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St Margaret's Curch, Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

St Margaret’s Church (and Canadian Graves) Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

I had always assumed that when the First World War ended the troops quickly returned to their homes and families and began the difficult process of re-building their lives and relationships. That’s certainly the picture you get from TV dramas like “Downton Abbey.” In fact, at the end of the war thousands of troops went straight into demobilisation camps and stayed there for months or even years. They had been promised an immediate return to civilian life, but the rules for demobilisation depended on them being able to prove that they had a job, and they also needed their commanding officer’s agreement  to leave the army. Naturally, the longer a man had served, the less likely they would have a job to return to, and the proof of having a job was mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling and Ministry of Labour approvals.

The reason for keeping them in the army it seems, was that many senior politicians in the British Government, even in 1919, did not consider that the war was really over. Many wanted to maintain a large standing army. Some wanted to send troops to Russia to fight the Bolshevic Revolution, to Ireland to suppress Nationalism, to the Rhineland as an army of occupation. Others were concerned at growing dissatifaction and unrest in the country and the potential need to suppress any signs of rebellion. So the promises of homes fit for heroes and rapid demobilisation were quickly forgotten.

The demobilisation camps where the troops were kept were not pleasant places. They were over-crowded, poorly supplied and subject to rigorous discipline. No one knew from one day to the next where they might be sent, or when they might be able to return to their families. The men were “kept busy” with meaningless drills and exercises. After years of suffering in the trenches, and watching their friends die, this was what they had come home to. To many it must have felt like prison – scant reward for the sacrifices they had been asked to make.

On January 3rd 1919 rumours were rife among the British troops that men were to be sent back to France. The troops in Folkestone picketed the docks. They were joined by others on their way to France and “Colonial” troops on their way home. 10,000 troops marched through the city supported by the people of Folkestone. At the same time, 4,000 troops demonstrated in Dover and 1500 members of the Army Service Corps seized lorries and drove them into Whitehall. In the next few days there were mutinies in several places including Bristol, Kempton Park, and Aldershot.

On February 8th 1919 three thousand troops who were being sent back to France after returning from leave, refused to board their ships. A few hours later they marched into Whitehall. They were surrounded by a reserve battalion of Grenadiers and two troops of the Household Cavalry with bayonets drawn and machine guns trained on the demonstrators. Fearing a blood-bath the protestors eventually surrendered.

No incident is perhaps more tragic though, than the mutiny at Kinmel Park in North Wales where 14,000 canadian troops were stationed. No monument is more fitting to the way the way the heroes of the First World War were treated, than the graveyard at St Margaret’s Church in Bodelwyddan (pictured above). In that churchyard are the graves of 80  soldiers who died – after the war was over. Altogether 208 Canadian soldiers died in the Kinmel Bay camp. The majority died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, weakened by the cramped and insanitary conditions in the camp, the terrible winter weather and the poor rations they were fed.

Hearing the rumour that ships due to take them home had been re-allocated to the repatriation of American soldiers, proved the final straw and a thousand Canadian troops rioted in the camp. During the suppression of the rebellion five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded – 51 were later brought before a court martial and 27 were convicted and sentenced to terms between 3 months and 10 years.

Four of those who were killed in the Kinmel Park Riots are buried in St Margaret’s churchyard. The inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Joseph Young simply says –

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

It’s years since I first saw the churchyard in North Wales. I was driving to a meeting on a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the rows of white graves, lit by the sun, took me by surprise. The image stayed with me, yet it wasn’t until years later that I began looking online to find out who they were. Many never fought in the War. I don’t know if that makes their deaths any less tragic or heroic. What did emerge from looking into their deaths was the disgraceful way that the troops were treated – not just in the war – but afterwards.

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“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”

These were the words of the Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) in introducing the “Representation of the People Act” in 1918. Millions of those who had fought and died during the First World War did not have the right to vote for the government that had sent them to fight – neither did any of the women who had kept the country running for the last four years, while mourning lost loves, husbands, brothers and sons. This Act, at last, gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, though only to women aged over 30.

