The Circus

The Circus

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.