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Let me entertain you: Bath’s Masters of Ceremonies

Historian Catherine Pitt takes us back in time to the heyday of Bath’s Masters of Ceremonies…

Imagine yourself arriving in Bath 250 years ago, being greeted by the peal of the Bath Abbey bells. At your lodgings you would have been visited by a fine dressed gentleman in a large white fur hat who, upon his assessment of you would lighten your pockets of a ‘subscription fee.’ This fee not only paid for the bells that had greeted you but allowed you to visit the balls, gambling rooms, gardens and libraries; as well as drink and bathe in the waters of the city.

The following day you would head to the Pump Room and there you would enter your name into a vast public register confirming your presence, and your payment. Your entry into the Bath Season had begun . . .

That fine dressed gentleman who welcomed you to Bath was known as the Master of Ceremonies (MC). His job was to be a jack of all trades – organiser, matchmaker, trend-setter, diplomat, and even enforcer.

Bath in the 17th century was a small town with a growing reputation for the curative properties of its mineral waters. As visitor numbers grew, so did the demand for entertainment. A bowling green was sited near what is now known as Orange Grove, and was used for country dances. However this was of little use in inclement weather. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the Duke of Beaufort, visiting the city, took it upon himself to organise small dances for his friends at the Guildhall, but these affairs were very exclusive.

By the 1700s it appears that the organisation of public entertainment in Bath had become the unofficial role of a man called Captain Webster. The entertainment Webster provided was limited but consisted of a series of balls at the Guildhall for half a guinea a head, plus gaming facilities. Webster made his money through the ball entry fees and from the gaming tables; however gambling was to be his downfall, and he was killed in a duel caused by rivalry at the tables.

It was to Webster’s Bath that Beau – real name Richard – Nash made his first visit to the city, hot-footing it from London after an unsuccessful spell in the army. He made friends with Webster and became his unofficial deputy. On Webster’s death in 1704, Nash slipped easily into the gap that Webster had left. With his knowledge of those visiting the city, the acquaintances he had made in London, and his natural charm, Nash was soon to make himself indispensable. He even created a distinctive look of brightly coloured clothes, sash, badge of office and a white fur hat so that he was easily identifiable in crowds.

Legend has it that Nash gained public favour after diffusing a threat made to the city of Bath by Dr Radcliffe, physician to Prince George of Denmark. The doctor had threatened to poison the springs with a toad, but Nash calmed the people’s fears claiming he could neutralise the toad’s poison with music and set about raising money for an orchestra to play at the baths. This was so popular that new visitors flocked to the city.

assembly-roomsThe Assembly Rooms, Bath.

As Bath’s first officially recorded Master of Ceremonies, Nash set about creating more entertainment for visitors.

Nash persuaded Thomas Harrison to build a room for dancing to the east of The Grove, which would specifically be used for public entertainment (Lower Rooms, 1708 – 1820). He cleaned up the streets, improved the roads and lighting, set a regular tariff for lodgings, created the first Pump Room to enable shelter for the drinkers, and proposed a set of Bath Rules which visitors would adhere to, including sections on dress and behaviour. To fund the entertainment provided, Nash proposed visitors would pay subscriptions, collected by people known as Touters and which were recorded in a ledger on public display in the Pump Room.

London was where the rigours of society and social standing were to be observed, but in Bath it was more relaxed. Within his Rules Nash included a section on not excluding or insulting anyone of a differing status to one’s own, allowing merchants’ sons and daughters to rub shoulders with lords and ladies. Bath’s company in the 18th century was made up of “people of every degree, condition and occupation of life, if well dressed and well behaved.”

Nash made it his duty to know all who came to the city to partake in the pleasures he provided. He would personally visit everyone who arrived, which meant that Nash could seamlessly introduce people to each other, as well as play matchmaker.