2014 was the centenary of the beginning of World War I and was rightfully commemorated. Yet we were told by a Government Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove that:-

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect, at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage … Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

I can’t think of anyone who doubts for a moment that these men and women fought, and worked, and died for “king and country,” nor that they demonstrated “patriotism, honour and courage.” Mr. Gove says they were fighting for a “Noble Cause” and that “the conflict has, for many been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Yet there is every reason to believe that the ruling “elite” were out-of-touch. We need only to remember the historic context, the words of the Home Secretary (above) – the “freedom” that people had fought for was a freedom they did not enjoy in their own country. The “western liberal order” had seen fit to withhold from them for generations the right to elect their own government. It had resisted at every turn the struggle for what we now take as basic human rights. Every movement, every rebellion, every attempt at uniting to seek universal suffrage, or better living and working conditions had been ruthlessly suppressed by the “western liberal order” in Great Britain – The Luddites, the Chartists, the Suffragettes – all ignored and victimised.

We are so quick to honour the handful of politicians who swam against the tide and helped secure universal suffrage, rights to basic sanitation, education and healthcare; yet we seem to forget that the vast majority of politicians (of all parties) had opposed such progress at every step. We extol those good old “Victorian Values,” and the age of innovation, while forgetting its dependence on the use of child-labour, the disempowerment of women, the terrible slums, and the dangerous working conditions that the majority of people endured for much of the 19th century. We remember the names of those who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but forget the names of those whose wealth was built upon it, and who were compensated for its loss, or the many who treated their employees, “free” or not, as slaves.

Our democracy is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Many of the rights we may often take for granted are denied to millions around the world. Yet those freedoms were not a gift from enlightened politicians, but were hard-won by generations of “ordinary” people in the face of often bloody resistance from governments they had no part in electing. To my mind it’s that “honour and courage” we should remember – It’s that history we should be proud of. As George Orwell said,

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Don’t let the politicians change our history, it’s part of who we are – Lest we forget.

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“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” were commonly used, perhaps to convey the sense that anyone committing murder cannot be of sound mind or soul? Perhaps in this case though they also serve to emphasise the beginnings of of what was to become a continuing struggle  to understand the mind of a murderer.

Up until 30th November 1787 James Carse had been a sailor on the frigate, “Boreas” having served for four years, mainly in the West Indies, under the captainship of the young Horatio Nelson. When he was signed off he was paid 50 guineas, a considerable amount of money at the time.

On December 2nd 1787, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, in a public house in Wapping called the “Ship in Distress.” Here he met a girl called Mary Mills, a “woman of the town.” Carse shared his drink (three pennyworth of rum and water) with Mary and asked if he could “go home” with her. She agreed and took him back to a room she shared with Sarah Hayes. Carse gave Sarah a shilling for the use of the bed and sent her out with half a crown to fetch him a pot of brandy. She came back with the drink and change of eighteen pence.

Carse and Mary started to get undressed while Sarah smoked a pipe in the chimney corner. Later, at the trial, Mary commented on the strange way Carse rolled his trousers into a bundle, “like a doll” and laid them at his side on the bed. He lay there for a while before sending Sarah out for more drink. She returned with the drink and food for him, insisting that he eat something. Suddenly, Carse jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and produced a knife. He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted “I will, I must, I must, I must” and stabbed the girl.

There was, and is, little doubt as to the guilt of James Carse. He was arrested at the scene, covered in blood and the knife still in his hand. He also later confessed to the murder. Nor is there any doubt as to the sheer brutality of his crime, in killing a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and who had offered no provocation. Yet there do seem to be some grounds for questioning his soundness of mind. Carse said little in his own defence at the trial, other than, “I was threatened my life at the same time.” When asked who had threatened his life, he said, “This woman, and the woman that I killed.” Pressed further he added, “There were people round the house at the same time.

This hardly amounts to a credible defence, and the proceedings of the Old Bailey do not give an account of the impression he gave, standing in the dock. Yet while James Carse said little in his own defence two factors probably saved his life. His defence barrister was the renowned William Garrow (as depicted recently in the TV series – “Garrow’s Law“) and the witness who spoke up for his character was the Captain Horatio Nelson, not yet an Admiral and the victor of Trafalgar, but even then a respected and commanding presence.

First Garrow produced two witnesses who said that Carse had told them that he was being pursued by a gang of sixteen men who were after his money when he had left his ship; that he had paid them off once, but that they were still after him. They said he seemed obsessed with the idea that people were after his money and would kill him for it. (Hence the importance of Carse’s statement that he believed “There were people round the at the same time.“) Several witnesses also attested that Carse’s character had changed since he had returned from the Indies. (Nowadays he might have been described as suffering from paranoid delusions.) Then Garrow questioned Captain Horatio Nelson.

