The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 253-254

21st C/18th C

Time for my flu jab. I wonder what Margaret Gainsborough would have made of this annual pilgrimage to the doctor's surgery in Great Pulteney Street? Educated people in her day resorted largely to popular healers and remedies based on folk beliefs and practices. BUT... a decade before she was born that intrepid traveller, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was visiting Turkey in 1717, the first English woman to do so, and the first female traveller to be invited into Turkish harems which she described in fascinating detail.

The women who lived in these isolated conditions were, on that occasion, practically naked (no men except eunuchs were allowed of course) and were fascinated by her clothing. They insisted that she undress too, and join them in the baths. When she desisted, they became so offended, she agreed to unfasten her shirt to the point where they could see her stays. Then they saw for themselves how rigidly encased she was, as if in a 'machine' which she could not easily get out of without assistance, as the laced fastening was all at the back. The Turkish women commiserated with her, blaming her husband, believing that he used the contraption deliberately as an enforced chastity device.

On this visit she described how a particular 'set of old women' in the town offered to perform an operation every autumn called 'ingrafting' to prevent the spread of the dreaded small-pox. Families with children gathered together and the old women arrived carrying nut-shells filled with small-pox matter taken from a sufferer. Asking which veins you, the patient, preferred to have opened, one of the women would rip open a vein with a large needle (causing, claimed the intrepid Lady Mary, no more pain than a regular scratch) and insert a tiny amount of the small-pox pus before binding up the wound using a hollow bit of shell to protect it.

This procedure was repeated four or five times on each patient and as these incisions left tiny permanent marks, the individual might choose to have them performed on veins in parts of the arms or legs which could be easily concealed under clothing.

All would be well until the eighth day when the small-pox fever kicked in and a child would be put to bed for two days. Pox marks would appear on the face, but leave no marks, and after a further period of eight days the patient would be completely better and never suffered the dreaded small-pox infection again.

Lady Mary claimed that every year thousands of Turks chose to submit themselves and their children to this procedure and, on the basis of what she saw, she decided to submit her own small son, who travelled with her, to the needle. She did so and at the same time wrote to a friend saying that she was determined to introduce the system to England. Which she did on her return.

A decade later, when Margaret and Thomas Gainsborough were babes in arms, small-pox vaccination was available to those English parents brave enough to use it.


21st C

Because I have written a book about ghostly events (TRUE GHOST STORIES OF OUR OWN TIME published by Faber and Faber) I am often told of strange happenings not easily explained away.

A friend told me last week of an odd event which occurred in her old cottage set in the country near Bath. She and her family are great ones for handcrafting unusual presents for each other and she decided to make her sister a special gift. She bought some pretty pieces of china from a charity shop for a few pence, took them home and broke them up. Using them she designed a heart-shaped "picture," framed it, and her sister, delighted with the result, hung it in her bedroom.

My friend was so pleased with the result that she used the rest of the broken china to make a similar heart-shaped picture for herself, hanging it above a chest of drawers in her bedroom. Below it, on the chest, she arranged a few small and delicate objects.

One night a little later, she and her husband were startled to hear a loud crash on the first floor. Running up the stairs they discovered the heart picture lying on the floor beside the chest. The odd thing was that there was no apparent reason for it having fallen and, even more strange, the delicate objects arranged in front of it were undisturbed.

A day or two later she went to see her mother and sister who live in the family home not far away. She told them about the heart picture incident. Her sister jumped up in alarm. "No!" she cried. "I can't believe it!" And then she told my friend that, at what transpired to be about the same time, her heart picture too had crashed down from the wall. But in her case, the picture had been found on the floor, on the opposite side of the room. And, as in my friend's case, greeting cards lined up beneath the picture had not been disturbed. No-one could offer an explanation for either of these spooky events.

Pp. 247 - 251

18th C

Speaking of life below stairs, cess pits were placed at the back of Georgian town houses, usually in the area at the rear of the house at basement level. They were emptied at night by night-soil men. I have in front of me an illustrated trade card from one John Hunt, Nightman and Rubbish Carter, showing in detail the way in which he went about his smelly business.

Some of the houses in The Circus, even today (including this one) have no access from the back. So Margaret Gainsborough had to make sure a servant stayed up late on the designated night to unlock the basement door permitting two night-soil men to enter. They had to tramp down the area steps, pass through the basement door, clump along the stone-paved lower hall leading out into the rear area , empty out the cesspit and then return with their foul-smelling wooden tub full of excrement carried on a pole slung between them. Staggering back past the kitchen, they returned along the hall and up the area steps, leaving their stink behind them, as they emerged into The Circus to empty their loathsome load into a horse-drawn cart waiting outside the elegant front door.

We were speaking of the MP's grooming habits earlier, recorded by Boswell. It is hard to believe but apparently true that in the reign of George III, in Margaret Gainsborough's day, the British army used 6,500 tons of flour for powdering the hair every year.

As for women of fashion at this time, their elaborate towering hairstyles of real or false hair, pomade and ornaments, could take as long as three hours to dress. And then to have it taken down and re-styled, they went through a process known as having the head 'opened'. One young Irish heiress noted that she had spent half the day at the hairdresser's in London. "My head has not been opened for over a fortnight." She admitted that living with the ornate hair towers became intolerable in the heat of summer. Her stylist told her of one of his clients who, because of the cost involved, allowed her hairstyle to remain untouched for so long that when the head was finally opened a nest of mice was found inside.

21st C

I have heard on the grapevine today that The Town House, across the way in Bennett Street, written about previously as having been the premises of a baker and confectioner from 1767 to 1903, a familiar part of the Gainsborough girls' childhood and, in my time, an upmarket bed and breakfast business, has just been sold and will now become a family home. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.

18th C

But, speaking of The Town House when it was a baker's shop, and remembering that the 18th C owner would habitually take in the Gainsboroughs' Sunday roast to cook it for them had they wished, it is interesting to note that Dr Johnson regularly used his local baker to have his housekeeper's pie cooked for Sunday dinner because that was the only day in the week the London baker did not bake bread and his oven was free to cook his neighbours' prepared meats or pies.

Street food was immensley popular in Georgian times. And the local takeaway was always busy. Nothing new there then. One particular alley in Covent Garden was full of small cook shops doing a roaring trade selling hot meat at all hours for people too poor to have facilities for cooking at home. Poor labourers and their large families lived in cramped quarters, often six or seven in a tiny room or two, too poor even to own cooking pots and pans. These hole-in-the-wall shops sold meat of all kinds as well as hot "soop." At this time meat was the main ingredient of an Englishman's diet.

Corner shops everywhere sold bread, often of poor quality, mixed with chalk, alum and bone ashes to make the mixture go further, causing illnesses of all kinds, including ricketts, which was common. These shops also offered cheap stale greens gathered up from left-overs on market stalls and sold on, as well as little slivers of cheese. Tripe shops concentrated on selling hot tripe wrapped in a scrap of old paper.

Amanda Vickery tells us in her book BEHIND CLOSED DOORS that takeaway food obtained by a servant from a nearby inn was the usual dining arrangement for bachelors. Taverns and coffee houses were popular with single men living alone. They often made a particular one a home away from home by becoming a regular, using it as a base to meet friends, rather like a man today might use his club.

P P. 244-6

Well, back to the 18th C .

We were talking about the way the Gainsboroughs used this house at No. 17 The Circus in Bath and I was reminded of an occasion when James Boswell visited the home of a friend, a member of Parliament for Scotland who had gone abroad, apparently in a great hurry, leaving his rooms in chaos.

Boswell and his companion, Colonel Donald Campbell (who had recently returned alive and kicking from the East Indies after twenty years service bearing no less than fourteen sword wounds and having a musket ball still lodged in his body) were so amused by the state of confusion left behind by the MP that they made a list of the appearance of the dining room after the servant had let them in.

On one table was a stone basin filled with dirty water, a china water bottle and a tin water jug, a case of cut-throat razors and shaving gear. A set of dirty ruffles lay on one chair, sitting on top of soiled white and black stockings, a stock, a used towel and a dirty shaving cloth. A sleeveless flannel waistcoat and a dirty shirt were flung over the backs of two more chairs and on another lay a black waistcoat and a grey frock coat with black buttons. A set of combs, a pair of scissors and a stick of pomatum occupied another seat. On the carpet lay a length of blue and white check material, a tea-chest and abandoned closeby was a pair of shoes. A flannel powdering-gown (worn when the hair was being dressed) and a pair of slippers had been discarded on the floor. Numerous packets of letters, books, pamphlets and newspapers were piled on the chimney-piece together with a snuff-box. Two hats, a sword and belt and a belt without a sword hung on the wall. An extra long cane with a gold head stood in a corner.

The MP's servant looked on in amazement as Boswell and the Colonel, both amused and appalled by the mess, recorded every single item in a notebook. Boswell later published the list, giving us an accurate picture of one Georgian gentleman's dining room and his way of life when living alone.

