The Triumvirate Which Changed the Face of Georgian Era Bath
By Regina Jeffers
The beginning of the 1700s in England saw the expansion of the middle class and a stronger economy. As such Bath had known a steady period of growth, but when Queen visited the city in 1702 (and then again a year later), the fashionable crowd took notice. Although the Bath of the early 1700s remained smaller than other “bathing holes,” such as Tunbridge Wells, Daniel Defoe said, “We may say now it is the resort of the sound as well as the sick and a place that helps the indolent and the gay to commit the worst of murders–to kill time.”
Bath Abbey rose from a close and crowded resort town within the curve of the River Avon. One could find a crowded fish market at the East Gate on the river quay. Jacobean buildings sported gables and leaded windows. Sally Lunn’s house between Abbey Green and the Parade is said to be the city’s oldest house and is typical of the style of the Jacobean façade.
Unfortunately, the eighteenth century, society in Bath was not what one might term “first tier.” The hot baths attracted the infirmed and all those who thought to “cure” them. Hooligans and gamblers and those who practiced deceit polluted the city. It was Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the Master of Ceremonies of the Corporation, who changed the city. Nash was named to the unpaid position after the incumbent had lost his life in a duel. He was a man known to possess an excessively high opinion of himself, but he was also seen a very practical gentleman.
“Almost immediately Nash forbade dueling and the wearing of swords in the city; persuaded the Corporation to repair the roads, to pave, clean and light the streets, to license the sedan-chair men and regulate their behavior. He engaged a good orchestra from London and was responsible not only for the building of a new Pump Room, but a large public room, Harrison’s Room, for dances as well as gaming on what is now Parade Gardens. He outlawed private gatherings and strictly controlled the public ones, and drew up a rigid list of rules to which everyone–and that included dukes, duchess, and even the Prince of Wales–had to conform. It might not have worked had not the age been one in which people were amused by such things: half the amusement of Bath was in obeying the ‘King,’ who was no doubt unaware that he himself was part of the fun. Besides, it worked. Bath was civilized and ‘different’–rather than a large, smart holiday camp.” (Winsor, Diana: Historic Bath)
It was the architect John Wood, who changed the face of Bath. His “Grand Design” for the city was executed in segments. He began with Queen Square, first leasing the land, and then designing the square before sub-letting the sites for individual houses to builders, who could design the interiors as they wished, but who were compelled to follow Wood’s exterior design. Queen Square was completed within seven years. “It should be seen as the forecourt of a palace, the north dominating what was then a formal garden of parterre beds with espaliered limes and a low balustrade. Wood also designed the obelisk in the centre, raised by Beau Nash as a tribute to the Prince of Wales, with an inscription by the poet Alexander Pope.” (Winsor)
Next, Wood built his “Royal Forum.” The Parades are a series of historic terraces built around 1741. The Royal Forum was to include North Parade, South Parade, Pierrepont, and Duke Streets, but was never completed. In the last year of his life, John Wood, the elder, began the Grand Circus, but it was his son John Wood, the younger, who brought the project to fruition. A Roman amphitheatre turned into domestic architecture, the Circus is made up of three segments and 33 houses, all of three storeys, with Roman Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. The younger Wood linked the Circus to the Royal Crescent with his design of Brock Street.
Between 1767 and 1775, the paving stones were laid and 30 houses rose to form the Royal Crescent. He also oversaw the completion of the Hot Bath and the Bath Assembly Rooms. These buildings contrasted with the more decorated and embellished style preferred by his father. Whilst John Wood the Elder’s Circus includes superimposed orders and a detailed frieze, the Royal Crescent – designed by his son, has a single order and plain decoration throughout.
The site Wood chose for the Royal Crescent also demonstrates his interest in creating a “dialogue” between his buildings and their settings. Previous buildings and set pieces in Bath were all intensely urban and inward looking whereas the Royal Crescent was fully open and looked out on the open fields. This is not always apparent today, but when it was built in 1775, the crescent was situated right on the edge of the city with no nearby buildings to block residents’ views of the countryside. The Royal Crescent is among the greatest examples of Georgian architecture to be found. Outside of Bath, Wood’s most notable works include Buckland House in Buckland, Oxfordshire, and General Infirmary in Salisbury.
The third man to change the face of Bath was the assistant to the postmistress, one Ralph Allen, a savvy businessman and philanthropist. Allen developed a powerful friend in the form of Marshall George Wade. Allen had shared with Wade the news of a large cache of arms stored in the area, and as Wade meant to squash the Jacobite insurgence in the west country, he took an immediate liking to Allen. Later, Allen married Wade’s daughter. Allen developed several profitable postal routes, earning him high sums from the Postal System. He invested in the new Avon Navigation company, which was designed to make the river navigable to Bristol. In 1726, Allen developed stone quarries on Combe Down.
Allen built simple houses for his workers, which can still be seen as part of Combe Down village, and what is now the village recreation ground was once his quarry. Allen also built a railroad to carry the stone blocks to the river and canal wharf at Widcombe. Earning a fabulous living, Allen built his home Prior Park, which was designed by Wood the Elder, to highlight the beauty and quality of Bath Stone. At Prior Park, Allen entertained writers, statesmen, poets, and actors. Henry Fielding’s character Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones is based on Ralph Allen.
“Almost anyone who was anyone visited Bath to take the waters and gossip in the Pump Room. It was a sparkling century, with aspects both sordid and brutal, but never lacking in vigour, wit and style. Bath was part of it all. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the gaming tables had long been forbidden and the old king buried more than forty years, the city had changed. Tobias Smollet wrote in 1771 that ‘a very inconsiderable proportion a genteel people are lost in a mob of impudent plebians…’
“Nevertheless, Bath was still elegant and fashionable, if a trifle less frothy and fizzy – more of a medium sherry than champagne. ‘Enchanted castles raised on hanging terraces,’ observed Smollett’s Lydia Melford. Its population had grown to more than 30,000; it had spread far beyond the old walls to incorporate surrounding villages and hills. It was now one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.” (Winsor)