Bath is a photogenic city. Visitors come from round the world to see its crescents, baths and museums – they take their photographs, paint pictures or write long, descriptive letters home about the beauties of the architecture or the city’s long history. But what of life on a daily basis? The Library’s collections contain materials that highlight everyday life and are often the most intriguing and interesting articles: we can see how life operated through the centuries via images (prints to photography), letters, bills, newspapers and other items that build up the details of the wider picture of Bath’s history.
Usually we only see paintings in their finished state, showing a scenic landscape or an artist’s impression of the townscape. But an artist’s sketchbook can show different details: from a 17th century writing-master’s sample book with decorated border designs we can find blacksmiths, soldiers and musicians. Perhaps not the most exciting of subjects, but such drawings can still provide detailed information to those with the expertise and interest to interpret them. The rest of us can just enjoy the images.
Perhaps more rare is Robert Woodroff’s sketchbook. An artist primarily producing images of Bath’s more touristic sights to be turned into engravings, his sketchbook opens a different insight into his life. From observing the passing accident to a pedestrian to providing a commentary on his own working life as an artist – the customer below looks like she was a chatty, fidgety and pernickety customer, and also demanding in her requests to betrayed in a more flattering light (which pained the artist attempting to paint the miniature).
The advent of photography made capturing life easier – especially after the introduction of the more accessible small personal cameras. But there is one area of life that is often overlooked – our own domestic lives. Grand interiors, such as that of Ernest Cook’s house at 1 Sion Hill in 1953, might be recorded for posterity due to their grandeur or contents, but there are rarely peeks into front rooms available for more personal spaces. Unless the photographer indulges himself as George Dafnis did in 1950 when he photographed his own study (covered in photographic mementoes) at Sydney Buildings.
Of course, these rooms are still those of well-appointed houses. Even rarer are images of working class housing, and those of Oriel Grove in Southdown were taken in the 1950s as the house was condemned as unfit. The china sink and copper boiler for the clothes wash seem to fit in another era before the war – the kitchen of the post-war prefab (supposedly temporary, but some are still going) showing much more of the clean lines and modern conveniences we would expect to see at that time.
As well as photographs, documents can highlight daily life as well: the coal merchant’s receipt includes the ration allowance certificate that was still required in 1953 as coal rationing wasn’t removed until 1958 – not many houses still received coal deliveries and the merchant’s lorries are now rare sights. Today our local authority is responsible for the street cleaning and lighting, but once it was to the parish that ‘Lamp, Scavenger and Watch Rates’ were paid.
Shopping is a pastime that has significantly altered, and yet not changed at all. Once we could run accounts at shops to be paid monthly or quarterly – and might even find a use for a ‘grebe feather’ or a ‘bathing costume’ if one was in town for using the baths for a medical cure. Staff would serve us from behind a counter and retrieve items from the stacked shelves – even in the Cater, Stoffel and Fortt shop in the 1970s – rather than us pushing trolleys around stacked aisles.
Some things have noticeably changed even in the last 25 years, let alone 250. The Podium was opened in 1990 when the upstairs area was still clear and not yet filled with the cafes that became familiar to us by the time they closed in 2011. Today, you can no longer take the same photo of the large window looking up New Bond Street as the small café only occupies a small portion of the area now closed off as storage for Waitrose below.
Whilst shopping centres, large and small, have become more common, the sight of teenagers and students gathering to spend a day shopping and in cafes with friends have also become more common. But this is not a new phenomenon either. In 1798 a young lady of about 20, Elizabeth Canning, was in Bath and with her friend, Tish, and on a Saturday morning they “flourished about in a most independent style – going to shops & paying our visits etc. till the morning was pretty nearly expended.” Whilst today’s teenagers may not ‘flourish’ about town, it does sound rather familiar 120 years later.
One aspect of daily life that has probably change most dramatically is travel. The same Elizabeth Canning wrote to her mother of her travel plans when leaving Bath to return home to Wanstead. She intended to leave Bath early on Friday morning to reach Reading (hopefully) by early evening, which would allow them to make Hyde Park Corner by half past three on Saturday, in time to be picked up by their own chaise. If the timings didn’t work, then they would definitely be home by Sunday. What a difference the train makes even if the ‘slow’ Parliamentary Train would take five and half hours to get to London in 1864.
Cars have obviously made a huge impact but before cars became ubiquitous carriages were the most common means of people travelling any distance, with waggons taking luggage and cargo more slowly. For local transport there were trams in Bath from 1880 up until 1939. Ferry crossings were common before the tolls on all bridges in the city were abolished in the 1920s. Where once streets were clear of vehicles and children could play, cars now line the kerbs.
Many things have changed in ordinary life through history. Some changes are more recent than others, and some change come full circle – where the bargeman and his family disappeared from a working canal, we now have families returning to live – but we can still be intrigued by the unusual or the unfortunate. But sometimes it’s the everyday and ordinary that is, in fact, more extraordinary in the long term. We preserve the unusual or special, but we forget what happens or changes on a daily basis. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what’s in front of us in our own kitchens and front rooms.