Behind the big-banner names that we associate with our city, there are a host of characters from Bath’s past who made their marks in a variety of colourful ways. Historian Catherine Pitt takes a look at four of them…
aka Guinea Pig Jack (1832–1907)
Whether alighting or departing from Bath Spa station in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you couldn’t avoid seeing Dominico Conio, otherwise known as Guinea Pig Jack. A short man in a red coat and French cap, he would patrol Manvers Street with newspapers to sell, and a wire basket slung on his back.
He lived at 84 Avon Street with fellow Italian, Antionio Peirano and his family, until the property was demolished. It is believed he arrived in Bath when he was 16, around 1848, from the Italian town of Chiavari near Genoa. Italy at this time was suffering food shortages and violent unrest and it was rumoured in Bath that Jack had fought under Garibaldi against Austrian troops. Conio was renowned for wearing a scarlet military jacket which may attest to this, or indeed have led to the rumour.
Jack worked as a newspaper vendor for the various publications of the time. He was a hardworking man and at 6am every Saturday he was at Bath Journal’s offices in Kingsmead Square to pick up the papers to sell, returning later in the day to take another large pile.
His sideline is what earned him his nickname. He trained animals to perform, most specifically guinea pigs, as well as white mice. Many Bathonians recalled for decades after his death his cry of “Die for a penny! Die for a penny!”. On offering the said fee they would watch as the guinea pigs would roll on their backs with their legs in the air and play dead. To rouse them Jack would shriek, “Bobby’s coming” (as in police officer) and the pigs would leap up alive again.
This trick didn’t always go smoothly – one journalist witnessed Jack holding down the animals as they refused to “play dead” and then, “failing to alarm the guinea pigs it became a necessity to give the box a violent shake to jerk them to their trotters”.
Jack was so famous in Bath during his lifetime that more than 20,000 postcards of him were sold and he was mentioned each year in the pantomime in a song entitled, The World Turned Upside Down, which had the line, “And Guinea Pig Jack, he played Macbeth, in the world turned upside down”. He was even part of the 1886 Fairland Bazaar at the Assembly Rooms showing off his trained pets in order to raise money for the Royal United Hospital.
A devout Roman Catholic, Jack worshipped at St John’s on Manver’s Street and he ended his days at 6 St John’s Place being cared for by local Catholic priests and a Mrs Wall, who had been a relative of his friend Peirano with whom he had lived.
Guinea Pig Jack died of acute bronchitis at the age of 74 on 31 January 1907. He was buried with his friend Peirano at Perrymead Cemetery.
In the words of a local newspaper, Jack was a character like no other: “One thing’s certain, as fog in November, When his time comes there’ll be many regrets. Each one who knew him will kindly remember Guinea Pig Jack with his paper and pets.”
19th-century firebrand, unknown dates
It is telling that Kate’s true identity, date of birth or death, have never been recorded. A true reflection, perhaps, of the poor in Bath in previous centuries – those who were seen but not heard, ignored and wiped out of history. Kate, however, takes pride of place in a story that went national and was even included in the autobiography of circus entrepreneur, “Lord” George Sanger.
There were areas of Bath in the Victorian era where no self-respecting member of society would tread; areas where even policemen would fear to go. Places such as Walcot Street, Broad Quay and Avon Street, as well as inside the city walls such as the old Guildhall Market and the site of the current Empire Hotel. Here were common lodging houses and dilapidated crowded residences, brothels, slaughterhouses and the detritus of the city.
Accounts indicate that Kate came from Avon Street or Milk Street. She was the leader of a local gang that was viewed as “the most brutish and criminal mob in England”. She was nicknamed “Carroty” because of her flaming red hair, still a sign in Victorian England of a ne’er-do-well woman.
The papers portray Kate as a virago, who feared neither magistrates nor gaol. She wore tattered clothing and was described as being “as strong as a navvy, a big brutal animal,” reflecting the hard life and environment she came from. She was considered the “Mistress of Bull Paunch Alley, Queen of the Slum.”
Annually, in August, Bath would enjoy Lansdown Fair. On the evening of St Lawrence’s Day it was a tradition for the poor of Bath to enjoy a night out at the fair when the entertainment would go on all evening. On 10 August in 1840, the lower classes of Bath – including Carroty Kate and her men – had been enjoying the fair. As dawn approached Kate is said to have been heard crying out the order of “Wreck the Fair!”
“Almost naked and screaming dreadful oaths, she (Carroty Kate) led the attack on the booths, goading her drunken followers to wreck the shows.” This from the account of George Helton, an eyewitness.
Leaving destruction in their wake, Kate and her gang headed back to Bath. Meanwhile the showmen whom they had attacked regrouped. Mounting some of the show horses, the fairground folk set off in hot pursuit capturing Kate and 12 of her followers.
The men were tied up together and taken to a large pond nearby where they were dragged through the water repeatedly until they were cold, wet, and gasping. They were then horsewhipped before being released.
Kate had something different in store. She was tied up separately and taken before the showmen to pay for her crimes. Stripped to her waist she was tied facedown to a trestle table and two of the showmen’s wives “administered a thrashing of a lifetime” with penny canes from the fair.
