Bath’s population multiplied itself by well over ten times during the course of the 18th century. From a still small classic medieval city of just 2000 people, with its market place and many mangers and defensive walls, Bath was transformed into a fashionable metropolis of nearly 30,000 citizens in just 100 years.
Into the ‘decayed’ country town that was Bath at the start of the 18th century, walked the wigged adventurer and dandy ‘Beau’ Richard Nash. A drop-out from Oxford University, the army and the law, Beau Nash earned his money as a gambler and immaculate socialite. With Queen Anne’s visit to Bath in 1802 Beau Nash saw his chance to make fortune and influential friends. Immediately, Nash set about transporting Bath into the kind of fashionable resort in which his gambling skills would thrive. Within just three years he had raised a considerable sum of money for the repair of Bath’s woeful roads. Beau Nash and his great new city of pleasure and social elegance grew side by side. As Nash’s influence increased, Bath with its splendid new public buildings, orchestras and balls, began to rival London
as the place to be seen.
Perhaps the man to whom Bath owes the most is Ralph Allen. Allen’s story is remarkable. Sheltering in a hut while a storm raged in , a postmaster noticed the child Ralph Allen. Seeing genius in the boy, he found him a position in Bath’s post office. Young Allen thrived so meteoric was his career that he was soon known as The Man of Bath. Ralph Allen’s fortune and the new splendour of Bath were made with limestone cut from his quarries near by. With the same golden stone, he built a fabulous mansion in Prior Park at which such as Fielding, Pope, Gainsborough and Garrick stayed; it was Allen who invited the young William Pitt to stand as the MP for Bath.
Beau Nash made Bath fashionable, Ralph Allen gave his administrative genius and blocks of Bath stone, but the great Georgian city would never have been built without the brilliance of the architects John Wood and his son of the same name. With Allen as his patron, Wood the Elder’s dream was to build a city with the visual splendour and magnificence of ancient Rome. Wood died before his dream was realised, but the work was superbly completed by his son. ‘I proposed to make a grand Place of Assembly, to be called the Royal Forum of Bath; another place, no less magnificent, for the Exhibition of Sports, to be called the Grand Circus; and a third place, of equal state with either of the former, for the Practice of Medicinal exercises, to be called the Imperial Gymnasium,’ Wood the Elder wrote. Soon Queen Square and the Parades rose gloriously from the medieval city. Work began on the grand Circus, which was completed by Wood’s son. The Circus is the earliest attempted in Britain. Its bold and brilliant design amazed 18th century society. Similarly outstanding was Wood the Younger’s Royal Crescent – the first open curved terrace built in Europe.
The Minerva Head
In 1727, stylish Bath was thrilled by the discovery of the head of Minerva’s cultic statue. The gilded bronze head of the Roman goddess was found when a vast trench was dug to lay sewers. This was Georgian Bath’s first glimpse of its great Roman temple. The actual site of Minerva’s temple remained undiscovered for 60 years. When new foundations were being laid for the Pump Room in 1790, a solid Roman pavement was unearthed 4m below ground. Minerva’s great temple had finally been found.
As well as the many dukes, duchesses, earls and lords who enjoyed Bath, the Georgian city was home to many of the great people of their time. Horace Walpole, Dr Johnson, James Boswell and Thomas Gainsborough frequented Bath’s card tables, concerts and balls. Bath’s MP was Sir William Pitt. Jane Austen lived and wrote in Bath at the beginning of the 19th century and Bath is the place where Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers.
The 19th Century
Bath’s last great building project was inspired and financed by the richest man in England of his time – Sir William Pulteney, after whom the stunning Pulteney Bridge was named. When Great Pulteney Street was completed in 1790, Bath’s glorious century was drawing to an end. With the huge expense of fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Britain slipped into recession at the start of the 19th century and a financial scandal caused the collapse of Bath’s banks. Apart from rebuilding the abbey in 1833, Bath’s great boom was at an end.