Boswell mentions the chimney piece. Every room in those days before central heating needed a fireplace and the price of coal was an item which concerned every housekeeper at every social level. Indeed, it was one of the reasons why families chose to spend several months of the year away from the metropolis: coal in Bath was so much cheaper than in London.

In the front area of this house, below street level, are several stone vaults running out below the pavement. They were used by the Gainsborough family for storage and for the vital coal supplies.

The basement still has its own front door and a stone staircase leading up to street level which, in Gainsborough's day, was used exclusively by servants and tradesmen. There is also the remains of an iron lift or pulley by the gate which was used to lower heavy items to be stored in the basement vaults.

Pp 242-3

21st C

Last Wednesday, in fear and trepidation because the news media was full of accounts of London's burning buildings, homes in flames,rioting gangs, shattered shop fronts and looted homes and stores, I travelled up to the capital by train.

To my amazement everything at Paddington railway station seemed to be normal: the usual fast-moving queue for taxis at the station, a leisurely drive to Chelsea where I was staying, no sign of anything remotely resembling the chaos reported. There were no police about, no rampaging hoodies in sight, no sirens screaming, nothing but people calmly going about their normal business, hampered only by crowds of rubber-necking tourists enjoying London in warm sunshine on the King's Road.

I spent three days in London, travelling around Chelsea, the Strand, Piccadilly, the West End and Westminster, day and night, and saw absoloutely nothing unusual, nothing remotely resembling the scary images filling the newspapers and television screens.

Yet, living only 120 miles away in Bath, I had the impression from the news that London was burning. I can't imagine how many people in countries all over the world were as apprehensive as I was as they gazed at images of the devastation caused in areas outside central London. And I wonder how many intending tourists and business people immediately cancelled their plans to visit the UK because of those alarming photographs and their accompanying reports.

I am not, in any way, belittling the horror faced by so many families in the aftermath of the death and devastation that occurred elsewhere, but the media has, in my view, given a totally false impression that the whole of the capital is a no-go area. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Bath I have heard from friends that the many Language Schools teaching English to foreign studients in this city are suffering a marked loss in cancellations for the new term because of the way in which the new of the events last week were reported. If this is so, I can only assume the tourist industry as a whole will be similarly affected.

Pp 235-241

18th C

Major changes in furnishing houses occurred in the 1740s, at about the time of the Gainsborough's marriage in London. In Bath painted wainscots and marble fireplaces were introduced to John Wood's newly-built Georgian houses down in the centre of the old town. The former stained wooden floors were increasingly being covered by carpets, while expensive mahogany and walnut replaced the early fashion for oak furniture. The latest chairs were often upholstered and were much more comfortable, although this new fashion had its drawbacks. Mrs James Boswell struggled to mask her annoyance when that difficult house-guest, Dr Johnson, came to stay. He was known far and wide for his uncouth habits and on one occasion in the dark grey days of November 1773 he upset his long-suffering hostess by turning the candles downwards to improve the illumination of the book he was reading, ignoring the rivers of wax dripping on to the newly-upholstered chairs and the carpet beneath them.

Reception rooms had, until this time, been sparsely furnished by 21st standards, but mid 18th C items like free-standing screens, looking glasses and brass fittings were introduced, while extensive and more expensive lengths of fabric were used in bed hangings and covers. On marriage, Mary Gainsborough ordered no less than sixty yards of white satin and a similar quantity of white sarsenet lining to dress the bed.

By the time Gainsborough signed the lease for No. 17, Georgian houses were cosier, lighter and more opulent than ever before, with down beds, soft blankets and fine linen enjoyed by the family, if not by the servants who cared for them.

Arthur Trimnell, upholsterer of Westgate Street, Bath, guaranteed to use nothing but "curled hair" (presumably horse-tail) to stuff his chair seats.
Damasks and silks now replaced the coarser fabrics used for bedcovers twenty years earlier. Architect John Wood noted then that Bath matrons, their daughters and their maids were hard at work with needle and thread between seasons transforming the popular fabric fustion (a thick, twilled, short-napped cotton cloth, usually dyed in dark, serviceable colours) with floral crewel work to give their beds what was in Wood's opinion "a gaudy look."

Wood-panelled interiors were giving way to brightly painted walls. When we moved here the walls of Gainsborough's parlour were scraped back to reveal a stencilled pattern dating from Regency times - no sign of Gainsborough sketches, however. In Georgian houses separate dining rooms were rare. All reception rooms were used for entertaining and one or two small folding or drop-side tables were often set up in front of the fire by servants who then served an informal meal to the family, removing the tables afterwards.

A set of folding doors often separated the pairs of rooms on ground and first floors. Known as "weddding" or "marriage" doors, these could be folded back to open up the reception areas for a large evening party or closed for more informal use.

Circus kitchens were situated in the basement, with a flight of stairs leading down from the rear of the main hall. The original staircase remains in place in No. 17.

In this house this broad stair rising from the ground floor entrance hall leads to a landing with a large window overlooking the garden, rising again to the first floor area which in Margaret Gainsborough's time was reserved for her husband's professional activities. His clients were shown up to the drawing room (used as his exhibition room) by a servant. This handsome room lined with paintings on three walls, its three tall windows facing The Circus and with a coal fire burning brightly in the grate, saw many a famous sitter taking tea while the artist prepared his paints and adjusted his easel in the adjoining studio.

An internal staircase leading to the first floor was inserted in the late 1940s but part of the original studio remains, facing the garden at the rear of the house. Gainsborough had the central section of the three-part Venetian window in his studio lengthened upwards, one storey in height, to admit more of the northern light much favoured by artists. The outline of the extension to the window, now filled in, can be seen clearly from the private walled garden but it is not visible from the street.

The stairs rising through the main hall from the first floor led to bedrooms occupied by the Gainsborough parents and perhaps their daughters on the second floor. Somehow accommodation had to be found for Thomas's nephew Gainsborough Dupont and for his niece Sophia, both children of his sisters, who spent a good deal of their childhood living with their uncle in The Circus.

Gainsborough Dupont was the second son of Sarah, Gainsborough's second sister and her husband Philip Dupont, a carpenter in Sudbury. The boy was apprenticed to his uncle in 1772 and remained with him until Gainsborough died. Dupont was generally considered to be a second-rate painter whose work was adequate but not good enough to satisfy the Royal Academy which refused three of his attempts to become an academician. Gainsborough was always kind to his relatives and paid Dupont generously.

Sophia was born in 1762, daughter of Gainsborough's sister Susan Gardiner, and the little girl spent much of her childhood under Margaret Gainsborougjh's supervision in Bath.

In addition to the family, No. 17 had to provide accommodation for the female servants, paying guests and visiting family and friends and their servants.

Gainsborough was known to be fond of his horse, a grey, a gift from his friend Walter Wiltshire, which was probably stabled at the rear of the garden in what is now Circus Mews. When he left Bath to live in London he was determined to keep the horse with him and chose to ride him all the way to the capital in order to do so.

The garden, about 50 metres in length, is fully enclosed within high stone walls. When the Gainsboroughs lived here the servants' lavatory was most likely housed in the rear area of the basement, or in a lean-to in the garden, then most probably used as a yard.

Family and guests were provided with chamber pots in their bedrooms and sometimes a commode, a piece of furniture designed as a cabinet which, when opened, contained a wooden seat over a removeable porcelain pot which, like the chamber pots, were emptied into buckets to be carried all the way downstairs by the maid responsible for the unpleasant task of emptying the slops. A chamber pot was often provided in the dining room in large houses, placed behind a screen and intended for the use of gentlemen who freqently drank a great deal at dinner.

One foreign aristocrat described an occasion on which he found a number of chamber pots lined up on the sideboard. To his discomfort he realised he was required to relieve himself in full view of his fellow guests who all continued to drink and talk. after the ladies had left the room. "One has no kind of concealment," he reported, adding that he found this practice of the upper English classes indecent and totally unacceptable. Ladies, of couse, retired to their hostess's dressing room to use her commode in relative privacy.

Pp. 226 - 234

18th C

Church Court Records and household inventories reveal that at the time the Gainsboroughs lived in The Circus it was customary for servants to sleep all over the house, sometimes on temporary beds in passages or even in the drawing room or parlour. Few lower ranking sevants like housemaids enjoyed anything approaching a room of their own. Most slept on a truckle bed erected in any available space late at night. A truckle bed was portable and had to be folded up and removed early each morning before the family were up and about.

For their few personal possessions most indoor servants possessed nothing more than a box or trunk which could be locked against theft, a major problem for each head of every 18th C household. Living-in servants, sedan chairmen, workmen of all kinds, itinerant salesmen, milkmaids and pedlars were in and out of the house every day, making the safe-keeping of any valuables a constant headache.

Houses like No. 17 The Circus open right onto the pavement and are still considered public property at times. The other day the laundryman was admitted carrying a heavy load and he left the front door slightly ajar. I went out immediately to close it and found in the main hall two tiny polite Japanese ladies who had followed him in. They bowed. I bowed. I asked if I could help them. One of them bowed again and replied that they were here to view Mr Gainsborough's paintings. Two hundred and fifty year s too late! I replied, and hoping they understood that this was not a public gallery but a private house, I showed them out, all parties bowing politely once again as the door closed.