William Garrow: “Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Horatio Nelson: “Perfectly; …when I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true, he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty; he is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him; seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home, the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors; I saw myself thirty or forty people from that ship, that were made as mad as if they were at Bedlam, and did not know what they did: I know, that when seamen are furnished with British spirits, it turns the brain.”

Garrow: “Can you fairly say, that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?”

Horatio Nelson: “He was a cooper on board; and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy; I have been affected with it; I have been out of my senses; it hurts the brain.”

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberate foul murder?

Horatio Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.

After retiring for some time, the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended, “that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man’s mind before execution“. The judge agreed and respited execution pending the Royal prerogative.

As far as I can ascertain Carse was later pardoned on condition that he re-join the navy. Perhaps a combination of William Garrow and Horatio Nelson had saved the life of James Carse, as an 18th century legal system struggled with the definition of sanity and the concept of “being of sound mind”? It also raises questions as to whether “celebrity” played a role in the outcome. Was justice done, perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that a young woman needlessly and innocently lost her life in a particularly brutal way.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the skill of Garrow as an investigator, and of the young Nelson and his relationship with those who served under him – the fact that he knew the members of his crew (Carse was not an officer and held a fairly lowly place in the ship’s hierarchy) and that he was was willing to speak out for them even in circumstances such as this.  Nelson’s testimony was also very frank and self-critical – “I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.” 

One other detail of interest from the indictment is the reference to “and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies.” It appears from examining reports of other murder cases in the Old Bailey archives that it was common practice to to record the price of the murder weapon, be it a pistol valued at five shillings or a piece of wood with a value of a penny. This probably has a precedent in law, but perhaps it was a way of commenting on the fragility or cheapness of life?

Further details of this case, as recorded at the time, can be found in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

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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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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’ 

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

BathMap1902-2500

Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

 

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread.  So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Its response was the Poor Law of 1834 which set up local Poor Law Unions with a view to actively discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse – and workhouses were intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. They were often designed, like prisons of that time, in blocks which extended out like the spokes of a wheel from a central core (see illustrations of Bath Workhouse). Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children all sleeping in separate dormitories. During the day they all worked on breaking stones for roads, crushing bones for fertiliser, or picking oakum for packing the joints of timbers in ships. To pick oakum they used a large metal nail known as a “spike,” which may be how the workhouse earned its nickname of “The Spike“.

The City of Bath, though often associated with the wealth and elegance of the Georgian romantic novel, also had a workhouse. Bath Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the workhouse was  built between 1836 and 1838 (later to become St Martin’s Hospital). By the 1830s the city had a resident population of about 50,000, yet at times the population swelled by up to a further 20,000 itinerant people looking for work. In 1842, “The Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” cited Bath as an example to illustrate its thesis that a large part of the burden of Poor Relief was caused by the premature deaths of husbands leaving widows and orphans who struggled to survive.

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Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

In practice the Poor Law Unions sometimes came into conflict with local magistrates. Such was the case with Anne Perry in Bath. She was old and increasingly infirm, and a friend, Mary Price, applied for “out-relief” on her behalf, so that she could stay at home. She was offered only admission to the workhouse. On appealing, the Magistrates made an order for “out relief,” but the Commissioner from London supported the Board’s decision. The case rumbled on for 3 months, until Ann Perry was eventually awarded “out relief.” Sadly she died 3 weeks later.

In 1848 an attempt was made to limit those classified as “beggars and tramps” from entering the Bath Workhouse. Many of these so called “tramps” were labourers who had worked on building the railways. The fact that there was no work for them now, and no other form of assistance was largely ignored. Their exclusion from the workhouse prompted a riot and the smashing of windows. The Bath Chronicle responded with an appeal to the public not to give alms to beggars or tramps:-

“The Magistrates and Guardians are still determined to prevent such an abuse of the public funds, attended as it is by no real kindness, but offering a premium to pauperism and vice, and encouraging a highly dangerous set of persons to travel over the country, passing their nights at workhouses and their days in begging, stealing and drunkenness. There is, however, a duty which the inhabitants of Bath have to perform. It is for them to exercise discretion in the disposing of such sums as they devote to the purpose of benevolence. It is for them to remember that so long as such persons receive encouragement the evil will continue, and may again return, in all its force.”

In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

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Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

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

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

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