The Bath Prophecy

Prophecy Year Book_headerWe have a very dedicated volunteer in the Library, Julie, who has spent the last four and a half years combing through our clippings collection. The collection was started by J. Meehan in the early 20th century and bought, along with other parts of his collection, by the Library. We still add to the collection from local magazines and, until a few years ago, we still clipped the local newspaper as well. The collection often throws out little gems as Julie sorts through the slightly tatty, overfull, well-used envelopes. We’ve found cigarette Wills'_Bath Collegecards from Will’s in Bristol. An advert for a recommended exercise which involves rolling around on the floor one hundred times (apparently with one’s corset still tightly tied). Mostly we read the article, remember it with a smile and a laugh then move on, but one of the little snippets pulled from an envelope the other day got me digging through the newspapers.

It was part of a magazine called the Year Book (date unknown) and told the tale of the Bath Prophecy in 1809. Today we tend to dismiss prophecies as bunkum. We are willing to accept predictions as the word implies that it comes with some reasoning behind it – whereas a prophecy implies that it is a foretelling by an unreliable seer with no basis in sound fact or science. But we’ve had our share of prophecies in recent decades – some taken more seriously than others: remember the Y2K prophecy of computer meltdown on 1st January 2000 as the calendars on the computers couldn’t cope with the change in century? Millions spent protecting us against it and… nothing happened. Now whether that’s because millions were spent or not, I don’t know, but my computer seemed to be fine. There have also been prophecies of global disaster due to the alignment of the planets causing anything from major earthquakes due to gravitational strains from the alignment to the rise of the anti-Christ in Russia. The end of the Mayan calendar also caused some concern, and that was predicted for May 2003 – or was that December 2012? We’re still here. Most prophecies seem to come to naught due to misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the original data. And the Bath Prophecy is an excellent example of this.

Looking south from Beacon Hill to Beechen Cliff, 1859
Looking south from Beacon Hill to Beechen Cliff, 1859

The tale starts with a rumour – as they often do – that spread like wildfire around the city of Bath towards the end of March 1809. The city was to be caught in middle of a mighty clash when Mount Beacon (which lies to the north of the city) would meet with Beechen Cliff (which lies to the south of the city) on Good Friday, 30th March 1809. No-one was really clear who started the prophecy, although a local seer, Joanna Southcot was blamed. And the city began to worry – or at least some of it did. Visitors started to pack up and leave just in case – not good news for the city elders or the tourist industry. A letter appeared in the Bath Chronicle the day before written by ‘Anti Pseudo Propheticus’ who called the whole matter “an affair so truly ridiculous and absurd”.

Of course, nothing happened. Well nothing of geological importance happened, and the city survived. The tale of the credulous Bathonians spread through the country: it was reported, with a wry smile, in newspapers in Kent, Hampshire, Leeds, Worcester, Hereford, Oxford, and London in varying degrees of detail (the Hampshire paper gave it a whole half column). The story was picked up by the Monthly Magazine and the Athenaeum as part of their roundup of gossip for the month.  It would take Bath a long time to live down this incident: it was still known about nearly 25 years later when William Hone published the Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information in 1832, and would make its way into Rowland Mainwaring’s Annals of Bath in 1834, although he did call it the ‘Ridiculous Prophecy’, and was rather scathing about those who succumbed to the disaster-mongers…Mainwaring Annals of Bath result

And the real story? Well, it turns out that two gentlemen wished to fight their cockerels on Friday 30th March but, it being Good Friday, they didn’t think the Church or the good folk of the city would like them undertaking such gaming on this day. So they hatched a plot to disguise their plans by calling the two cocks Mount Beacon and Beechen Cliff. So the clash of the two hills that dominate the northern and southern aspects of Bath was really all about cockfighting, and someone must have overheard their discussions about the clash and misunderstood the meaning. By such things are prophecies made.Prophecy Year Book

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