His reign lasted for 57 years as the undisputed King of Bath, yet Bath was not the only place to have a MC, although it was the first in England to do so. Other spa towns followed suit, and Nash held his position in Bath concurrently with the role of MC in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The differing social seasons between resorts often allowed the MCs such flexibility to have dual positions.

Nash’s role had been self-appointed and self-funded (as Webster’s had been) from the gambling tables. Future MCs of Bath were never to have such freedom. After Nash’s death in 1761 people began to question how he had survived with no visible income. On finding out that money was skimmed from the subscriptions and gambling, subscription holders decided that if the position of MC was to remain it was to be controlled, with a salary taken from the money raised from the benefit balls and the actual job of MC granted via election by the subscribers. Gentlemen who had previously served in the army were preferred as it was believed they had the authority to control the crowds.

By the late 18th century Bath was so fashionable a city and popular that a new Assembly Room, known as the Upper Rooms (1771), was built, near John Wood’s brand new Circus and Royal Crescent. With these competing privately owned rooms it soon made sense to appoint a MC to oversee each building. The position of MC of the Lower Rooms more than often led to election of the Upper Rooms after tenure, as can be seen with James King, Richard Tyson and James Heaviside.

Bath’s most successful Master of Ceremonies Beau Nash, painted by William Hoare.

Among the MCs succeeding Nash was Irish author, Samuel Derrick in 1764. Although he based his look on Nash, donning the familiar white fur hat, and giving William Herschel a place in the Pump Room band, Derrick did not live up to his predecessor’s reputation. “Matters went from bad to worse, until at last, when a certain party was given, a woman of fashion was omitted, because Mr Derrick had forgotten her existence” (Edith Sitwell).

After Derrick’s reign ended in 1769 there was a much fought contest for the position, between Major Brereton, Derrick’s Deputy, and Mr Plomer, MC in Bristol. The competition became so fraught that a violent fight ensued and the Riot Act had to be read three times to the crowds. Mr Plomer was dragged out of the Assembly Room by his nose, while it was said that “the women were more violent than the men.” In the end a Captain William Wade was elected on consensus as a suitable compromise.

Captain Wade, otherwise known as the Bath Adonis, was forced to retire from his position after living up to his nickname. He was named in the divorce proceedings of Elizabeth Eustasia Campbell, wife of John Hooke Campbell. Wade may have lost the role of MC in Bath; however he did go on to marry Elizabeth and continued as MC in Brighton, a position he had held during his Bath tenure.

By the turn of the 19th century seaside resorts such as Brighton, were growing in popularity, and spa towns such as Bath were losing their appeal. As the number of visitors dwindled, consequently so did the subscriptions and entertainment, and thus the need for a MC. By 1805 the Lower Rooms had become unfashionable and poor attendance made sustaining two MCs financially impossible. In 1820 the Lower Rooms burnt down and all entertainment transferred to the Upper Rooms.

Recreation was also no longer as public as it once had been. People now preferred to entertain their friends and visitors in the comfort of their own homes or lodgings. The exclusivity of society that had been so abhorrent to Nash had reared its head again by the mid-19th century. There was little room now for the public displays of frivolity and the mixing of social classes that once had been.

The role of MC continued in a much reduced capacity through the 19th century in Bath. In 1902 the role was taken up for the last time by former thrice Mayor of Bath, Major Charles Simpson until his death, and the start of the First World War, in 1914.

After that, the mantle was never taken up again, although James King MC has been immortalised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers where Dickens writes of the fictitious MC, Angelo Cyrus Bantum Esquire.

It has been argued that Nash single-handedly increased the popularity, size and fortunes of the city with his re-organisation and control of society and entertainment.

It is certainly true that no man who took on the MC role after him could live up to his reputation, merely continue the status quo. Beau Nash had set the bar high and although his legacy continued no one matched or surpassed his influence.

Main image: Master of Ceremonies Captain Wade, known as the Bath Adonis, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, which hangs in the Assembly Rooms.