book – an incident so tragic, abhorrent and pitiful that it was reported nationally. On Sunday 6th February 1850, in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Hunt drowned himself and his young daughter.  The Coroner’s Court determined that Hunt had taken his own life and found him guilty of the murder of his daughter.

I knew when I read the piece that I would include their story somewhere in my book. It seemed somehow to summarise the tragic lives of many who survived in the Avon Street area of Bath. It was the darkness and despair that existed at the heart of the city – the secret that was kept hidden behind the Georgian facades – the lie that lay behind the carefully contrived and protected image.

I had initially intended to use the incident as an anecdote somewhere in the book, perhaps brought up in conversation between the characters, but the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter, would not leave me. Eventually it became a lynch pin, something that brought the characters together, or drove them apart. It played a big part in determining the plot and came to influence atmosphere and settings, as I tried to explore the two very different worlds that co-existed in the city.

There was nothing in the newspaper records to indicate that Thomas Hunt was in debt (as he is in my book) but debt and loan-sharks were a way of life for the working class at that time, as they are increasingly  now. Their story came almost to define what life must have been like for many of the residents of Avon Street and though prologues are unfashionable and may even put some people off reading a book, their story (or my interpretation of it) now forms the prologue of “Avon Street” – because that’s where it needs to be.

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It’s finally arrived. I opened the parcel this morning, and there it was – my book – “Avon Street”  Seeing the cover, holding the book, thumbing the pages, it all felt suddenly real and I finally allowed myself to feel excited.

I had known for months that “Avon Street” was going to be published. After all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs seen it for sale on Amazon, Waterstones, and the Guardian Bookshop. Yet still it hadn’t felt real, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited. You see, there had been publishers before, contracts signed; it had even been listed on Amazon, yet in the past things had gone wrong at the last moment and the book never made it to the bookshops. It’s a difficult industry, publishing.

There were years before that too, when writing was confined to reports and studies; policy documents and business strategies. Writing a novel was just a dream then, but now it is a reality. The “effort” was always worthwhile, even before I thought I had a chance of being published. I love writing, whatever form it takes. Yet now, seeing my book sitting there on the table, I can’t resist the smile that keeps insisting on taking over my face.

I am no longer  Unpublished Writer, but a Published Author. To be honest it’s hard to take in, but all in all it feels great.

And to any Unpublished Writer who reads this, the two lessons I’ve learned are to keep trying and exploring publishing opportunities – but more importantly – Keep Enjoying Writing.

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The Avon Street area of Bath was a bad place to live in the 19th Century and not a safe place to visit. There are few surviving pictures of the area. The one above is of one of the more salubrious parts  which survived into the 20th Century. It’s hard to imagine that Avon Street appealed to many artists of the time with so much georgian grandeur on offer in other parts of the city.

My book, “Avon Street” started as a short story.  Its setting was almost incidental. Bath was simply the right sort of back-drop for an historical story which I had initially intended would be set in the Georgian era. Yet the more research I did, the stronger the role of the city became and the greater grew my interest in the Avon Street area.  Bath became a character in its own right, but it was a character with a split personality. Gradually fact began to merge with fiction and the story took on new meaning as the time-frame moved from Georgian, to Victorian Bath.

Bath has always been a city of illusion, as I have tried to demonstrate in previous posts. The magnificent, honey-coloured, bath-stone facades hid poorly finished buildings. The ostentatious trappings of wealth were all available for hire.  The right address, furniture, crockery, silverware and servants could all be hired by the month provided a person had the right accent, manners, clothes, and money. Bath was a city where you could be whoever you wanted to be, provided you had the money or the appearance of of money . The conventions, manners and rules of polite society masked motives and emotions that were sometimes far from genteel.

Jane Austen a writer uniquely associated with the City, only ever hinted at the more unpleasant aspects of Bath. It is apparent from her letters that her personal feelings regarding  the city were at odds with the way she depicted it in her books. In writing “Avon Street” I wanted to take the reader beyond the Georgian facades and polite society of the city and reveal some of its darker secrets – and the Avon Street area of the city was the darkest secret of all.

By 1850, industry was thriving in the city whilst its traditional role as a spa and watering-hole for polite society was declining. The Avon Street area of the city had grown into a sprawling, disease-ridden slum and was subject to frequent flooding. Though it occupied a relatively small part of the city geographically, it was home to twenty per cent of Bath’s population. It was abhorred and for the most part ignored by the city and its visitors, yet the two sides of the city co-existed uneasily, one dependent on the other. Avon Street provided the servants, the labourers, the factory workers and sweat-shop employees. High society employed the servants and bought the goods they made.

Bath as a city did its best to keep Avon Street, the factories and sweat-shops largely out of sight and as far away as possible from the minds of visitors and wealthy residents. The cholera outbreak in 1849 (largely confined to Avon Street) had been the second largest in the country, yet it too was kept out of the public eye. When disreputable behaviour spilled out into the city, it was usually put down to the ethnic origin of the ‘sinner’ or the influence of alcohol and was punished as harshly as the law would permit, and the law permitted a great deal of harshness.

Most of the Avon Street Area is now occupied by Bath Spa University, various commercial properties, bus depots and sundry car parks. The houses are gone: the past, its people and their stories lie buried. Yet their struggles deserve to be remembered. In my book I have tried to explore the tensions that existed between the two aspects of the city, to separate the city from the illusion. I have also tried to give a voice to the forgotten people of Avon Street.

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