Theft was rife in Gainsborough's day and it was a rare master who could trust his servants not to steal. Valuables of all kinds, from leaf tea to silver candlesticks were always locked up and the key to safe boxes and cupboards were kept on the individual's person, as Amanda Vickery describes in her book, BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, Yale University Press, 2009, pp 26-38. Her research revealed that people of all classes invented secret places in which to hide their valuables: a hole in the carved leg of a wooden bed perhaps, or a hollow below a brick loosened in the hearth might keep a gold ring safe.

Servant girls often had no privacy even if they were lucky enough to sleep in a drafty room under the eaves. Given no choice, they found themselves sharing not only the room, but the bed as well with other maids and, at times, with complete strangers, in the shape of maids of visiting houseguests, for instance. Securing their few personal possessions was vital.

Not only were servants under constant surveillance by their masters, but the opposite was also true: indoor servants constantly spied on their employers.

As head of the household at No. 17 (houses were not numbered until the 1760s) it was Thomas Gainsborough's responsibility to make sure the building was secure before he went to bed each night. Most of these houses have wooden shutters installed behind window panes, secured by heavy horizontal iron bars. External door locks were reinforced with iron chains and bars, many still in place today.

In the 18th C burglars soon discovered that they could be freed after arrest if they could prove they entered a house through a door or a window carelessly left open, even though breaking and entering a house at night was a hanging offence.

The time-consuming ceremony undertaken by the master of the house every evening, locking all doors and securing all windows and shutters on all five floors, was therefore a vital task, however tiresome.

As mentioned earlier the Gainsboroughs were great believers in making the most of the financial opportunities offered by letting out rooms to lodgers in all their houses in Bath and later in London. Rooms allocated depended on the social status of the individual. Accommodation on the first floor at the front was most popular and therefore the most expensive, as it is today, while ground floor rooms were the most accessible. Basements and cellars were notoriously damp and rooms immediately under the roof were known then to be draughty.

The population in Georgian England expanded rapidly, creating a high demand for houses in towns. Accommodation in No. 17 was stretched to the limit from the start, requiring space for family, including nephews and nieces, valuable paying lodgers and on occasion (but not too often if Margaret had any say in the matter) visiting friends and their servants, as well as the family's own servants.

The parlour on the ground floor at the fron was , used as a family room and for private entertaining. The most spacious area on the first floor became the artist's exhibition room, reserved for displaying his paintings, mostly portraits, many of them of beautiful women rather oddly described by 20th C author Rebecca West as "looking like cats...all feline in appearance."

The exhibition room boasted three large windows overlooking the stone-paved Circus at the front, facing south, with Gainsborough's studio at the rear, having a view of the garden and stables. The rooms in the basement included the kitchen and those on the second, third and fourth floors were in constant use and their purpose frequently changed according to demand, using portable tented beds completely enclosed in a set of curtains, a piece of furniture which could be moved from room to room at will, swiftly converting a sitting room into what we might call a bed-sitter today. The fabric used for the "ceiling" and all four sides of a tented bed was usually striped or checked cloth and the bed being totally enclosed gave the occupant complete privacy when dressing, while effectively hiding the bed so that the room could be used with decorum as a sitting room in any company, male or female, throught the day and early evening.

Wealthy people were constantly on the move. One widow of advanced years with a house in Berkshire spent six months every year in the City district in London, paying a total sum of twenty-four pounds and three shillings for rented accommodation and all meals for both herself and her maid for the entire period. This was at a time when decorative Worcester and Bow porcelain teapots might be bought for anything from one shilling and sixpence to four shillings each. The drinking of tea was a fashionable cremony much indulged by Georgian society.

Tea first came to England in the 1650s when coffee houses in London began to sell Chinese "tcha" "tay" or "tee." Tea was heavily taxed almost immediaitely and along with the hated Window Tax, it paid almost the entire costs of the Royal Navy in the 18th C.

By the time the Gainsboroughs came to Bath tea was beginning to replace small ale, the common drink of the average labourer, but the cost was high and tea was a popular item with smugglers who found a ready market for it. Servants of the wealthy saved used tea leaves from the drawing room teapots and sold the product on to unscrupulous tea merchants for profitable recycling to the poorer classes.

Tea bowls wsere used up to about 1770 when cups with handles were introduced. Tea drinking became so poular that by 1784 there were no less than 672 registered premises in Bath and Bristol out of a total number of 2769 shops, according to Brian McElney, founder of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Houseguests as opposed to paying lodgers could be difficult. Travelling the countryside was so rigorous, demanding and dangerous that visits to friends and relatives living far away tended to be lengthy affairs lasting weeks if not months, a situation that at times caused quite a few headaches for the unfortunate hosts.

Margaret's daughter Mary Gainsborough was three years old when a country parson complained bitterly on learning that two of his close female relatives were coming to stay for the summer. Even though they offered to pay for an extra washerwoman and provide quantities of soap he was horrified by the expense the additional laundry would incur. Extra coal would be needed to heat the copper to boil the linen and the thought of the costs involved, not to mention the continual fuss and upset caused by endless quantities of damp clothing of both visitors and family hanging about to air all over the house, caused him nightmares.

Mrs Gainsborough obviously agreed with his views and the writer Fanny Burney was of the same opinion, remarking that, in additon to being expensive, a constant stream of visiting relations was tiresome in the extreme and caused trouble with the servants who had to deal with the extra work involved, as well as having to share their accommodation with visiting maids and footmen.

Ignoring the problems involved, Gainsborough insisted on inviting his friends to stay. On one occaion he could not, in fact, find room in No. 17 for his friend James Unwin because Margaret had already invited a female friend of her own who, with her son and servants, had decided to extend her stay with the family to include Christmas and beyond. Gainsboro9ugh was not pleased about this decision and immediately offered to take nearby lodgings to accommodate Unwin, explaining to him that they had never in their lives had more than "a bed and half" to spare at any one time.

Pp 223-225

21st C

On my first trip to UK from Australia in 1966 I stayed with my brother and his wife in Mile End in London. They were both teaching in the East End on their first visit to England. She was employed in the school at Victoria Docks which featured in the film BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. At the time the school, with an all-white studentship , was rough, dirty and grungy, offering a tough experience for a young Tasmanian woman.

My brother , on the other hand, taught at a comprehensive school in Dagenham, where the children of newly-arrived West Indian employees of Dagenham's car industry made up a large proportion of the pupils. This school was well-run and the West Indian children were described by my brother as being "lovely kids", well-behaved and a joy to teach. He must have been quite popular with them too. The day he left the post to return to Australia the staff gave him lunch at the historic LORD NELSON pub on the banks of The Thames. When he returned to school in a somewhat merry mood that afternoon all the school kids grabbed hold of him, lined up behind him and ordered him to lead a conga line, dancing right around the school before they let him go.

I was reminded of my visit to Mile End today because when I was there I had my hair cut by a lass at the local hairdresser. She was about nineteen or twenty and amazed me by telling me she had never been to London, meaning the centre of the city. She had lived all her life in the East End but had never travelled out of the immediate area.

Yesterday another twenty year old, a carer who lives in Bath, told me she had had a lovely time the previous day.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I went to London for the first time!"

I could hardly believe it. A modern young woman with silver studs adorning her nose had driven herself to London with a couple of female friends as passengers. She had once been taken there briefly as a baby. The train jouney takes one and a half hours and the drive by car takes about two hours. But in all those years she had never been back .

"Did you like it?" I asked.

"It was a wonderful experience," she replied. She had had her first ride on the underground ("overcrowded and too hot for comfort") and saw her first performance of a musical comedy in the capital.

I am left wondering just how many people are not curious enough to make the effort to visit one of the great cities in the world when they live within its shadow.


18th C

On becoming mistress of 17 The Circus Margaret Gainsborough was nearing forty, a plump, attractive brunette with two rather troublesome teenage daughters to control and a husband who was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest portrait painters in England; a man who was highly popular, a spendthrift who rebelled against the restrictions of domesticity imposed upon him by his wife. Margaret's life was now cast in stone. She had no option but to follow the path which was determined on the day she married Thomas twenty years earlier.

In Georgian times marriage was first and foremost a social contract, a state considered necessary for both male and female if each were to achieve a satisfactory lifestyle. For the majority of young blades and for ALL young women, making a good match was by far and away the most important goal in their lives. Marrying for love, a romantic idyll, rarely became an issue. Marriage was the only avenue open to a young, well-born gentleman who wanted to satisfy his sexual appetite and achieve the social requirements of his Christian upbringing. Amanda Vickery's examination of private diairies of 18th C bachelors reveal an inner struggle faced by many young men who were using prostitutes while at the same time searching for a suitable wife, a virgin, usually to be discovered within the social circle of family and friends. After the wedding ceremony, of course, with home and family creating a stable domestic and social background, a man was free to act as he pleased, taking his pleasures as liberally as he liked, without social restraint.

