Reading the Rooms

The Assembly Rooms were built 250 years ago this month. Emma Clegg celebrates the anniversary by looking back on their conception and building, revelling in their wild Georgian heyday, assessing their chequered fortunes since, and with the help of Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Services at B&NES, she takes a look at what the future holds…

The Lower Assembly Rooms in Bath – the two sets of buildings constructed to cater for the fast-growing number of fashionable visitors flocking to the city in the early 18th century – offered gathering places for those looking for amusement once they had taken the waters, namely dancing, card playing and tea drinking. But as Bath’s social scene continued to thrive, the size and modernity of these rooms became inadequate to house visitors in style, and the residents of the growing upper town now had a long way to go to visit the Lower Rooms, so larger assembly rooms became a priority.

John Wood the Elder had originally advocated the need for purpose-built assembly rooms in frustration at the lack of a suitable building, but it was his son John Wood the Younger who in 1765, a year after his father’s death, put forward plans for new assembly rooms north east of Queen Square. There was a rival, much grander, scheme produced by architect Robert Adam, which was seriously considered but deemed too expensive, and so Wood’s plan was used, funded by a tontine, an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund. The capital amounted to £14,000, divided into 70 shares, with original subscribers including James Leigh Perrot, the uncle of Jane Austen, Walter Wiltshire of Shockerwick and friend of Gainsborough and Thomas Bowdler, the editor of Shakespeare. John Wood the Younger laid the foundation stone of the new Upper Assembly Rooms in 1769. The total cost of the build was £20,000, the largest investment in a single building in Bath during the 18th century.

Building the Upper Assembly Rooms
The Upper Assembly Rooms covered nearly three-quarters of an acre, the location bound by Bennett Street on the north and Alfred Street on the south. The building’s vast external facades and details – including the main entrance under a three-bay portico with Doric columns – were relatively plain, perhaps deliberately to disguise the splendours inside, perhaps to render the overall cost more palatable. The windows were set at a high level within each of the rooms to ensure privacy, preventing nosy local residents or urchins from observing the fun.

The shell of the building was completed in 1770, designed in a U-shape with the central aisle linking the Ball Room, the Octagon and the Tea Room – the Octagon originally acted as the card room, until a separate Card Room was added in 1777.

The tontine subscribers were then asked to help fund the furnishing of the rooms. Of the original furnishings, only the nine great chandeliers survive today, each one eight foot high, and these represent the largest single purchase at £999 (today’s equivalent £173,000). The three chandeliers in the Tea Room and the five in the Ball Room are by William Parker of Fleet Street, produced from the glassmakers’ factory at Whitefriars. Jonathan Collett made an earlier set for the Ball Room but one month after the opening in 1771 an arm collapsed, narrowly missing Thomas Gainsborough beneath (who at this time had a studio in The Circus), so they were dismantled and salvaged to form a single chandelier, now positioned in the Octagon.

The records show that other commissions included plated candlesticks, candelabra, silver Turkey coffee pots with wicker handles, bells, lamps and girandoles (supports for candles or lights), mirrors and settees covered with ‘scarlet stuff damask’, along with a ‘groce of Whist Cards marked with the Mogul’s Head’. There was also a payment to Gainsborough for the frame of his portrait of Captain Wade, who presided as Master of Ceremonies at both the Lower and New Assembly Rooms until 1777.

Thomas Linley the Elder, by Thomas Gainsborough, late 1760s

The grand opening of the Rooms
The Upper Rooms opened on 30 September 1771 with a Ridotto, a combined dance and concert. The Ball Room, which housed up to 800 dancers, would have been illuminated by the candlelit chandeliers and fires burning in the fireplaces as guests arrived, but then the temperature would have risen rapidly, although the heat would have been absorbed by the high 32-metre ceiling and the upper storey windows which would have provided a welcome breeze.

