The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 282-293

18th C
Schoolgirls boarding at Belvedere House who had permission to make visits to private houses on Sundays had their names recorded on a slate the previous evening. Susan Mein's first outing was to 12 Brock Street, the home of Mrs Gambier, widow of a high-ranking naval officer, friend of her father and Susan's guardian in Bath.

On Sunday morning the girls were instructed to learn their prayers and catechism before leaving for church, the Misses Lee heading the procession heading down Lansdown hill, all the girls dressed in white frocks and carrying fans and prayer books. Teachers brought up the rear. The fans were used to cover the girls' faces when praying as the position of their particular section of seating made kneeling impossible.

After the service those lucky individuals permitted visits were collected by liveried servants. Susan admitted to being thrilled to see that Thomas, Mrs Gambier's footman, was the grandest of them all. He wore a cockade in his hat, carried a tall cane, and saluted Miss Lee before calling loudly for 'Miss Mein!' Her name was repeated until Susan reached Miss Lee's side when the man was instructed to take her to Mrs Gambier's house by the most direct route. He was reminded firmly of the hour she must return to school. Off went Susan with the smartly dressed footman walking close behind her.

After dinner Mrs Gambier took Susan to call on friends, the footman accompanying them. When they reached the host's house, the footman was required to knock at the door, then wait outside. Often there would be three or four men waiting for their mistresses to reappear, all wearing identifying liveries so that if a caller wanted to avoid an enemy currently visiting the house, she could check the livery and hurry by.

Bath was held in high esteem by the most fashionable people in the country at this time, when royalty and many aristocrats were among those taking the waters and provision of elaborate and expensive livery was highly competitive.

On this first visit to 12 Brock Street Thomas returned Susan to the school at the appointed hour, carrying on her behalf a gift of a cake which was stored in a large padlocked tin box with similar goodies brought back to the school by other pupils and not returned to them until the following afternoon, to be shared with friends.

On her birthday visit to Mrs Gambier her hostess invited Susan beforehand to choose her own menu for a celebratory dinner at the house. She chose her favourite meal of roast goose followed by damson pudding. The meal was served as requested but Susan never ordered the same again: her guardian made it quite clear that roast goose was less than delicate, a most unsuitable choice for a maiden.

The school's major event was the annual ball held each year in the Assembly Rooms around the corner from Gainsborough's House in The Circus. The girls all wore white muslin rocks with long, wide primrose coloured sashes and wreaths of primroses in their hair.

The day before the ball the most fashionable hair-dresser in Bath, Mr Pope and his two assistants, called to dress the girls' hair in the latest style. Overnight curl papers were used to produce a mass of curls all over the head with a row of kiss-curls surrounding the face, a painful process which produced a sleepless night for every one of the girls old enough to participate because of the tight curl papers they wore to bed, looking, in Susan's opinion, like porcupines.

These ugly painful affairs had to be endured until after dinner on the day of the ball when the hairdressers returned to uncurl and style each head, adding a chaplet of primroses only after the girls were fully dressed.

To Susan's dismay she was singled out from the rest by being the only pupil to wear two rows of pearls (sent in by Mrs Gambier) crowning her curls instead of flowers. She was devastated, but had to submit to the indignity of being marked out as diffferent from her friends.

Even by cramming two slender girls into each sedan chair, transporting all of them to the Assembly Rooms was a long process but eventually they entered the splendid rooms in procession and there beneath the famous sparkling candelit chandeliers the first person they saw was the Prince of Wales wearing a fabulous diamond decoration so often described by those who saw it. The Prince was dressed in a rich green coat with a white waistcoat. His hair was powdered white, frizzed out and worn in a queue but, Susan noted, not curled.

The girls performed several minuets before joining their families. Before leaving, they were assembled to make a"Bath Curtsey" to the Prince, and then retired to take tea in a private room befoe being sent back to school as fast as the sedan chairmen could haul them up the hill.

Belvedere House was highly regarded and according to Susan Mein the girls under the supervision of the popular Misses Lee were happy there. They were known locally as The Leevites. Physical punishment of any kind was never permitted and the Misses Lee were generous in providing treats.

Each girl was permitted sixpence a week pocket money, using some of it to send out for fruit and cakes twice a week. A mature pear tree in the garden provided a seasonal supply of the fruit free of charge to pupils and two or three times each half year girls who could afford to do so were actively encouraged by the senior Miss Lee to treat themselves to a feast. The school provided tea and sugar (expensive items), the pupils bought in buns and plum cakes and everyone (even, as Susan pointedly noted, those girls too mean to contribute) devoured everything on offer.

Susan's beloved and attentive father often called in to see her when on his way to and from London, always staying overnight at The White Hart Inn (which is still there in Widcombe, now a popular gastropub). Susan was invited to dine with her father after Billy the Boots from the Inn had been sent across town with a note to Miss Lee. A sedan chair was hired to carry Susan down the hill later that day to meet her father. (No telephones then meant communication even from one part of town to another took considerable time and effort on the part of several people).

Her father spoiled Susan by taking her shopping on each visit and she would return to school laden with gifts, a golden guinea nestling inside her purse.

Susan Sibbold nee Mein remained at Belvedere House for three happy years, leaving when she turned seventeen to live with her father in London. He was then employed by the Navy, serving on the "Sick and Wounded Board." His pecular thin, cold-hearted wife refused to live in London, apparently preferring life in Devonport, but Susan's sister Betsey also lived with her father and shared her London adventures.

Susan's last journey from Bath was one she never forgot. Travelling with her father in a carriage drawn by four horses they were delayed by a heavy fall of snow and had to spend an extra night at an inn on the London Road. Dusk fell long before they reached Blackheath, then noted as a particularly dangerous place populated by highwaymen. There were no houses, no lights, just a dismal bleak moor with a gibbet on a rise with two skeletons hanging from it, swaying in the wind. Doctor Mein had taken the precaution of hiding a pair of pistols in the front pocket of the carriage, but both father and daughter admitted to being nervous as they passed through this grim landscape late at night. They cheered up when the carriage rolled eventually into Oxford Street, bright with lamps on both sides and further decorated by chemist shops, all their windows lit from behind with a brilliant display of giant red, blue and green apothecary jars.

Later, Susan married a Colonel Sibbald and they produced a large family of nine sons and two daughters. He died in 1835 while Susan was abroad visiting two of their sons then living in Canada. After receiving this shocking news, Susan decided to spend the rest of her life in that country, dying there in old age in 1866.

Her account of life at school in Bath is valuable and quite rare in its detailed description of life at that time, in all probability giving us an accurate insight into the life of Mary and Margaret Gainsborough at school in London a few years earlier, and made more welcome as there is very little documented evidence directly concerning the Gainsborough girls in their teenage years.

The contrast between the girls' school described above and boys' schools in the 18th C could not have been more marked. Boys were regularly bullied and beaten unmercifully at school. James Boswell, a lawyer, was supporting a schoolmaster in a case brought against him in the House of Lords. Boswell consulted his friend Dr Johnson on his view of the matter, indicating that he thought his client might have been too severe in dealing out punishment to his pupils.

The redoubtable doctor asked if the master had broken any bones. Boswell replied that the man in question had not. Johnson asked if the master had fractured any skulls. On being told he had not done so, he said he blieved the fellow had nothing to worry about, adding that he himself had been beaten unmercifully at his own school, Lichfield, and he had survived.