Thomas Gainsborough, although not born a gentleman, was an example of a man of his time who made a good marriage financially speaking, gaining a pretty wife and sexual freedom to indulge his roving eye. Margaret had no recourse but to accept her husband's behaviour once the ring was on her finger.

Young women were brought up knowing that their future happiness and position in society were totally dependent on their marrying well. Margaret had a private income but, as an illegitimate female child of an aristocrat, without a husband, she would have had no position in society in spite of her ancestral line .

The lot of the ageing Georgian spinster was dire, becoming increasingly miserable as she aged. Most women in this situation had no money of their own and were alarmingly dependent on the generosity of their relatives, many of whom were unbelievably miserly in their treatment of the spinster sister or sister-in-law forced by circumstance to share their lives.

The only area in which the Georgian wife might hope to express herself was in the management of the home. This she expected to be free to manage personally, coping with all affairs relating to the family and the residence, including the hiring of household servants. Above all, she wanted to have her own position as prime female made clear to her mother-in-law who was often a major source of irritation if, as sometimes happened, the older woman lived under the same roof and was relucant to move elsewhere.

Margaret might have experienced difficulties of this nature when she and Thomas first returned from London to live with the senior Gainsboroughs in Sudbury although there is no evidence of any problems between the two women. Trouble frequently occurred, however, when a young woman married the beloved only son of a widow. Mother and son might have lived happily together in the family home for some years before the son eventually chose a wife. The older woman often fought like a tiger to retain dominance on the domestic front before admitting defeat, causing major disruption in the relationships of all three concerned, according to Amanada Vickery.

Mothers warned their daughters to beware of a fiance who assumed control over the choice of wallpaper or the domestic timetable. Here was a tyrant in the making! Common Law favoured the husband in all matters. A wife's only real area of authority was confined to the decoration and management of the marital home, but only provided the husband permitted it. Woe betide the woman who was refused that freedom, warned a concerned mother, wary of the dominating attitude of her daughter's suitor.

The keeping of household accounts was usually left to the wife, but many husbands kept a close eye on expenditure, querying the very last detail should it appear suspicious. As we have seen, laundry bills were unbelievably high: Amanda Vickery describes one family, minor gentry who were wealthy enough to keep a coach and horses, who claimed their washing bill covering the needs of three children, a toddler and two infants, cost thirty-three pounds in 1745, euivalent to the yearly wage of TEN maids.

In addition to coping with endless laundry chores Margaret's duties included finding material and organizing the making up of Thomas's extensive wardrobe of shirts, a major task. One young fellow relied heavily on the support of first his mother and then his sister in this matter. Amanda Vickery reveals that on a regular basis this peacock sent his soiled linen home three hundred miles away to be laundered, mended or renewed, and returned.

The most arduous problem faced by housewives in the 18th C was, undoubtedly, the employment and management of servants, especially those who lived in and were forever present, seen or unseen.


18th C


For hundreds of years a huge workforce in Britain was employed in domestic service. As many as one eighth of the total population of London worked as sevants in 1770 when the Gainsboroughs occupied No. 17 The Circus.

Families with annual incomes similar to the artist's family would be expected to employ at least two female servants and a laundry maid. Male servants were much more expensive and therefore the number of men employed raised the status of the employer in the eyes of society. About that time it was considered necessary to be earning an income of £500 - £600 a year to retain more than one male servant. As a rough guide the conversion rate of sterling in the 18th C and the 21st C is approximately £1 = £60.

Using this rate Gainsborough would have required a yearly income today of £30,000 - £36,000 to employ a footman, a figure demonstrating the fact that the gap between rich and poor has decreased markedly in the interim, as a much higher income would be needed today to cover the cost of running a household plus paying the salary of a footman or a butler at current rates.

Gainsborough appears to have employed a footman only after he left Bath and had been living in London for three years. In that year, 1777, the painter was cursing his unidentified footman for refusing to go out to deliver a parcel because the man was terrified of being pressed into service in the Navy at the time of the American War of Independence. The British Government, strapped for cash, then introduced a tax of a guinea for each male employed. By 1780, however, families with business interests had learnt to evade this tax by passing off their male servants as apprentices. Nevertheless, this highly resented tax was retained in a modified form until 1937.

Pp. 210-213

21st C

Talking of baths and showers which we weren't given that neither featured in the lives of the Gainsboroughs, I have strong opinions on this subject and in particular those units used in just about every hotel I have stayed in over the past two years.

Why, in heaven's name, do hotel designers and owners believe that their guests want showers installed over high-sided baths no-one but a 21 year old Olympian athlete can climb into? Or, if you are a person who doesn't wash their hair every day, who wants a tropical torrent of hot water cascading down, often with painful force, from an overhead power shower situated so high that it is impossible to control or escape from.

One of the best if most expensive bit of kit I have purchsd in the last year has been my roomy walk-in shower (big enough for three!) complete with a wall-mounted, hand-held showerhead fitted on a snake-like connection. This allows me to stand under the fixed shower to wash my hair, or it can be taken off its mounting to target feet or any other bits requiring a thorough squirt yet, if required, keep my hair dry.

I know I am not alone in hating those wretched showers installed over high-sided baths: two of my young men friends and several younger women have complained about them too. As for those wretched high-sided free-standing baths installed in hotel bedrooms! They never have any shelves or surfaces nearby to place any of the stuff you need and anyhow, who wants to strip off and play to an audience in the clear light of day once you're past your prime?

Note to hotel designers and owners: bring back the walk-in shower space please! It is eco friendly, uses much less water and heating per person per day, offers a cleaner option and one which is much less likely to cause accidents.

And while I am enjoying a rant - why is there no seating provided for the disabled and elderly at the ticket office in Bath Spa railway station?
Queuing is almost mandatory whatever the time of day and often requires customers to stand for twenty minutes or more when buying tickets or planning a journey.

When I complained about the matter to a helpful member of staff I was told that they receive many requests for seats in the area but when the information is passed on it is dismissed by higher authority.

I decided to take up the challenge. I wrote to Mark Hopwood the MD of First Great Western and appealed to Bath's MP, Don Foster, for comment.

Mark Hopwood responded within five days, promising to investigate and reply fully as soon as possible. Don Foster immediately wrote to me, indicating that he shares my concern about lack of seating and says he has requested Mr Hopwood's comments. I am pleased by the rapid response of both men and hope their involvement might result in provision of seats. There is plenty of space for them in the current layout of the area concerned.

Pp. 205-209

18TH C

As we have seen the Gainsboroughs let out rooms in each of their former homes in Bath and did so again in order to help pay the rent of about £100 per annum to the owner of No. 17 The Circus, Hugh Penny.

Prior to Christmas Day 1766 the teenagers Mary and Margaret were likely to have helped their mother decorate the parlour. This was the ground floor room fronting onto The Circus which was used as a family room in which they entertained themselves and their friends. The dining room opened off it and armfuls of mistletoe and holly, rosemary and laurels would have been used to decorate these family rooms. The Christmas Tree was not introduced to England from Germany until 1789.

On December 25th the family might have enjoyed a typical Georgian Christmas Day starting withMary and Margaret receiving their Christmas Boxes, followed by breakfast at about 9 or 10 am. A popular Christmas breakfast included Yorkshire Pie and a Cheshire Cheese, according to Catherine Spence, former curator of the Building of Bath Museum, who gave a carefully researched lecure on the Georgian Christmas in Bath in 2002.

The Yorkshire Pie was a creation to be marvelled at: a receipe of 1765 included a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and a pigeon. Generous spices were added, a thick standing crust was made, and the corners of the pie were filled in with hare or woodcock. Georgian breakfasts tended to be 'manly' meals, usually heavy with meat.

Christmas Plum cakes were made early in December to be left to mature before being eaten at their best two or three weeks later. Yule or Spice Cake was another popular receipe at this time, often eaten with cheese and a glass of wine.

In Georgian times the giving of gifts at New Year was more popular than at Christmas, but tradition required wealthy families to contribute Christmas Boxes (in the form of money) to their servants and to the poor.

The writer Jonathan Swift recorded his dismay at having to give as much as half a crown as a Christms Box to each of the many servants of his friends when staying with them. Another guest told of a porter who regularly received about £80 in Christmas Boxes at a time when a footman earned something like twenty to thirty guineas a year.

One village shopkeeper gave various amounts of three pence, six pence and a shilling as Christmas Boxes to three children in his family. In his role as overseer of the Church Poor Funds in a village of about 350 souls he paid a penny to each of the thirty registered poor.

Attendance at the Christmas church services was unavoidable and could be painful. One aristocrat writing to a friend about her experience that year, 1766, complained about having caught a cold in church where she was forced to sit through a service lasting no less than three and a quarter hours.

