The Circus

The Circus

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.