Jessica Hope discovers the stories of some of the Royal Crescent’s most fascinating residents in celebration of the 250th anniversary of its construction
With its 114 Ionic columns, honey-coloured stone and perfect curved symmetry, the Royal Crescent is a prime example of 18th century Georgian architecture at its most majestic.
In May 2017 Bath is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the first stone of this classical building being laid. Between 1767 and 1775, architect John Wood the Younger designed and oversaw the construction of this magnificent row of buildings.
Wood employed various builders to erect each of the 30 houses, and while he was incredibly particular about the dimensions and design of the front of the building, he allowed the builders the freedom to produce the back and the interiors in whatever style they liked – this is why if you look at the Royal Crescent from behind, the depth of the buildings differ and the windows are not all aligned.
On completion, the Royal Crescent became one of the most sought after addresses in the city. With the Assembly Rooms and the thermal waters open to the public, by the late 18th century Bath had become a centre for the leisured classes to take the waters, socialise, gamble and scout the marriage market. And many people used Bath’s open spaces, such as the Royal Crescent and Queen Square, to promenade, meet their friends and gossip.
To mark the 250th anniversary, we have explored the lives of some of the colourful characters and notable names who were once residents of the Royal Crescent during its social heyday . . .
Wealthy hostess and socialite Elizabeth Montagu moved into No 16 Royal Crescent in 1779. She was well known in intellectual circles in London, mixing with the likes of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and Horace Walpole, and became noted for establishing the Bluestockings Society which hosted informal meetings for women to discuss academic topics such as literature and art.
Elizabeth wanted to create a space where women could freely discuss and learn about such subjects in an educational, yet relaxed setting. These were meetings for conversation and intellect, not alcohol and gambling as found in other societies or drinking houses around Bath, and they fundamentally gave women an active voice. Many prominent names of the time visited Elizabeth’s meetings, including social reformer and philanthropist Hannah More who attended while living on Great Pulteney Street.
While Elizabeth certainly played an important part in promoting women’s education at the time, she also very much enjoyed living in the Royal Crescent and made the most of her time there. She once commented: “The beautiful situation of the Crescent cannot be understood by any comparison with anything in any town whatsoever.”
The Bath Chronicle noted the arrival of lady-in-waiting and close confidante of Queen Marie Antoinette, Princess Marie Louise of Savoy, to No 1 Royal Crescent with a large party of servants and a personal physician in September 1786. She was recognised for her fair hair and pale complexion, and known for being overtly sensitive, often fainting and suffering from a nervous deposition.
According to William Lowndes, Marie returned to England in 1791 with the mission to persuade the British royal family to help Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette to escape revolutionary France.
Despite her efforts to help the French royals, Marie later became one of around 1,400 prisoners, aristocrats, politicians and priests who were beaten and murdered by revolutionaries during what came to be known as the September Massacres of 1792 at the height of the French Revolution.
‘Here rest the remains of Jean Baptiste du Barre. Obiit 18th November, 1778’ – This brief inscription adorns a tombstone in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Bathampton. Passersby probably wouldn’t take much notice of the understated grave and never learn about the life of Jean Baptiste or discover why this Frenchman ended up being buried in a quiet corner near Bath.
Jean Baptiste, brother-in-law of Madame Du Barre, mistress of Louis VX, visited Bath in the summer of 1778 with wife, sister and friend Captain Rice, an Irish Jacobite. Taking up residence in No 8 Royal Crescent, they took full advantage of the gambling culture that was prominent in Bath at the time by hosting plenty of extravagant parties. While his wife and sister would ply their guests with refreshments, music and conversation, Jean Baptiste and Rice would tempt wealthy visitors into card games for huge stakes, pocketing a great deal of money in the process.
One evening in November 1778, Jean Baptiste and Rice had an almighty quarrel over splitting the £600 winnings from a game against Colonel Champion, the resident of No 29 Royal Crescent.
The two men became so enraged that this led to a duel, and the men quickly made their way to Claverton Down. Jean Baptiste shot first, injuring Rice in the thigh. Rice’s aim was better however, his shot hitting his friend in the chest, resulting in almost instant death.
While Jean Baptiste had a quick burial in the Bathampton churchyard, Rice was tried at Taunton courts for the death of his friend, before being acquitted and moving to Spain.
Sir Isaac Pitman, known for establishing the shorthand system still used by many writers and journalists, moved to No 12 Royal Crescent in 1889 at the age of 76, before moving up the road to No 17 in 1896 – a memorial plaque dedicated to him can be found outside this address. Earlier in his life, Pitman gained an attachment to Bath, describing it in 1839 as “unquestionably the most beautiful” city in the country.
Known by his contemporaries for his profound dedication to his work, a newspaper described Pitman in the last months of his life: “At 84 he was still working hard at his desk at 6.30 every morning, summer and winter.”
The day before he died, Pitman wrote a note to Reverend Gordon Drummond, minister of the New Church, Bath, stating: “To those who ask how Isaac Pitman died, say, peacefully, and with no more concern than in passing from one room to another, to take up some further employment.” Pitman died at No 17 on 22 January 1897.
The Crescent by John Claude Nattes, 1804, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council
One of the biggest scandals associated with the Royal Crescent rocked Georgian Bath so much that it is commemorated with a plaque on the outside of No 11. One evening in March 1772, the renowned soprano Elizabeth Linley crept out of her home on the Crescent and into a carriage headed for London.
