The Circus

The Circus

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.