The room interiors are remarkably austere. The lower walls were left bare – plain walls with a dado punctuated by door surrounds and chimney pieces – to accommodate the high tiers of raked seating benches where elderly ladies and children and unpartnered dancers would have sat. No extra architectural detail was required as it was the crowding attendees that provided the glamour, the glitter, the colour, the noise and the movement. The Rooms were also used in this era for concerts, a notable example being a performance attended by King George III by virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, who appeared at the Upper Assembly Rooms in 1789.

The festivities at this time would have alternated between the new Upper Assembly Rooms and the Lower Assembly Rooms, but the Lower Rooms lost their sheen with the arrival of the new splended building and one of them was demolished around 1820 to make way for the building of York Street. The other was devastated by a fire in the same year and was rebuilt, lasting until demolition in 1933 to make road improvements on the site now known as Bog Island.

Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801–1805, during the period when both the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms were open, and her experience of them is brought to life in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were set in Bath. In Northanger Abbey the heroine Catherine Morland visits the Upper Rooms, in a passage which recreates the hectic atmosphere: “The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.”

Rivalries, dancing and entertainment
The subscribers of the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms did not sit easily together, resulting in endless spiteful contests and disagreements, to the benefit of the milliners, hairdressers and dressmakers who supplied their wares and services to ensure showy clothes to impress made of richly brocaded satins, lace ruffles and shot silks in what was called the ‘Battle of the Belles’. These outfits caused concern to MOC William Wade who said they were “more suited to the stage or a masquerade than to any civil or sober society.”

The new Assembly Rooms offered a dress ball on Mondays, a concert on Wednesdays; and a Cotillion Ball, meaning country dancing, on Thursdays. The rooms were also open every day ‘for the company to walk and play a cards’. By 1818 a Card Assembly was held on Fridays and the Cotillion had become the ‘Fancy Ball’ at an increased subscription; these Fancy Balls were (comparatively for this era) more relaxed occasions where ladies could wear hats or display elegant fashion statements (unheard of in the days of Beau Nash).

Half-plate daguerreotype of P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb by Root c.1850

Concerts at the rooms in this period were directed by singing master and conductor Thomas Linley, the father of singer Elizabeth Linley (who eloped with Richard Brinsley Sheridan from Bath in 1772). In 1780 Italian musician Venanzio Rauzzini, who was friend of Joseph Haydn, took over and organised the concerts with brilliance, attracting the foremost artists of the day from London and the continent, until his death in 1810. (He is buried in Bath Abbey where there is a memorial erected to him.)

Sydney Gardens opened in 1795 and the ensuing summers would have seen hordes of wealthy visitors, playing cards, going to balls, promenading and horseriding, and in 1796 the First Gentleman of Europe, afterwards George IV, attended a ball in the Rooms.

A change in fortunes
The city that had been built up so swiftly by its fashionable spa in turnsuffered from the new society trend for visiting seaside resorts such as Weymouth and Brighton, losing its pre-eminence among the fashionable resorts of the day. This decline is reflected in the fortunes of the Assembly Rooms, which by the 1830s had lost their splendour and the energetic social intercourse which had made Bath so famous. Successive Masters of Ceremonies came and went, with each trying to outdo their predecessors, but none capturing the energy and personality of Beau Nash in the previous era. The rooms continued to entertain visitors, still providing a fashionable rendezvous during the ‘season’, but the costumes, dress parades, dancing and cardplaying became much less outrageous, less energetic and less noteworthy affairs.

The Victorian era saw an exhibition of General Tom Thumb, the American dwarf who achieved fame as a performer under circus pioneer P. T. Barnum and public readings from Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, along with society balls, social functions, conferences, choral festivals and concerts (including an appearance by Franz Liszt in 1840). In 1886 the Bath Philharmonic Society brought a production of The Golden Legend conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan to the Rooms. Despite these highlights, this period was a dull contrast to the glittering times of yore, and by the end of the 19th century the Rooms were competing with the newly enlarged Pump Room and hotels with large public rooms. In poet Algernon Swinburne’s words, this was a “City lulled asleep by the chime of passing years” (A Ballad of Bath, 1889).

