Bath Exposed! Essays on the Social History of Bath 1775-1945


A browse amongst the souvenir shops of the City of Bath will reveal many a book on the history of Bath from brief accounts of aristocratic bathing habits to children's cut-out books of Roman soldiers. Currently eighteenth century Bath seems to be represented by Jane Austen, who lived there for a short unhappy period, and books relating to her from her novels to a tea-time recipe book, seem to fill the shelves. (If you want to find out what she really thought about Bath and its fashionable Society read Persuasion!). However, returning for a brief visit to the city where I was born and spent much of my childhood I found that I needed to visit a real bookshop to find a real history book. Bath Exposed, a collection of essays based on post graduate studies in local and regional history at Bath Spa University, more than satisfied my desire to find a book about the city based on reality rather than a picturesque vision of the past.

Graham Davis is Professor of History at Bath Spa University and was previously the Course Director of the MA in Local and Regional Studies. I presume that the contributors to the collection have all been students of his at one stage or another. The theme of each of the nine essays relate to an item of Bath's hidden history and cover subjects as diverse as an early nineteenth century charity for distressed gentlewomen to World War II Civil Defence via public health scandals and anti prostitution campaigns. What the subjects have in common is an element of secrecy. For at least the last 250 to 300 years Bath has been a fashionable and popular resort attracting both the rich and famous, particularly those who wished to improve their health by taking the waters. The commerce and prosperity of the City was not enhanced by news of the seamier side of Bath life. As Professor Davis says in his introduction 'Negative publicity was, then as now, thought to have a disastrous effect on the business or vested interests in Bath- hence the propensity for concealment and denial, rather than public exposure and accountability'.

Professors Davis's own essay 'Vice and Vigilance in Victorian Bath' dealing with prostitution and lodging houses places local research within a wider context. As Henry Mayhew noted in London, low paid and insecure work encouraged girls to take up prostitution. Bath attracted both visitors and poor girls seeking work and thus in Victorian Bath there was a 'significant service industry' helped by publicans and brothel-house keepers. Watch Committee reports, as elsewhere, show that local Policemen were often involved in the trade. Despite the high moral standards set by the Victorian middle-class, politics often prevented the closure of unsavoury premises; although their were campaigns by some clergy the Liberal City Council were not prepared to take action which might be contrary to the interests of some of their supporters who owned property in the most notorious district.

I found the opening essay by Jan Chivers on Infanticide, based on Coroners Records, particularly appropriate to the secrecy theme. She points out that Bath's vast army of female servants were often in a vulnerable position, far from family and friends. An unwanted pregnancy or delivery was something to be concealed or denied as loss of respectability and employment could lead to starvation. She gives three graphic examples, taken from evidence at inquests, which demonstrate how single women, living in crowded accommodation with no privacy, might be driven to infanticide. Jan Chivers provides no more information on these cases than that given in the archives but I found it impossible to read the details without feeling their desperation and powerlessness. But this is not just an account of the horrors of female poverty in 'the olden days'. This micro study is discussed in a wider context, both social and legal. For example, the provision or lack of childbed linen played a part in the determination of guilt. If a woman planned to raise her child she would prepare or borrow baby clothes or at least cloth for swaddling. Conversely the lack of linen, in conjunction with the death of the infant and concealment of confinement would suggest to the Coroner that infanticide might have taken place.

An 1856 incident involving corruption at the Bath Goal, researched by Trish Curr would be of interest to any OU student who studied the 'Crime and Punishment' section of the History M.A. She concludes that although in theory by this time the Home Secretary had power over local prisons there was as yet no really effective form of prison inspection.

Elizabeth White's essay on Partis College is an interesting history of a charitable organisation set up to provide asylum for women from a different social background. It was founded in 1826 to provide housing for distressed gentlewomen and her researches into the background of some of the applicants and the rules set by its founder and her successors are helpful evidence for anyone interested in Victorian middle-class attitudes.

Several of the contributors bring their past professional experience to bear on their historical research. This is particularly effective in the two essays relating to Public health. Retired consultant Clive Charlton's study of nineteenth century cholera embraces the unsanitary living conditions of the poor as well as the efforts of the authorities, mindful of powerful property and commercial interests, to conceal the outbreaks from potential visitors. Ironically, in a city which drew its visitors to take the healing powers of its hot springs, the causes were the lack of water and sanitation amongst the poor who served the visitors. However, the late Bob Millard, previously an employee with Wessex Water recalls an alarming outbreak of typhoid in an affluent area of the City as late as the 1920s. His account of the mismanagement of the outbreak by the authorities throws an interesting light on the workings of local government in this period as does George Scott's essay on the incompetent organisation of civil defence in World War II.

Try hard as I might I am afraid that I found it difficult to engage with John Penny's detailed account of 1942 German air operations: 'Nazi Eagles over Bath'. This is no fault of his. His research of the actual German air operations including the planes used and the names of the pilots is important stuff as is the account of the lack of any City Defence. I can verify that bombing had a devastating effect on Bath citizens just as it had in Coventry, Plymouth, Bristol, London and Liverpool. But although I was reared on tales of sessions in the Bomb Shelters of Oldfield Park and the night that the gasometer was destroyed and 400 people lost their lives I found it almost impossible to link the details of the planning and operations with their effects. But maybe this is the point. The perpetrators of aerial bombardment do not see the human effect of their actions. No doubt military buffs would disagree with me and in any case John Penny needs no support from me. He is a well-known Bristol historian who has written, researched and broadcast on various aspects of local history for the last 30 years.

No doubt the Theatre Royal, Bath continues to attract visitors to the City. Mac Hopkins-Clarke's interesting account of the development and management of the New Theatre Royal in the nineteenth century gives an insight into social changes in the City as well as the trials and tribulations of theatrical managers. The essay is illustrated with copies of several colourful theatrical billboards.

I obviously found this book absorbing because of my local connections but I did feel that any historian with an interest in city life would find it a good read. The findings could contribute to research by any of us into any city. There are a few illustrations, mainly relating to the essays on twentieth century events (Crumbs! Is that my Grandma emerging from the ruins on the front cover?) and the essays are clearly referenced. Professor Davis is the author of other work on the City of Bath, including Bath: a New History (1996) co-authored with Penny Bonsall and several of the contributors to this book have obviously drawn on this. It was refreshing to see successful students given the opportunity of publishing some of their work with the encouragement of their Professor and under the auspices of their University. This Society was created to encourage the academic study of history and does so by publishing the results of members' research in Open History. Satisfying though it can be to know that ones work is read by other members it is no substitute for wider publication.

Bath's historical importance is well known. Evidence of its popularity amongst the rich and important abounds through the host of plaques on the walls of its elegant Abbey and eighteenth century houses. But beneath the City's reputation for health and fashion there lurked dark secrets. An army of poor supported the world of Beau Nash and Victorian invalids and the City Fathers were often far from efficient. As the descendant of several servants, a master carpenter, a dressmaker and a wheelchair man, all working in Victorian Bath, I welcome this collection.

Rosemary Conely
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2014