Christmas dinner was served to the Gainsboroughs between 3 and 4 p.m. The family and their friends wished each other "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" and perhaps exchanged presents. They enjoyed a soup called "Christmas Porridge" made of dried raisins, plums and spices stewed in a broth. The rich added wine, the poor beer. "It is a great treat for English people," wrote a Swiss visior with evident distaste. "But not for me!" He was much happier with the Christmas pies available in England but only as a special treat at Christmas. These contained chopped meat, currants, beef suet and other good things and were very popular.

After the lavish meal the Gainsboroughs and their guests would retire to the parlour for tea, followed by games and music. Thomas was an enthusiastic amateur musician and loved nothing more than to play on one of his nine instruments with friends who were musicians, and at least one of his daughters, Margaret, played too, but not always to her father's pleasure. He complained to a friend of her "damned jangling upon the harpsichord." However, later in life she became so proficient a player that Queen Charlotte herself let it be known that she would like to hear Margaret perform. The younger daughter, who could be difficult, refused to do so.

Later in the evening of that first Christmas Day spent in No 17 the servants would be called in to receive their Christmas Boxes and in some cases they were invited to join the family and their guests in taking a glass of wine and raising a toast to the season - a rare opportunity indeed for servants to socialize with their masters.

Pp 202-204

18th C

The view from the first floor windows of No. 17 is today much as it was on the first Christmas the Gainsboroughs celebrated here in 1766. Nothing much has changed in the intervening 240 odd years except, of course, for the presence of the massive London Plane trees now so dominant in full foliage in the summer but reduced to skeletal sculpture in winter.

In Margaret Gainsborough's day The King's Circus, as it was then known, was paved in stone and consequently extremely noisy, as all sound, even today, is magnified as it bounces off the surrounding stone facades. Straw had to be put down in front of any house where a resident might be lying on a sick bed in order to deaden the constant clatter of horses' hooves and carriage wheels bumping over the stones. Horse-drawn drays and heavy waggons pulled by teams of oxen were constantly passing through, delivering anything and everything to householders setting up in the newly-built residences, transporting bags of flour to the baker's shop around the corner and bringing in endless supplies of coal to fuel the baker's ovens and to keep the Gainsboroughs' and their neighbours' fires burning over this spectacularly cold Chirstmas.

Itinerant hawkers and peddlers filled the crisp cold air with their piercing cries advertising their wares and a constant stream of residents, their visitors and lodgers and everybody's servants rushing about this new and extremely fashionable and expensive part of Bath created a constantly changing scene for anyone with the time to stand and stare. I do it myself today, and the constant passing parade of tourists make it endlessly interesting.

The Gainsborough girls would have been frequent visitors to the baker's shop situated less than a minute away around the corner in Bennett Street. Now known as The Town House, an upmarket bed and breakfast establishment, the premises were then owned by John Wood himself. He sold it in 1767 to two cabinetmakers when it was described as a dwelling, complete with a baker's oven and a vault adjoining it. Before the street received its name, the shop was listed as being the second house from the corner of King's Circus, destined to be "in the street to be called Bennett Street."

This building, No. 7 Bennett Street, was remarkable in that it remained a baker's and confectioner's shop from 1767 until 1903, as recorded in original documents lent to me by a former owner. Given the usual love of sweets exhibited by most teenagers, it is easy to imagine that Mary and Margaret Gainsborough were likely to have been more than familiar with the itnerior of the shop and its contents. In addition, of course, the local baker was regularly engaged to cook large joints of meat in his ovens for nearby Georgian households. This was a common custom and one most probably followed by Margaret Gainsborough and her servants.


21st C

The latest buzz word in England is 'narrative.' Everything described on radio or television must have a 'narrative' associated with it. The subject is immaterial. If you talk about a plumbing problem, a work of art or a football match you must describe the narrative behind it. Buzz words are catching and this one is no exception. The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers alternatives like 'tale' or 'story' but they are ignored: the 'narrative' is king.

The original stone stable at the end of the garden here at No. 17 is unique: it is part of the only surviving original layout of house, garden and stable remaining of John Wood's plan for The Circus. The stable was used to house Gainsborough's favourite horse and now it is due for partial demolition. The current owner uses the building as a store for his tools of trade. He has now been granted permission to demolish most of the stone stable alongside the original 18th C cobbled laneway leading to it in order to erect a domestic dwelling on the site. The officers of the local authority's Planning Department deemed the unique historical connection to be unworthy of concern and as a consequence we lose yet another link with John Wood's world-renowned 18th C architectural gem.

18th C

The winter of 1766 was memorable. Thomas and Margaret Gainsborough with daughters Mary, known as Molly, the sly older girl then aged sixteen, and her sister, Margaret, known as Peggy (described as the more sensible of the two) aged fifteen, moved from Lansdown Lodge to what was then regarded as the most fashionable address in Bath: The Circus, arriving here at No. 17 at the end of the year, in time for Christmas.

A few weeks later a massive snowfall enveloped Bath. Snowdrifts buried Gay Street, the steep access road leading up the hill from the lower town to The Circus and remained there for over two weeks, virtually imprisoning the locals. These unusually deep snow drifts made journeys by foot, horseback or carriage impossible. The teenagers must have felt trapped behind their Bath stone walls - nowhere to go and no-one to see but themselves wandering about the new house still smelling strongly of freshly painted walls.

Pp 195-198

18th C

The city was so popular when the Gainsborough family moved several years later to The Circus (called then The King's Circus just as the main hot water bath was known as The King's Bath) that people like the Rev. Edmund Nelson, father of the illustrious Horatio, made the ardouous cross-country journey from Norfolk to spend most of his winters in the spa town. Lord Nelson's sister, Susannah, was apprenticed to a milliner in Bath and another sister, Anne, died there after dancing all night at a ball and catching a chill when leaving.

Nelson himself chose to convalesce at Bath in 1780 after returning from service in Jamaica where he became seriously ill through drinking water contaminated by the poisonous Machineel tree. Bath doctors "physicked" him four times daily, and he travelled by sedan chair to The King's Bath to drink the waters three times each day. The standard prescription required a patient to drink from three to six pints of the foul-tasting water daily. If you visit Bath today you can taste it for yourself from a fountain in the Pump Room above the Baths. Nelson was so ill that chairmen were engaged to carry him to and from his sick bed. He survived and went on to enjoy popularity as the country's most famous naval hero.

However, the family's close connection with the spa town continued for many years. Nelson's father died in Bath and the hero's long-suffering wife Fanny was at the old man's deathbed. Nelson, however, refused to return to attend his father's funeral, preferring to remain with his mistress, the glamorous Emma Hamilton, at Merton, the house he had bought for her in Surrey.

In the autumn of 1763 Gainsborough moved the family out of the "smoke" at Abbey House to take up residence in a detached house now known as Lansdown Lodge, situated high above the town on Lansdown Road, This attractive building offered a garden, splendid views across the city below and a healthier atmosphere for the girls, all for £30 a year. Leaving Margaret there, Gainsborough went back down the hill each day to work in Abbey House where he kept his studio and exhibition room, while letting out the remainder of the house, the shop to his sister the milliner and other rooms to lodgers, bringing in a welcome extra income. The Gainsboroughs continued to let out rooms in their own house when they moved here to 17 The Circus three years later.

Pp. 191-194

18th C

In November 1954 the "Great Bath" was drained so that a certain Professor Ian Richmond might take measurements. He found to his utter amazement that the forty-five sheets of lead lining the bottom of the Bath and placed there by the Romans almost 2000 years earlier were still water-tight, reported The Bath Chronicle on 28 November 2003.

Bath's renowned architect, John Wood, described the baths used in Margaret's time as being made up of simple cisterns receiving the hot waters, with small dressing cells placed around them, and flights of steps for the bathers to descend to the bubbling waters below. However, the Georgians chose to ignore these cells, preferring to dress in their bathing costumes before leaving home. Between 6 am and 9 am they then stepped into sedan chairs which were often carried up into the client's own bedroom by a pair of chairmen who then trotted off down the hill to the baths, and then waited for the client to reappear for the return journey.

At the King's Bath, accompanied by one of the bath's guides, the bather would steep himself in chest-deep hot bubbling water for about twenty minutes, rubbing shoulders with all and sundry, of both sexes, at the busiest early morning sessions which were considered to be the most beneficial time to bathe.

Each person was fully dressed according to contemporary illustrations. Officially men were required to wear drawers and a waistcoat, and women a shift described as "decent", but obviously extremely revealing when wet. These clothes were available for hire if necessary. Everyone, male and female, wore a hat - choosing from a wide variety of the most bizarre and elaborate headgear imaginable.

One of the difficulties encountered by bathers using the King's Bath was the complete lack of lavatories on the site before 1784, raising the question of contamination of the waters when taking into account the length of time elapsing between a bather leaving the bed chamber and returning to it. Neither was there any privacy for the bathers. Spectators enjoyed spying on them from various vantage points, including the windows of the Gainsborough family and their lodgers in Abbey House. That site is now covered by a part of the extension to the Pump Room completed in 1897.

