Driving into Bath recently, I was struck by how many sets of roadworks were set up along the street. There were holes for utilities, closures for line painting and restrictions for pavement relaying and widening. It was as frustrating as roadworks usually are, but it did make me wonder about the building of Bath. We are familiar with seeing the Georgian terraces that make this city famous rising up Lansdown; the Pump room and colonnades; the shopping heaven of Milsom Street and Stall Street. But at some point someone actually had to build it, which started me on a hunt to find out when it all happened. When was Bath one giant building site?
The growth and development of Bath into a fashionable resort had started in the late sixteenth century, but construction had been fairly slow and accommodations were still somewhat primitive for some of the more aristocratic visitors by the early eighteenth century. During the 1700s Bath exploded out of its mediaeval walled confines and blossomed, although its visitors and residents alike had to pick their way across the piles of building stone and scaffolding poles to reach their destinations.
Trim Street was the first to break the wall and many followed – Queen Square in 1726 and Kingsmead Square in 1727. But it was housing for the visitors that was most pressing – both as accommodation and income for the developer. The town grew up the hill by crescent, circus, street and square through the 1740s and 50s until the 1760s when there were over twenty streets or major buildings under construction including the Royal Crescent and Paragon, with the newly laid out George Street and Milsom Street to link them to the Baths and Pump Room. Pulteney Bridge became only the second bridging of the River Avon at Bath linking the Pulteney estates at Bathwick with the city and opening up a whole new area ripe for development in the coming decades.
Through the 1770s the Woods’ vision for the upper town around the Circus and Crescent began to take physical form, but their scheme was overtaken by other builders and visionaries rushing to meet the demand of the moneyed tourists flocking to the fashionable resort. Both housing and entertainment were provided, but the new buildings were still mainly outside the old walls. Some attempt had been made to improve access into the city through the walls with the demolition of the Northgate, Westgate and Southgate, and the removal of the wall itself stone by stone aiding in the rebuilding effort. Through the 1780s into the 1790s Walcot grew, sprouting streets and terraces along the length of London Road; the development of the Bathwick Estate went on apace across the river, and the city was surrounded by building works as Kingsmead expanded and the developers pounced on Widcombe as a fresh target.
But the heart of the city inside the walls had barely been touched. Buildings had been added in the few gaps available: the General Hospital – later the Royal Mineral Water Hospital – was built in 1738 to cater for the poorer bathers as health tourism grew; the old mediaeval Guildhall that had once stood in the middle of the High Street and was crumbling into the road was replaced in the 1770s – the rebuild included a formal marketplace and new river frontage facing the weir; Somersetshire Buildings in unusual red sandstone filled in a gap left by the removal of an old poorhouse along Milsom Street.
From the 1780s onwards there was a more concerted effort to improve the heart of the city – widen streets, make new streets, rebuild some of the older civic buildings to make them fit for the increased number of visitors. Key to this improvement work was the Bath Improvement Act of 1789. Using money collected from the tollgates as funding, the Committee set about improving the city. The Pump Room was increased in size and re-fronted; Cheap Street was widened, including a new set of shop fronts on the south side and a wider access from the north end of Stall Street. Five new streets were planned, though only four were completed: Hot Bath Street, Beau Street, Bath Street, and Union Street (which included a ‘tidying up’ of neighbouring Union Passage); Nash Street would have widened the access from the west end of Bath Street north to Westgate Street but it was never built and St Michael’s Place is still there.
The construction industry’s boom period hit a brick wall with the collapse of the Bath Bank in 1793. The banking industry around the country had been under pressure and Bath’s predicament was not unusual. Many of the buildings underway were continued (though some, like Grosvenor Place, did take nearly 30 years to finally be completed) though far fewer new schemes were started. The works for the Improvement Act were continued as the funding was less dependent on the banks, but private funding took a hit – half as many new streets or terraces were laid out in the first decade of the nineteenth century as had been laid out in the previous decade.
Bath never really stopped growing, but it must have been a frustrating town to live in for the last forty years of the eighteenth century. The guide books to Bath listed the new streets and buildings that were underway or complete, although more in terms of how wonderful the new facilities were rather than apologising for the inconvenience. We tend to have a movie-type vision of the city where everything is complete, neat and tidy, rather than half way there. Fanny Burney, author and long-time resident of the city and frequent correspondent with her sister, observed about walking through the city in 1791, “The city is so filled with workmen, dust and lime, that you really want two pair of eyes to walk about in it – one for being put out, and the other to see with afterwards.” The expanding city also prompted her to comment, “…its buildings are so unfinished, so spread, so everywhere beginning and nowhere ending, that it looks rather like a space of ground lately fixed upon for erecting a town, than a town itself, of so many years’ duration.”
So next time you look at Bath’s Georgian facade, it’s worth remembering that at one point it was more building site than tourist attraction. At the height of its fame, the city provided a backdrop of masons, blocks of stone and fine dust floating in the air coating everything. If nothing else, imagining the scene will help pass the time next time you get stuck in the roadworks.
All images (except the top one) Copyright Bath in Time-Bath Central Library.