The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 262-269

18th C

Children of the wealthy in Bath were not the only girls offered education in mid 18th C. A charitable school for the poor was established at Batheaston, just outside the town, and an account of it published as a novel in 1763, the year before Molly and Margaret left to board in London.

Two women, Lady Barbara Montague and her friend, Sarah Scott, founded the charity which aimed to educate young females to take positions as housekeepers, nursemaids or governesses. Families like Gainsborough's wealthy neighbours in The Circus and his friends living in nearby country mansions proved eager to employ these girls because they had been thoroughly taught their different trades and, perhaps more importantly, they were actively encouraged to recognize themselves as social inferiors, destined to serve their superiors, usually for life. It was extremely difficult for 18th C women in service to escape the confines which bound them.

Other forms of education existed and were followed by individuals. A form of shorthand called "Rich's and Weston's Shorthand was in use by at least one travelling scribe as early as 1755. He used this system to take notes from his illiterate customers at fairs and markets before composing letters and documents on their behalf.

In 1837 Isaac Pitman invented a new form of shorthand (or phonography) which was taught in the institution he set up in Bath for that purpose. His system became world-famous and won him a knighthood in 1894. This business lingered on. When I was given my first computer not so many years ago I learned how to use it by enrolling in Pitman's Computer Course for Beginners in Bath.

Susan Sibbald nee Mein was one of ten children. Desperately unhappy at home in the presence of an unusually frigid mother who showed her no affection, Susan begged to be sent to boarding school in Bath. Belvedere House owned and run by the three Lee sisters was highly recommended to her father who agreed to take his daughter to view the school.

Many long years later, at the age of seventy, Susan recorded her personal recollection of her colourful life, including a long description of her school days in Bath. The resulting manuscript was published in 1926, edited by her grandson, and is drawn on here to illustrate the life the Gainsborough girls probably experienced as boarders at a similar institution in London.

Travelling by horse and carriage from Devonport, Susan Mein and her father, a doctor occupying a senior post in the Navy, stayed overnight at the popular White Hart Inn in Bath before being taken next morning by sedan chairs up the steep hill above the town to view the school. Susan's immediate impression was unfavourable. Then fourteen years old she thought the thick venetian blinds or "jalousies" covering all the windows facing the street made the building look more like the severe facade of a nunnery than a girls'school. She was reprimanded rather sharply by a friend of the family who warned her not to judge a book by its cover. (Mrs Gambier, who accompanied them, had agreed to act as Susan's mentor and chaperone while she remained in Bath). The girl soon discovered that the windows in all the rooms where the pupils studied and lived, far from being dark and miserable, enjoyed splendid, wide-ranging views over the town below.

Belvedere House accommodated fifty-two boarders and two parlour boarders, older girls who were chaperoned by the Misses Lee and who enjoyed the social round in Bath after school hours. Twenty day girls also attended the school. They were all taught by three teachers and two governesses under the direction of all three Lee sisters. The school was so popular there was always a waiting list for places. A boarder was permitted visits to specified houses of friends or relatives living in the town on Friday or Sunday, and also on the pupil's own birthday.

The school-room itself was a vast space, lit by an enormous venetian window and heated by a fireplace at each end. Each of the seventy-two pupils of all ages sat in orderly rows on forms with four teachers or governesses sitting at tables facing them. The girls' desks, presumably of a small folding design, were hung on the wall when not in use.

Susan, admitting to feeling quite nervous, joined the class just before mid-day twenty four hours after arriving to take up residence. On the stroke of noon the Misses Lee left the school-room. The girls were instructed to put away their books - everything always had to be placed neatly in its correct place, and woe betide the delinquent who failed to do so. The day girls put on their outer garments and left for home. Susan and the other boarders were told to don their "terrace" bonnets to protect their complexions before going out to enjoy the fresh air on the stone-flagged terrace running across the width of the rear of the the mansion. Iron railings guarded steps leading down to the garden below which was strictly out of bounds. The girls had to be content with walking about the terrace and enjoying the extensive panoramic view of Bath that lay before them.

Pupils were aged from eight years upwards, the two parlour boarders being the oldest at nineteen. Susan described them as a merry lot, the younger girls playing games she described as "Threading the Needle," "French and English," "Fox and Geese," while others danced round and round the terrace, performing Sottish dance steps with skipping ropes, all joining in to Susan's delight.

She teemed up with another new girl, Sophy Templer, and arm in arm they walked up and down, not joining in, but observingf the others (which was apparently the expected behaviour of new girls) for an hour before the bell rang.

Removing their bonnets the girls crowded into the dining room where they were seated accoding to age at three long wooden tables. In the middle of the room stood a round table bearing dishes of joints of hot meat. Three governesses seated there carved for everyone, including the Misses Lee and all teachers and pupils. Two servants ran about serving the meal. If Susan wanted a second helping she was told she had to lean forward and put her right elbow on the table. If only a little meat and more vegetables were wanted, she must extend her hand with thumb touching forefinger. By this method the noise of unnecessary speaking was kept to a minimum.