Margaret and her husband must have been greatly entertained by the early morning spectacle of the vast array of male and female forms stewing in the steaming waters below their windows although they might have had doubts about exposing their young daughters to the view.

Health was not always the prime reason for the popularity of bathing in Bath. Sexual titillation and even open prostitution played a part. Women took advantage of the flimsy wet cotton shifts clinging to their curves to flirt with handsome young men. And it was not unknown for young blades to sail past them on their backs, presenting their manhood to all and sundry before sinking out of sight below the surface.

Respectable young ladies were fully aware of this vulgar side of life in Bath and often referrred to it in their letters to one another, writing in a slightly risque' fashion about sex and marriage in the spa town. The hunt for a husband was, of course, the primary function of a visit to Bath for many young Georgian ladies.

As bathing became more popular in Margaret's day the Duke of Kingston opened an exclusive suite of private hot baths in the 1760's. These were intended for the use of wealthier visitors. They were situated on land to the south of Bath Abbey and they offered for the first time the opportunity for people to bathe in peace and privacy, enjoying individual changing rooms, hot chocolate and refreshments, and even waiting rooms for sevants. This competition finally prompted the Corporation to introduce similar improvements to their own baths later in the century.

The promise that hot mineral waters would restore health for an amazing range of ailments including leprosy, fertility problems, deafness, fits and obesity attracted many thousands of visitors to Bath.

Pp. 187-190

18th C


"Twas a glorious sight to behold the fair sex
All wading with gentlemen up to their necks
And view them so prettily tumble and sprawl
In a great smoking kettle as big as our hall."

So wrote Christopher Anstey in the "New Bath Guide," which Margaret Gainsborough might well have read when it was published in 1766, the year the family moved into this house in The Circus.

Gainsborough was always deeply concerned about his own and his family's health. He was highly strung and not at all robust.
Presumably he and Margaret bathed in and drank the famous Bath waters like the majority of residents and visitors. Just how frequently the Gainsboroughs visited the King's Bath below their windows in Abbey House is not known, but clearly they had every opportunity to pop down every day had they wished to do so.

In the four years he lived there Thomas painted his first masterpiece, a full-length portrait of Ann Ford, a beautiful amateur musician who was soon to marry Margaret's old bugbear, Philip Thickness. In this period too, Gainsborough's work was first exhibited by the Society of Artists in London.

He was pushing himself too hard at this time and in 1763, exhausted by overwork, he became seriously ill. Situated as it was, in the lowest part of the town, Abbey House suffered from the smoke and dirt and polluted air so well documented by contemporary writers, but it also offered instant access to the waters, Bath's greatest gift to the afflicted, or so it was believed in the 18thC.

The original Roman spa was known as Aquae Sulis. It was then and remains now the only area of hot water springs in the UK. This natural spring of hot water appeared magical to the Romans, who were notoriously fond of bathing, and the baths were popular for three hundred years from 1 AD to 4 AD.

As the Roman Empire declined, the number of pilgrims visiting the spa fell and the Roman buildings around it collapsed. The hot water flowed away into the river Avon below, largely ignored by the world. In medieval times the church owned the land around the springs and the monks are believed to have used the hot waters rising within the grounds of the Abbey for medicinal purposes.

In the 12th C Bishop John de Villula built The King's Bath. The Cross and Hot Baths were probably built about the same time. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1550's ownership of the baths passed from the Abbey to the Bath Corporation. Its current successor, Bath and North East Somerset Council, now runs them as a highly successful tourist attraction visited by the majority of Bath's three million visitors each year.

P. 186

21st C

One of the silliest ideas I have heard for a long time is the current proposal put forward for discussion at the forthcoming AGM of the Circus Area Residents' Association to be held in May. The proposal is to place a monument on the Circus Green (see picture above) to commemorate John Woods, Senior and Junior.

For heaven's sake! All you have to do is look around you! The Circus in its full architectural glory stands there as a permanent memorial to these inspired men.

Instead of a useless piece of stone or whatever stuck in the middle of the Circus (under the trees and on top of a water cistern buried beneath them) I propose the reinstatement of lighting in the form of the iron lantern overthrow designed to illuminate each entrance to each building. There is one original still in place to be admired. Overthrows have been restored to each house in Landsdown Crescent and look wonderful.

Finance will be the stumbling block but might, I believe, be overcome with the aid of European and British heritage funds, while many residents of The Circus might be willing to make donations. I have rarely been so incensed by so senseless a suggestion as I am about this superfluous memorial.

Pp. 182-185

18th C

Gainsborough appears to have had an ambivalent attitude to the young Fischer. He did not consider him to be a suitable husband for his daughter but clearly enjoyed making music with him, so much so that his wife swore that the two men were so carried away with their playing that a gang of thieves might have crept in, stolen everything portable and set fire to the house before either man would have noticed.

Fischer received an important appointment in 1781 when he was appointed to Queen Charlotte's Band, receiving a generous salary of £200 a year to play in concerts at Court. Gainsborough's doubts about the marraige were well-founded and the couple were soon in trouble. Apparently Fischer had lied about his finances. He was in desperately in need of money following the wedding and before he received the royal appointment. A few months after their marriage Gainsborough discovered that Mary was acting illegally by buying goods at one shop and trying to make money by selling them at another, a serious felony carrying the dire threat of transportation to the American colonies or to the West Indies if caught. (Australia did not become a British penal settlement until 1788).

Her father was furious, blaming the whole epsiode on Fischer, believing that Mary had acted, and would always act, to serve her husband, even to the point of going to the gallows for him if necessary.

Describing the incident to his sister, Mrs Gibbon, Gainsborough admitted that Margaret had begged him to cover up the whole embarrassing story, asking him not to discuss it with anyone. He wrote in secret to his sister, admitting that he preferred to tell her the truth. He had managed to stop the transaction before anyone was hurt and now begged his sister to approach Fischer (not his daughter) to discover if he had initiated the plan, and then to give Mary a good ticking off for any part she might have played in the scheme.

Mary suffered from a mental illness which became apparent when she was quite young, at just thirteen, and again in 1771. The condition worsened with age and might have had some bearing on her behaviour on this occasion. Whatever the reasons for his initial doubts about the marriage, Gainsborough's instincts had been right and the couple soon separated.

Mary returned home to live with her parents and her sister and her father became extremely worried about her mental health. In his will he made specific arrangements for her future maintenance, ensuring that Fischer had no chance whatsoever of taking control of Mary's money received from her father. His wife Margaret, however, as we have seen, remained on good terms with her son-in-law but she, too, made provision for the care of Mary should she outlive her sister Margaret, as indeed she did.

FOOTNOTE: Margaret never married. She became rather eccentric as she grew older but was not affected by mental illness. She died in Acton, Middlesex in 1820. Mary declined into madness several years before her death and was deranged by the time her sister died. Sophia Lane, Gainsborough's niece, took care of Mary until she died in London in 1826. The sisters were buried in a tomb at Hanwell in Middlesex. Fischer died in 1800 . [Ref. D. Tyler: Gainsborough's House Review 1992-93, pp 42-46]

Pp 179-181

21st C The photograph above is how The Circus in Bath looks today. I wanted to show you how it appeared in Margaret Gainsborough's time. I have a picture by John Robert Cozens in front of me, drawn as if he were looking through the windows of this house, No. 17. He depicts a huge stone-paved circle surrounded by probably the most famous terraced houses in the world forming an outer circle, just as it does today. But there are no towering London Plane trees in the centre and not a blade of green grass to be seen. In this acquatint of 1773 the sense of empty, echoing space is paramount. There are two horse-drawn carriages shown, one heading into Brock Street to the right as seen from No. 17, the other coming out of Brock Street and heading for Gay Street, the coachman probably dreading the steep and slippery descent he faces to reach the heart of the town below. Where the trees now stand, there is a well provided for communal use. No trees, bushes, plants or flowers of any kind soften the stony landscape, but there is a female pedlar walking over the cobbles towards No. 17, her basket of wares balanced on her head. Is she aiming to sell to the kitchen maid below stairs? Further back a well-dressed male figure bows to two women, their long skirts trailing behind them and another female walks nearby carrying a large sunshade. But the picture is dominated by two sets of chairmen, one pair passing directly in front of this house. Each of the four men is bent forward, taking the strain on the carrying poles of the two sedan chairs to balance the weight of the hidden occupants. Why can't I show you this print? I wanted to include it here, together with Gainsborough's self-portait as a young man and his charming portraits of his wife and their children but no - the Society of Authors advised me (a long-time member) that if I did so I would be in danger of infringing copyright. Most of Gainsborough's original paintings of his family are held by major institutions all over the world who might well sue me for reproducing them here without permission. As many of you will know, the prices charged to obtain permission to publish are often exorbitant. So, sadly, I can't include them here. If you are interested in seeing what the family looked like just Google their names to find many of their portaits on line. But...taking a quick look at many personal sites on the internet, and seeing the wide range of images used to illustrate them, I wonder if, in this case, the Society of Authors has been, perhaps, a little too cautious?

