The Circus

The Circus

PP 309-312

18th C

In Bath the Spring Gardens pleasure grounds were laid out on the opposite side of the River Avon, reached by ferry from South Parade. Taking breakfast there was a popular outing.

One day the Bishop of Peterborough, John Hinchcliffe, who was in town taking the waters, invited the writer Fanny Burney and her friends the Thrales to accompany him by ferry across the river. They did so, walking through meadows tudded with wildflowers to drink tea at the Spring Gardens. Then, as a treat, the Bishop urged them to walk on to Mr Ferry's house where a surprise awaited them. A senior alderman of the City, Mr Ferry's dwelling was, rather unexpectedly, open to the public for a fee and, it transpired, contained some amusing contents. Having inspected the garden the party moved indoors where Mr Ferry himself begged them to be seated. A curtain was drawn back to reveal through a glass a three-dimensional marine view of ships, boats and water. Ferry's house maid, operating the attraction, then caused a trapdoor to open in the floor: a covered table rose magically into view. A second later a life-sized model of an eagle swooped down from the ceiling and with his formidable talons extended, whipped off an ornamental cloth to reveal a feast of cakes, sweets and jellies laid out on the table, ready for the visitors' enjoyment.

This extraordinary house of magic was called Bathwick Villa but its owner, Alderman Ferry, appears to have indulged too far in sleight of hand activities. He was dismissed in 1780 for failing to balance the books of the City's treasury.

Exhibitions and shows of all kinds were hugely popular with the Georgians and they were expensive treats. One amazing exhibition was the talk of London in March 1772, when the Gainsboroughs were living here in The Circus but occasionally visiting London. Cox's Museum in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross, won the approval of Dr Samuel Johnson and on his friend's recommendation James Boswell went to see it for himself. He was deeply impressed by the size of the mechanically driven exhibits, twenty-two of them, some standing sixteen feet tall and all emblazoned with sparkling gems.

One represented an elephant, supporting on a pedestal a carriage drawn by four golden horses, all prancing along in unison. Another carriage was pulled along by white doves flying around a temple made of mother-of-pearl. All kinds of birds and flowes made of gold and silver, amber and lapis lazuli sparkled and moved, the cleverly concealed mechanisms whirred, captivating all who saw them.

This expensive exhibition would have been seen only by the reasonably wealthy. Boswell's entry fee of half a guinea was exactly equal to half his weekly rent for his first floor rooms in central London. Half a guinea was the accepted entry fee for both the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea and the Pantheon in Oxford Street. Both were popular places of public amusement, boasting huge new rotundas, the one in Chelsea measuring 150 feet in diameter which impressed Boswell so much he made a note of its size in his diary on 31st March 1772.

To add to the expense of entry fees to these public pleasure palaces, everyone was scrutinized so closely that both male and female visitors paid every attention to the detail of their appearances, aware that as they paraded among the exhibits everything they wore would be commented upon, every feather and every gold-braided detail stored away for gossip around the gambling tables the following day.

In Bath women of all ages were to be seen at the theatre. Fanny Burney and her friend Mrs Thrale were frequently at a performance, often deciding to go on the spur of the moment, sending out for sedan chairs to take them there and back. The Georgians, both men and women, loved too the excitement of attending the often colourful and dramatic trials held in the local law courts. The trial of Clive of India described elsewhere was the dramatic hit of the year.