Elizabeth had become tired of her numerous suitors pestering her in the hope she would agree to marry them. And so she decided to make an escape to a French convent with the help of her family friend, Richard Sheridan. Upon their journey abroad, Sheridan confessed his love for Eliza and he persuaded her to elope with him to Calais where they married in secret.
After Eliza’s father discovered her whereabouts, he quickly travelled to France to bring her back to Bath. One of Eliza’s bereft suitors, Captain Mathews, challenged Sheridan to a duel on his return in London, which Sheridan won.
With both Eliza and Sheridan being underage, Sheridan continued to petition Eliza’s father, asking him for permission to marry her. Despite losing the duel, Captain Mathews challenged Sheridan once again. This time Sheridan lost and was injured, and reports of the duel travelled across the country, sparking the spread of gossip.
Eliza and Sheridan finally married in 1773 after Sheridan came of age and Eliza threatened her family that she would rather take her life than live without him. While Eliza stopped public performances, Sheridan went on to become a successful playwright, penning the likes of The Rivals (1775) and School for Scandal (1777).
Unfortunately this young couple’s story didn’t have happy ending. Sheridan was unfaithful to his wife on numerous occasions, and Eliza gave birth to a daughter as a result of an affair. Eliza suffered from numerous illnesses throughout her life and died at just 38 from tuberculosis.
Nicknamed Dr Viper by contemporaries, Philip Thicknesse was known for his outspoken nature and offensive attacks on people throughout Bath. While in residence of No 28 Royal Crescent, Thicknesse boasted that it was he that had persuaded acclaimed artist Thomas Gainsborough to come to Bath and make his fortune painting Bath’s most prominent families, including Thicknesse’s third wife, Ann Ford.
However, their friendship soon turned sour, supposedly when Gainsborough never completed a painting of Thicknesse, which propelled him into an abusive attack towards the artist, berating him in public at any opportunity and slandering his work. Unlucky for Thicknesse, it doesn’t seem his quarrelsome comments did Gainsborough’s reputation much damage as he went on to become one of the most celebrated portraitists of the late 18th century.
Independent MP and politician William Wilberforce stayed at No 2 Royal Crescent while Parliament was in recess in 1798, soon after his bill for the abolition of slavery had been defeated for the fourth time.
Wilberforce was familiar with Bath; the previous year he had married Barbara Ann Spooner in St Swithin’s Church, Walcot, after knowing her for a month – the couple were apparently smitten from the offset.
After years of leading the movement to eradicate the slave trade, Wilberforce’s bill finally passed in the House of Commons in 1804 and the House of Lords in 1807. Plaques recording Wilberforce’s visits to Bath can be found outside 36 Great Pulteney Street and 9 North Parade.
George III’s son Frederick came to Bath in 1795 where he presided over the opening of the new Pump Room at the baths. It was during this visit that he also received the Freedom of the City.
Bath seems to have made a lasting impact on the prince, returning to Bath a year later with his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, to stay at No 16 Royal Crescent. Despite taking part in Bath’s prolific gambling scene at the time, the prince’s presence in the city was apparently very well received by society. Hannah More wrote that the prince and his wife were “almost inhabitants, and very sober and proper their behaviour.”
Prior to the prince’s visits to Bath, the Royal Crescent was only referred to as The Crescent. It has been suggested that the term ‘Royal’ was added to the name following the prince’s visits. The Royal Crescent Hotel that presides over numbers 15 – 17 has consequently named a hotel suite after the prince’s associations with Bath.
Events to look out for this summer
To mark the 250th anniversary, the Bath Preservation Trust has planned a series of events and exhibitions for people to get involved with over the coming months . . .
Party in the City, Friday 19 May, 7 – 10pm, No 1 Royal Crescent
Coinciding with Bath Festival’s Party in the City, the front of No 1 Royal Crescent will be illuminated with poetry. There will also be a free performance by poets and musicians in the Servants’ Hall.
Foundation Stone Family day, Sunday 21 May, 11am – 3pm, on the Royal Crescent
Witness the procession of the foundation stone as it is paraded up through the city centre from Widcombe at 11am by the Natural Theatre Company, before being laid near to where the building of the Royal Crescent first began. Discover how it was built through live demonstrations, plus Bath Spa University students will be giving walking tours throughout the day. There will also be plenty of family activities happening inside No 1 Royal Crescent.
From Rome to the Royal Crescent, on until 4 June at No 1 Royal Crescent
This exhibition traces the evolution of classical architecture from ancient Rome, up to the modern designs of 18th century British buildings through the beautiful work of model maker Timothy Richards. Visit: no1royalcrescent.org.uk.
The Royal Crescent Deconstructed/Reconstructed, on until 4 June at the Museum of Bath Architecture
In this enlightening installation, visitors can explore the design and craftsmanship of No 1 Royal Crescent through a replica of the building that has been broken into pieces. Included in admission to the museum. Visit: museumofbatharchitecture.org.uk.
A Day in the Life of the Royal Crescent, Saturday 29 July, 11am – 3pm, on the Royal Crescent
Bring along a picnic and join in the events designed for the whole family to enjoy on the Royal Crescent – plus there won’t be any cars around. The Natural Theatre Company will be retelling the stories of previous residents and live music will take place throughout the day. Free for all.