The Hidden Key, a Guest Post from Sophie Turner

This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on December 22, 2017. Enjoy!

It was difficult to write about the public entertainments of Bath and other spa and seaside resorts in my last post without delving into architecture, because so much of public entertainments are about public spaces. I think that’s one of the things that fascinates me about architecture – it’s really where art and life intersect.

A view of Bath from Prior Park.

People entering Bath usually stayed for a few days at a coaching inn such as the famous White Hart for a few days, while they found lodgings within the city. In Northanger Abbey, this is what Henry Tilney is doing for the rest of his family, while in Persuasion, the newly arrived Musgroves are staying at the White Hart.

Lodgings, at one of Bath’s beautiful stone townhouses, would then be let. I had a chance to do a lovely one-two of visits (they offer a combined ticket) at the Museum of Bath Architecture and then Number One Royal Crescent, a townhouse restored to the Georgian era. They work exceedingly well together because the architecture museum gives you a sense of how Bath was built as a whole, and also how these townhouses are structured and how the interiors are finished, featuring mesmerizing little details such as videos of people doing decorative plaster (seriously, I could watch that all day). Then Number One gives you a chance to see how it all comes together into a single house.

Model of Queen Square in the Museum of Bath Architecture.
Model showing a cross-section of a terrace house in the Museum of Bath Architecture.
Dining room at Number One Royal Crescent.
Drawing Room at Number One Royal Crescent.
Bedroom at Number One Royal Crescent.
Housekeeper’s room at Number One Royal Crescent. I really liked that they had historically accurate service areas in addition to the usual finer rooms.
Kitchen at Number One Royal Crescent, including a wheel where a dog would have walked to turn the spit.

Number One Royal Crescent is part of Bath’s landmark Royal Crescent, the masterpiece of architect John Wood the Younger. It was his father, John Wood the Elder, who truly ushered in the style of building in Bath that makes it so notable for its architecture today – giant blocks of terraced houses, designed to look like one large home. People could then leave their country estates and live in a smaller portion of something that looked equally grand, while they holidayed in Bath.

The Royal Crescent.
The Royal Crescent set off a building boom of crescents in spa towns, including the beautiful Lansdown Crescent in Bath.

The Woods were not alone, in this building of Bath. Beau Nash, as indicated in my last post, prompted a lot of the major public buildings so that people had spaces appropriate for the quality of entertainment he planned. And local business magnate Ralph Allen grew rich off of the stone quarries providing the stone that helped make the city look so cohesive; Allen was also actively involved with these other men in shaping the city.

Ralph Allen’s magnificent home, Prior Park, just outside the main town. The house is a school now but the landscape gardens with their magnificent Palladian bridge are run by the National Trust.

I suppose you may be wondering what the title of this post has at all to do with architecture and building Bath, and it is that there is actually a key hidden within the city streets. I learned about this during my tour of the Old Theatre, which I wrote about in my previous post; the theatre, now a Masonic Lodge, has tours led by masons from the lodge. Our guide gave us a very thorough overview of the Freemasons, including how they’re organized, and that in medieval times they were among the few people who were not serfs and therefore had freedom to move around from project to project. Their major projects were the building of great abbeys and cathedrals, which in Henry VIII’s time of course suffered a significant reduction in demand. However, the building of the great country houses, also generally made of stone, was rising, and so the masons moved on to working on these. In so doing, the masters of these houses came to respect the intelligence of the masons and the organization of their society, and in a rather shrewd stroke, the masons began to invite these great men to be part of their society as honorary members. This is how you ended up with so many notable people (including so many of our founding fathers, for those of us from the USA) who were Freemasons, but had no family history of stonemasonry.

Our guide also explained that one of the symbols of the society is a key. John Wood the Younger gave us the famous Royal Crescent, but his father, a Freemason, was the mastermind behind the Circus.

The Circus, Bath.

Draw a rudimentary picture of an old skeleton key, and your drawing will likely include a circle. And that is how there is a key hidden in Bath:

The hidden key in Bath’s streets

If that’s enough to freak you out, as it was for me, allow me to double down on it before I return to the building of Bath. Our guide explained that there were three orders of Freemasonry, which correspond to three major orders of architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. And wouldn’t you know that when I went back to the Circus later in my trip, I noticed that it does something rather unique in architecture, and uses columns of all three orders.

A portion of the Circus facade showing the Ionic and Corinthian columns.

Aaaagh, goosebumps! Let’s move on. Part of being able to build a spa town like Bath was in being able to accurately speculate on the pace of building that was needed. Phyllis Hembry’s The English Spa 1560-1815 A Social History, is filled with examples of spa towns that grew too slowly because they did not grow available housing quickly enough. On the flip side, economic slumps or poor estimation of demand often led to building booms that went bust, which we can see quite clearly in Austen’s fragment of Sanditon.

Among the infrastructure a growing spa town needed: mews for the stabling of horses and carriages. Note that these “hidden” buildings did not use the same cut and quality of stone as the facades of the grand terraces.

It was also necessary to have other public services. The entertainments were of course key, but a growing town also had to have ample shops for its populace (Bath became famed for its shops), and regular markets or other places to purchase grocery, for in Bath most people took their lodgings without board, and so would have to provide their own meals (although of course servants handled most of this, and indeed Hembry writes that Bath often served as a “nursery” for cooks, so much so that many employers took their cook home with them after the season).

In Bath and most of the southern spa towns, it was the case that lodgings, meals, and entertainments were handled separately. However, Hembry writes that in the northern spas, things were done quite differently. There, inns provided lodging, meals, and entertainments all in one, and although the entertainments could not be on the same scale or same degree of opulence as those in towns like Bath, they seem to have been fully sufficient for a nice holiday, as people would have experienced in Malvern:

In 1757 Abbey House was so full that Benjamin Stillingfleet got a place with difficulty, for Lugard organized some social life in his assembly-room: a public breakfast at 10 a.m. every Wednesday during the season at 1s. 6d. per person, followed by a gambling game, The Shepherd’s Lottery, music for dancing or a concert, and a public meal at a fixed price on a fixed day, Abbey House was described as ‘a good hotel’ in 1796, and apart from the balls on Wednesday there was card-playing on Monday.

This more centralized model was adopted by some seaside resorts, the most notable of which was Brighton. Brighton, of course, with the Prince Regent holding much of the events that the cream of society would have attended at his Marine House (later transformed into the Royal Pavilion…more on that in a future post), had less necessity for separate glittering public rooms. So it was instead the inns that housed assembly rooms, and during my own visit there, I learned that the nice folks at the Old Ship Hotel will show you their still-intact assembly rooms if you ask.

Assembly rooms at the Old Ship Hotel.
Assembly rooms at the Old Ship Hotel.
I presume this was the entrance to the assembly rooms in Regency days.

It is perhaps appropriate that I close this post with Brighton, for all of its beautiful buildings were not enough to save Bath and other spa towns from the encroachment of that increasingly popular trend: sea-bathing. Would a little sea-bathing set me up forever? That will have to wait for my next post!

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in architecture, Austen Authors, British history, buildings and structures, England, Georgian England, Guest Post, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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