A local paper records an incident in 1832, a few years earlier, describing “a gang of the most desperate and inhuman monsters committed outrages that would have disgraced a nation!” Being similar in character, perhaps this was also Carroty Kate and her gang. Either way, she goes down in Bath’s history as a reminder of a hidden side of Bath and the ordinary folk who made up the Victorian city at that time.
“Kate wore tattered clothing and was described as being ‘as strong as a navvy, a big, brutal animal'”
AMABEL EDMUNDA WELLESLEY-COLLEY (1907–1987)
Amabel Wellesley-Colley was a strong woman at the other end of the social spectrum. Her actions sent shockwaves through Bath – in what was considered a vandalisation of the nationally important Royal Crescent, Amabel had simply painted her front door.
It’s clear that painting your door shouldn’t illicit as strong a reaction as that induced by Miss Wellesley-Colley’s actions in 1971. However, she had chosen a jolly shade of primrose yellow rather than the regulation white, as other doors in the crescent. Her window shutters were also painted to complement the door in a shade of daffodil.
Amabel defended her choice, claiming that it was her property and she could do as she wished. She also maintained that as a relation of the Duke of Wellington, she was upholding the tradition of choosing a colour that was her great-grandfather’s favourite.
She also maintained that the window shutters, also yellow, had to be kept closed to protect her antiques and furnishings. Bath Planning Department and Bath Preservation Trust thought differently and ordered her to re-paint or remove the offending colour. They were relying on a 1968 law for listed buildings that stated that property owners could not alter the appearance of the Royal Crescent without permission. Amabel took a different view and retorted that if you don’t have individual doors “you might as well be living in a row of council houses.”
National newspapers soon took notice of this extraordinary case while Amabel took the issue to the highest authorities in the land. She appealed firstly to MP Sir Edward Brown to raise the issue in the House of Commons. She also contacted the Secretary of State for the Environment, Peter Walker. Amabel did, however, stop short of bringing her case to the House of Lords.
After thousands of pounds spent by Miss Wellesley-Colley, and a six-hour long public enquiry (which she attended in a bright yellow suit), the Department of the Environment found in her favour, stating that, a year on, the door had now faded to an innocuous colour.
A few years later in January 1976, Amabel found herself in court again, this time at Bow Street, London. She had been booked under a 1872 ‘walking only’ regulation while cycling on a footpath beside Hyde Park’s Rotten Row. Using her legal knowledge and tenacity she won her case.
And as for the door of Number 22? Miss Wellesley-Colley may be long gone, but the primrose door remains, a tradition now in itself and a tribute to the determination of this one lady of Bath.
CHARLES FABIAN WARE
aka ‘Champagne Charlie’ and ‘Mr Moggy’ (1935–2015)
Charles Ware was one of the more larger-than-life Bath characters in recent living memory. Schooled in quite a liberal environment, Ware studied at the Slade School of Art in London. He soon settled with friends in Islington. Surrounding him were vast numbers of dilapidated Georgian properties, abandoned and ruined after World War II. Ware and his friends began buying the houses for next to nothing, doing them up and selling them on.
In the 1960s Ware moved from London to teach at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. With his self-taught skill for restoring Georgian houses and the money he had made, Ware set about the ruins of Bath’s Georgian buildings.
The city in the 1960s was experiencing what was termed the ‘Sack of Bath’ where bomb-damaged properties were demolished rather than being carefully restored. Ware was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the situation, and bought buildings, including the Theatre Royal and the former Cleveland Hotel on Great Pulteney Street.
With long hair and hippy clothes, Ware didn’t quite look like your usual property developer, but he enjoyed his wealth and led a bohemian lifestyle. People today still recall his all-night, all-weekend and even all-week parties. He even set up art and music festivals within the derelict Cleveland Hotel.Ware owned Number 10 Royal Crescent and at one all-night party in 1971 involving 500 people, the vibrations from the people dancing on the first floor caused chunks of the plasterwork ceiling below to collapse. He was suitably nicknamed Champagne Charlie in 1970 by the News of the World.
Although he had some business success restoring buildings and financing bands such as Roxy Music, the property crash of the mid 1970s made Ware bankrupt. He remained unfazed, and was reported to be “cheerfully adjusting his lifestyle.” With a family to support and debts to pay, Ware attended night school and learnt car maintenance while a friend ran his property business on his behalf. In just two years Ware paid off his debts, and opened his own car business, a Morris Minor Centre in a disused railway arch in Bath.
Now nicknamed ‘Mr Moggy’ (Morris Minors were known as Moggies), Ware worked hard to build up his car business. Leyland had stopped production of the vehicle in 1972 and it was difficult to get hold of spares. Ware chose to source them and make them. He would also renovate the cars so that people could continue to run them. In 1991 Ware set up partnership with a Sri Lankan businessman Dhanapala Samarasekara, the ‘Durable Car Company’, which made spares for Morris Minors.
In 1984 Viscount Linley bought a split screen 1954 Morris convertible and Ware delivered it to Kensington Palace in London. The story goes that Princess Diana was also a fan of these cars and just as Ware pulled up, she appeared and leapt barefoot in to the passenger seat uttering the words “what a beautiful car.”
Ware continued to run his business in the city until he retired in 2009. The Morris Minor Centre has now relocated to Bristol.