The Circus

The Circus

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.