The role of Master of Ceremonies was lost in 1914 with the death of Major Simpson, the last MOC, who had fought to maintain gathering and social functions, including offering a series of balls in 18th-century dress. During the Great War the Rooms were used for building aeroplane parts and later the building was taken over by the Royal Flying Corps. From 1921 the ballroom was used as a cinema when the badly maintained building was described as a “dust hole”. Fortunately English philanthropist and businessman Mr Ernest Cook enabled the funds for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to secure the Assembly Rooms and the building then passed to the National Trust who let them to the Bath City Council on the agreement that the building was restored to its original state.

Unfortunately the £30,000 of work that took place, with the results on display at the grand reopening party on 19 October 1938, attended by HRH the Duchess of Kent, was lost just four years later when in April 1942 the bombs fell. This destruction of the Assembly Rooms, which was seen as one of the country’s greatest Georgian civic buildings, was recorded as one of Britain’s chief cultural wartime losses. Faced with either destroying the shell of the outer walls which had survived and making a different use of the location (for which there was much support from those who saw the Assembly Rooms as outdated) or reconstructing the Rooms with compensation from the War Damage Commission, the Trust opted for the latter course of action.

A group at Bath playing cards, print by Isaac Cruikshank, after George Moutard Woodward, 1796­­­­

So the three great rooms were remodelled following their original proportions from fragments of the original plasterwork and old photographs. The plaster moulds, created by London firm Eatons, used fibrous plaster instead of the original traditional lime mix, making the whole project financially accessible. But fibrous plaster is more resonant than lime mix, so the acoustics in the Ball Room became more echoey, to the frustration of musicians and audiences since.

The rooms reopened in 1963, opened by Princess Marina – the wife of Prince George, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George V and Queen Mary – 25 years after she had attended the 1938 ceremony as Duchess of Kent. This was the time when the Fashion Museum, then the Museum of Costume, moved in, formed from Mrs Doris Langley Moore’s collection of historical costumes. Initially sited on part of the ground floor, the collection found its eventual home in the basement, formerly the plunge bath, kitchens and cellars, where the lack of natural light gave protection to the precious costumes.

Another misfortune followed. The Ball Room ceiling at the Assembly Rooms collapsed in 1987 when a huge section of plaster came down, narrowly missing the night watchman and, perhaps more importantly, the chandeliers. This was a result of of shoddy post-war workmanship where the bonding agent that secured the plasterwork to the ceiling structure had failed. On inspection it was failing all over the building, and so it had to come down, in turn revealing asbestos, faulty wiring and rotten timber, and the repair involving another significant rebuild cost. “It’s ironic really that what you see now is a replica building – just the outside shell is original. Everything inside apart from the chandeliers is false,” says Head of Heritage Services at B&NES Stephen Bird.

“Bath has ended up with three fabulous 18th-century complexes: the Pump Room, the Guildhall and the Assembly Rooms. The policy of B&NES has been to use the rooms as places of assembly, places where people can meet for a dinner, for an awards ceremony, for a conference, for a concert, people coming together to enjoy themselves, to talk and do business. That continuity I think is important.

“The more we keep losing buildings from their original function then the less authenticity of use and integrity we have,” Stephen continues. The National Trust takes back the management of the Assembly Rooms from B&NES in 2023 when the Fashion Museum will locate to new premises (to be confirmed) and the aim of the Trust is to keep the buildings, as originally conceived, as a place of assembly. Their stated ambition is to celebrate this important building, bring its story to life and showcase its central role in the society of Georgian Bath.

“It will be the end of one chapter,” says Stephen, “But when you look at the life this building has been through, the glittering occasions in the 18th century and then its decline towards the end of the century, it has survived so much. It’s part of the ongoing life of a living city that has to live with its past but also has to adapt for the future.”

A virtual conference to mark the 250th anniversary of the New Assembly Rooms takes place on 29 and 30 September. There will also be an evening public lecture and dance display on 30 September, starting at 5.45pm. Book tickets for both events with