The Circus

The Circus

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.