When Queen Anne visited Bath in 1703 to take the waters for her health, as described by Oliver Goldsmith in 1762, she was entertained ‘with a fiddle and a hautboy, and with country dances on the bowling-green. The lodgings were dingy and expensive, the pump-house had no director.’ Even the properties of the water were under challenge by a choleric physician who threatened to ‘throw a toad into King Bladud’s Well,‘ by writing a pamphlet against the medicinal merits of the waters.
At the time Queen Anne visited Bath, London was the only real social centre in England and peers thronged there in the winter to socialize, see and be seen.
‘Beau’ Nash was among those who enjoyed the entertainments of London ‘this great mart of every folly’.
The son of a gentleman, ‘Beau’ Nash had been thrown out of Oxford College for intrigue with woman, tried an army life and decided it was not for him and then became a gamester.
Men who lived on their income from gambling ‘sharpers’ flocked to London ‘from every country daily’ to take advantage of the wealthy peerage in the winter season, but in the summer they left England for the spa towns of the continent to fleece the wealthy there while English society dispersed in the country.
Nash was a charmer, he certainly knew how to win friends and influence people in London, as a young man he had already risen to a point where he once acted master of ceremonies to entertain King William and did it so successfully the King offered him a knighthood, which Nash rejected but hinted he’d accept if the title came with a fortune.
The king did not take the hint.
But obviously a man with an eye for opportunity, following Queen Anne’s visit to Bath, ‘Beau’ Nash headed there.
As Goldsmith puts it, society in England lacked ‘someplace where they might each have each other’s company, and win each other’s money as they had done during the winter in town.’
At the time of Queen Anne’s visit, Bath was only attended by people seeking cures for ill-health, however once Queen Anne had attended a small social scene began to develop.
A Captain Webster, another gamester, had begun establishing balls in the town hall asking half-a-guinea from those who attended, but the entertainments and its society were considered crude. Smoking was permitted in the rooms, gentlemen and ladies appeared at entertainments in informal dress, the lodgings were paltry and plain; Goldsmith comments on beer and feet stained floorboards. ‘The city in itself was mean and contemptible’.
It was now Nash saw the opportunity of establishing a spa town like those of Aix and the Hague, in Bath. ‘He humorously assured the people, that if they would give him leave, he would charm away the poison of the Doctor’s toad, as they usually charmed the venom of the Tarantula, by music. He therefore was immediately empowered to set up the force of a band of music, against the poison of the Doctor’s reptile.’
Initially he worked alongside Captain Webster, but when Webster was killed in a duel Nash became the Master of Ceremonies. Like a circus ring leader he orchestrated life there; a king ruling over his kingdom. And thus the life we know Bath most for began.
His entertainments started with assemblies in the town hall, and a six piece orchestra in the pump room and led on to a whole new rule of life for people in Bath. Days and evenings were mapped out as Nash wished them. He put these rules up in the pump room;
RULES to be observed at BATH.
1. THAT a visit of ceremony at first coming and another at going away, are all that
are expected or desired, by ladies of quality and fashion,– except impertinents.
2. That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen coming to wait on
them home, to prevent disturbance and inconveniencies to themselves and others
3. That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns
and caps, show breeding and respect.
4. That no person take it ill that any one goes to another’s play, or breakfast, and not
theirs,– except captious by nature.
5. That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls, to any but gentlewomen.– N.B.
Unless he has none of his acquaintance.
6. That gentlemen crowding before the ladies at the ball, show ill manners, and that
none do so for the future,– except such as respect nobody but themselves.
7. That no gentleman or lady takes it ill that another dances before them;– except
such as have no pretence to dance at all.
8. That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at the ball, as
being past or not come to perfection.
9. That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them. N.B. This does
not extend to the Have-at-alls.
10. That all whisperers of lies and scandal, be taken for their authors.
11. That all repeaters of such lies, and scandal, be shunned by all company,– except
such as have been guilty of the same crime.
N.B. Several men of no character, old women and young ones, of questioned
reputation, are great authors of lies in these places, being of the sect of levellers.
Goldsmith says ‘These laws were written by Mr Nash himself, and, by the manner in which they are drawn up, he undoubtedly designed them for wit. The reader, however, it is feared, will think then dull. Poor Nash was not born a writer, for whatever humour he might have in conversation, he used to call a pen his torpedo, whenever he grasped it, it numbed all his faculties.’
By 1706 new terraces of houses had been built and pavements laid for promenading, and the streets had been paved and lit, then as people were still ‘obliged to assemble in a booth to drink tea and chocolate, or to game’ Nash directed the erection of an Assembly-house and added gardens ‘for people of rank and fashion to walk in’.
Nash ruled this life so thoroughly and so charmingly he even managed to order the highest ranking peers. Goldsmith describes a number of events where his rules were challenged and he still won out. ‘Even the royal family themselves had not influence enough to make him deviate from any of these rules. The princesss Amelia once applying to him for one dance more, after he had given the signal to withdraw, he assured her royal highness, that the established rules of Bath resembled the laws of Lycurgus, which would admit of no alteration, without an utter subversion of all his authority.’
Likewise ‘He had the strongest aversion to a white apron, (a garment ladies wore over their dresses) and absolutely excluded all who ventured to come to the assembly dressed in that manner. I have known him on a ball night strip even the duchess of Q—, and throw her apron at one of the hinder benches among the ladies’ women; observing, that none but Abigails appeared in white aprons. This from another would be insult, in him it was considered as a just reprimand, and the good natured duchess acquiesced in his censure, and with great good sense, and good humour, begged his Majesty’s pardon.’
He equally told men what they may and may not do, banning smoking in rooms, and the wearing of swords which frequently tore ladies clothing. And banning duels; if he caught anyone making a challenge he would have them arrested.
His biggest battle of note though was to get gentlemen to cease wearing their boots to balls.
Country squires denied his authority, but in the end ridicule won out. He wrote a song;
FRONTINELLA’S invitation to the Assembly.
Come, one and all, to Hoyden Hall,
For there’s the assembly this night,
None but prude fools,
Mind manners and rules,
We Hoydens do decency slight.
Come Trollops and Slatterns,
Cocked hats and white aprons,
This best our modesty suits,
For why should not we,
In dress be as free,
As Hogs-Norton squires in boots?
Nobility in Bath relished this jest and it humiliated boot wearers, but Nash did not stop there, he continued his advantage by setting up a puppet-show, ‘in which Punch came in booted and spurred, in the character of a country squire. He was introduced as courting his mistress, and having obtained her consent to comply with his wishes, upon going to bed, he is desired to pull off his boots. My boots, replies Punch, why, madam, you may as well bid me pull off my legs, I never go without boots, I never ride, I never dance without them, and this piece of politeness is quite the thing at Bath. We always dance at our town in boots, and the ladies often move minuets in riding-hoods. Thus he goes on, till his mistress, grown impatient, kicks him off the stage. From that time few ventured to appear at the assemblies in Bath in a riding-dress; and whenever any gentleman, through ignorance, or haste, appeared in the rooms in boots, Nash would make up to him, and, bowing in an arch manner, would tell him, that he had forgot his horse. Thus he was at last completely victorious.’
Next week I’ll look at a day in the life of 18th Century Bath during ‘Beau’ Nash’s reign.
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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