Pp. 175 - 178

18th C

Surprisingly, given his love of socialising, Gainsborough appears to have been a shy man, blushing easily. His conversation was sprightly but licentious and he had no appetite for pointless small-talk which, if it arose, he dismissed quickly by the use of a witty remark. His friend William Jackson said the painter rarely read a book but was unequalled in his ability to write an original, amusing and lively letter to a friend.

Another of Gainsborough's friends, young Henry Angelo, son of the Royal Fencing Master, was England's foremost practitioner of the sport in the 18th C. He went so far as to say that Gainsborough was afraid of his wife Margaret and was never entirely at ease when at home, and equally worried when he was not, in case she discovered how much money he had spent on his days away. Thomas was generous to a fault according to his friends but Margaret was mean beyond belief in Angelo's view. Later, Gainsborough's son-in-law, Johann Christian Fischer, often teased him about allowing Margaret to brow-beat him so obviously, claiming that she was "receiver-general, paymaster-general and auditor" all rolled into one.

Indeed, her frugality was so well-known that even the Queen herself commented upon it. According to Henry Angelo, Fischer (at that time a musician at Court) told the Queen that his mother-in-law was "twin sister of the Old Lady in Threadneedle Street" and she would not be content until her husband poured into her lap a sum equal to the national debt.

Nevertheless, Margaret apparently bore Fischer no grudge because she left him £20 in her will to cover his mourning costs and to express her regard for him.

Let us gallop a few years ahead for a moment. Mary (or Molly as her father called her) the elder daughter, married Johann Christian Fischer on 21 February 1780 at St Anne's Church in Soho in London. Her father and mother and Gainsborough's nephew Dupont acted as witnesses. Earlier, both daughters had been infatuated by Fischer, who was seventeen years older than Mary. He was an oboe player devoted to his musical studies but rumoured to have few social graces and generally believed, at least by male commentators, to be imprudent and not over intelligent. Gainsborough had serious doubts about Fischer as a suitor and tried to prevent the marriage, but failed. When living in The Circus in 1768 Gainsborough started to paint a portrait of William Shakespeare but dissatisfied, abandoned the painting. Six years later on a whim, and not commissioned to do so, he picked up that particular unfinished canvas and painted over the Bard, creating an exquisite portrait of Fischer the musician. This full-length portrait, much admired at the time it was first exhibited in the artist's showroom (at the house where I am writing this account) and later when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London, is currently considered to be one of Gainsborough's finest full-length studies of a male. It is now in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen where, if you are lucky enough to stand in front of it, you might think about the painting of Shakespeare that lies beneath.

P 173-4

18th C

When James Boswell, newly married, was accosted by pretty women in The Strand in London he indulged hmself to the point of paying to "interview" several in order to satisfy his curiosity, as he put it, while managing technically to remain faithful to his young wife.

Some years after her father's death, his daughter Margaret admitted that her father often "exceeded the bounds of temperance" a habit which badly affected his health, sometimes to the point where he was unable to work for a week afterwards. He readily admitted to a friend that he led a dissolute life.

According to Thickness the painter had a total disregard for money and spent freely, to the utter despair of Margaret who, as we know, kept a close eye on all expenditure, not only regarding the household but whenever possible on her husband's business affairs as well. At times Gainsborough was embarrassed to admit that he could not send his sister, Mary Gibbon, money he owed her because he had received nothing in private, meaning funds unknown to Margaret.

On one occasion Margaret and her daughters travelled by their own coach from London to visit friends in Ipswich, leaving Gainsborough in London. In a letter to Mary Gibbon he made the point that his wife unexpectedly changed her mind about the length of the visit and wrote requiring him to meet them and escort them back to London some days earlier than planned. Gainsborough confessed to his sister that he guessed the real reason for this earlier return was because his wife was unable to trust him when left to live alone in the great city with all its temptations.

P. 172

21st C

I hate cakes of soap on the hand-basin which begin to show their age by means of nasty black lines leading to horrible cracks. So I started buying quite expensive and well-known brands of liquid hand-wash in bottles furnished with neat little pumps to work them. Now I find to my horror that those pretty bottles (usually plastic) dribble their contents onto the hand-basin and start eating through the porcelain, leaving an obvious mark which feels rough to the touch. If the liquid can do that to a hand-basin, what is it doing to my skin? So I am, like Margaret Gainsborough in the 18th C, now back to using old-fashioned good quality soap in the bathroom. She, of course, didn't have the luxury of the latter.

Pp 169-171

18th C

Margaret Gainsborough managed her husband's accounts assiduously, tried but failed to manage the man himself but, to a degree, controlled his work.

His letters offer plenty of evidence of "old Margaret" urging him back to work to finish this portrait or that. Often he left a painting unfinished for months, even years, to her chagrin. It was she who insisted that Gainsborough remembered to add the packing costs to his bill when sending off a portrait to the sitter, even though he admitted finding the cost (in one case seven shillings) too trivial and embarrassing to mention.

Gainsborough wa always a convivial soul who enjoyed having his friends to stay in the house. Later, when living at 17 The Circus and letting out rooms to lodgers, there was space to accommodate only one couple and their servants at any one time. Margaret knew that any friends staying in the house occupied rooms which would otherwise be let out at top rate for accommoidation at the height of the six month season. She did all she could to discourage her husband from inviting his friends to stay. Travel at the time was difficult, dangerous and tiring and friends tended to remain for a period of weeks if not months after a long journey. This represented a serious loss of income.

In 1774 Gainsborough left 17 The circus to spend an indulgently pleasurable time in London, away from Margaret's watchful eye. With his friend the history and decorative painter, Giovanni Battista Cipriani and his roisterous colleagues, Gainsborough wrote to a friend that he was "enjoying what I like up to the hilt." His comments in earlier correspondence made it clear that those words referred to sexual intercourse with unnamed women assumed to be prostitutes. He indicated that, if it were not for his family, he would love to join these friends more often in pursuit of similar pleasures.

Gainsborough was profligate with his money and it appears that Margaret had every reason to be concerned about the way in which her successful husband conducted not only his appetite for wine and women, but also his well-known generosity in providing hospitality of all kinds for his friends at all levels of society. She might also have worried about contracting sexually transmitted diseases from her husband following his affairs with the women of the night.

Philip Thickness might have encouraged Gainsborough's dalliance by expressing his own belief that opium was a useful treatment to ensure a long life. He advised gentlemen to breath in the breath of virgins to improve their own health, helpfully adding that Bath was the very best place in the country where that particular medium might be found and conveyed by the most beautiful of females.

Pp. 167-8

18th C

The nearest arrangement to divorce available to couples mid 18th C was agreement on Private Articles of Separation, by which the husband was no longer liable for his wife's debts, but neither party was free to remarry, although they could co-habit with other partners.

The safely married Georgian male was in an envious position: he had absolute freedom to behave in any manner he chose, provided it was lawful. Heavy drinking and fornication were accepted as normal behaviour for men like Gainsborough and his circle and their wives could do nothing but accept the situation.

They had, of course, their own ways of dealing with an errant husband. In Margaret's case she, by all contemporary accounts, kept a close eye on her husband's expenditure and earned herself a reputation for being mean and unwelcoming to his friends. Very few of them liked her and even fewer stayed in touch with her after her husband's death. Gainsborough often referred to his wife as "old Margaret" in a rather perjorative manner when writing to his old friend Unwin. She was in her thirties at the time and there is more than a hint in his comments about her to indicate that some of his male friends believed him to be a hen-pecked husband.

In the 187 years from 1670 to 1857 there were only 325 divorces registered in England, all but four of them obtained by men.

Forced marraiges were occasionally wrecked by an unwilling bride. Lady Mary Coke scandalized society by refusing to consummate her marriage and as a result she was kept a virtual prisoner at Holkham Hall in Norfolk for a year before being humiliated by a public annulment.

Pp 164-166

18TH C

Gainsborough was fond of his sister to the point where he shared his secret life with her to some extent. He confided to her some of the problems he faced in his relationships not only with his wife but with his daughters and later his son-in-law. Mrs Gibbon was a staunch supporter of the Methodist Chapel and appears to have lived a rigidly disciplined life, but that did not stop Gainsborough from revealing his sexual exploits to her, or from borrowing money from her so that he might help the women involved on occasion. He freely admitted that he wasted far too much time running after pleasurable pursuits while Margaret nagged him to get back to his easle to earn more money.

He was easily tempted by the pleasures of life, especially when he was away from home. London offered him not only endless delights of the flesh but, in those days of leisurely communication, a certain amount of freedom from restraint in the form of his wife. His letters are often frank and revealing. Writing to a friend shortly after moving to Bath he described how he had been dangerously ill (he was suffering from a venereal disease) but was now on the mend and praised his "Dear Good Wife" who sat up every night to care for him.

Bearing in mind his shameful behaviour in London a few weeks earlier, he wrote that he would never be a good enough soul for his wife, no matter how he might try to mend his wicked ways.

However much Margaret must have loathed his infidelity and the consequences of his cavorting with prostitutes, there was nothing she could do about it. Her own father's sensational divorce had set the gossips' tongues wagging when she was a teenager but divorce was not an option to women in her situation. Georgian men had undisputed control not only of the family's finances, but over the lives of their wives and children as well. If a woman did take the shocking decision to leave her home, she had to kiss goodbye to her children as well as her husband and her home. There was simply no future in life for a married woman who abandoned her family. She was abandoned in turn by society.

Women of high rank suffered the same fate as their more lowly sisters. Margaret Gainsborough must probably knew the aristocratic Grace Dalrymple Eliot because Thomas painted her portrait. He shows her as a tall, slender figure, wearing a striking gold silk gown, her powdered hair dressed in a fshionably towering style. Known as Dally the Tall, she committed a faux pas of a nature her husband could not ignore. He rejected her and threw her out of the house. She had no alternative but to create a career for herself "on the town" in order to survive. In other words, she became a Georgian call girl.

Pp 161-163 8 Feb 2011

18TH C

Mary (known as Molly to her affectionate father) was now nine years old and Margaret (nicknamed Captain by Gainsborough) was eight.

The move from a small country town to the sophisticated and often wanton pleasures of the fashionable spa town of Bath was an exciting adventure for them but possibly a more difficult time for their mother.

Gainsborough finally settled on living in the centre of town in Abbey House, a large, impressive building erected for the 2nd Duke of Kingston and leased from him. The house easily met the artist's needs for work and family. From the moment he signed a seven year lease on the property in June 1760 Gainsborough made a life-long habit of increasing his income by letting out rooms to lodgers. When he first moved into Abbey House he placed Margaret and the girls exactly in the middle of both social and commercial life in Bath, living as they did in the noisy and smoke-filled centre of the town. The handsome building, since demolished, lay between Pump Room and Abbey. It was so close to the King's and Queen's Baths that a public passage-way for bathers was incorporated in the building.

From contemporary accounts it appears that views of the Roman Baths from the windows of adjacent houses were not always suitable for the eyes of the innocent young Gainsborough girls who might have gazed down upon them, as we shall see.

Meanwhile family ties were so strong within the Gainsborough clan at Sudbury that no fewer than ten of Thomas's relatives eventually followed him to live in Bath. His sister Mary Gibbon the milliner was among the first, arriving in 1762 to set up shop in the shadow of the Abbey. Mrs Gibbon soon made a name for herself as a most fashionable shop-keeper dealing in expensive small items such as perfumes and gifts as well as millinery. Later she became known as a leading lodging-house-keeper in the city, or a "lodging-house cat" as her brother Thomas described her.

PP 159-160 3/2/2011

21st C

You never think it will happen to you but today it did. A 999 call and the ambulance outrider was outside the door while my friend and neighbour was still speaking to the operator.

Within minutes I was strapped into a chair, carried downstairs, trundled over the icy pavement to the waiting ambulance, blue lights flashing, lighting up The Circus. How many neighours were watching? Not many I guess, at 6.30 am on a freezing winter morning.

All tests are over now, but an overnight stay in a medical assessment ward is mandatory. In this area of the hospital there is no access to radio or television, no flowers allowed, but patients are permitted to use mobile phones. A few books would be welcome, but I must make do with a magazine from the hospital shop.

There is a screamer in the bed next to mine, a mature Italian woman who fights the staff and screams blue murder whenever a nurse or doctor tries to administer to her. She sounds like a wounded animal in pain, deeply disconcerting to all within earshot.

I wish doctors would return to wearing white coats. They walk the wards in street clothes and consequently bring street germs in with them. Young female doctors are often fashionably dressed, many of them wearing shoulder bags stuffed with pens and notebooks as well as makeup and mobile phones, stethoscopes looped around the neck as a necessary accessory. One, long dark hair flying over her shoulders, wears a course knitted woollen coat, so hairy I swear you can see infectious bugs clinging to the fibres just waiting to fall on to patient's bedcovers.

BUT the care and attention of all staff inv0lved was invariably kind and concerned. I left feeling deeply grateful to the NHS.


21st C
I have been inactive for the past few weeks as a result of a hip replacement procedure followed in turn by the most severe winter weather conditions experienced in Britain for many years. The Circus footpaths are like skating rinks, covered in treacherous black ice, bare of any form of gritting or salting to make them safe for pedestrians.

My only pleasure in being housebound for weeks is a feeling of heartfelt gratitude for being born in the 20th C. I can't help thinking of the cruel pain Margaret Gainsborough and her friends would have had to bear for the rest of their lives should they have suffered from arthritic hips.

A heartbreaking exhibition opened recently in London: a collection of touching memorials to more than 4,000 babies left at the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760. Most of the tiny exhibits take the form of a small swatch of distinctive fabric provided by the grieving mother, a sample taken from her own garments, or cut from the baby's clothing by nurses, for attachment to registration papers which were then bound up in ledgers, remaining in the archives today to form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th C. Many of these colourful scraps of fabric depict sentimental images of hearts, birds, butterflies, flowers or herbs, distinctive little samples most, presumably, taken from the hems or side seams of the mother's skirt.

The painful process of handing over the baby to the hospital was anonymous, a type of adoption in which the institution became in effect the infant's parent, as its former identity was effaced. The mother's name was not recorded, but many left personal messages praying for the child to be well-cared for. Few children were ever reclaimed, but the fabric token and its counterpart could be used to identify the child and its mother should that ever occur. Of the 4000 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed.

So great was the demand for shelter and so limited were the funds available (the Hospital depended solely on charity for its work) that acceptance was limited to babies aged two months or less, and only twenty infants were admitted each month. A woman bringing in her baby had to draw a coloured ball from a bag. The poor mother would pray for a white ball which allowed the child to be admitted. A black ball meant that the child was refused a place. To avoid this painful result some babies were simply abandoned on the steps of the building in the dead of night. About two thirds of the infants given to the Hospital died. Some were admitted in an appalling state of health. In 1759 one was described as being "A meer Skilinton covered with Rags with a hole in the Roofe of the mouth [sic]."

Philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram had been horrified by the sight and numbers of babies being left to die in the streets of London and he determined to set up the Foundling Hospital. Prior to this, parents of poor or illegitimate children who could not afford to feed them, had no choice but to leave them in the care of Parish poorhouses or give them to the workhouse where most would certainly die: they had a mortality rate of over 90 per cent. There were far too many unwanted babies being born in the 18th C. Coram worked hard to establish his institution and called upon all his contacts to help support his charity.

Margaret Gainsborough became familiar with Coram's work when he set up the Foundling Hospital, Britain's original home for abandoned children which became, coincidentally, through Coram's efforts, Lndon's first ever art gallery, opened to the public in 1741.

Thomas Gainsborough donated an unframed painting "The Charterhouse" which, together with works of other major artists of his day, including William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay, were exhibited on its walls. Today, not only are their gifts widely known but, according to the National Gallery, these paintings are renowned for their exquisitely carved wooden frames custom-made by gifted 18th C craftsmen, which form an exceptionally fine collection of the classical Palladian style of framing.

About a third of the tiny babies or Foundlings as they were known, survived. They were sent out to wet nurses to be fostered until the age of about five. The Hospital then took them back and educated them until, at about ten years of age, they were apprenticed in or around London. This was not by any means a fate to be welcomed.

Mid 18th C deserting husbands and fathers were pursued by Parish authorities and, if found, were forced to pay for their bastard children. Normally, an abandoned baby became the responsibility of the Parish in which it was found. Some pregnant women deliberately headed for the wealthiest Parish within reach when birth became imminent, abandoning the baby to the mercy of officials, some of whom were not above physically manhandling a woman in labour back over the Parish boundary to prevent incurring the expense of the newborn child.
When Margaret Gainsborough was living in The Circus in Bath an Act was passed to prevent such appalling behaviour, but it proved difficult to enforce.

Mortality rate among abandoned children was high until Parliament changed the system and Parishes were forced to send the infants out to nurses in the country who were paid to care for them, following the Foundling Hospital's practice. Like those looked after by that institution, Parish children were often bound as apprentices, but at the younger age of seven, all of them becoming little more than slaves to their masters until they reached the age of 24, girls 21, unless they married earlier. These children were treated with little respect. One London Parish advertised children of both sexes as being available for inspection as possible apprentices any morning before 10 am, treating them as objects to be traded. Indeed, Parishes were prepared to pay an indivdual £2 or £3 per head to remove a child from their registers, making little effort to investigate the situation offered by their subsequent masters, living conditions, or the work they were forced to perform.

In one notorious case in 1767 which hit the headlines a few months after the Gainsborough family moved into The Circus, a Parish midwife called Elizabeth Brownrigg and her daughter were found guilty of such horrific cruelty to two of their little girl "apprentices" (one of them originally from The Foundling Hospital) that they were both prounounced guilty and hanged in front of a crowd of onlookers shouting for their blood.