This is not a blog piece about drought and famine but about how water has affected Britain in the past and how it could hypothetically affect our futures. The thinking behind this came from my spending a glorious Sunday in Bath and then pondering on the continuing importance of water to this spa town. How many tourists still pay good money to take the waters there; a small amount of digging suggests that the site has over one million visitors per year (despite in all likelihood the fountain is powered by the tap in the kitchen of the Pump Room restaurant?!). But, I digress. This is one of many European towns that rely on water to stay afloat. In Germany for example, any town boasting the word Bad in the title has been granted permission to promote itself as a spa town.
Back to Bath, this history of which stretches further back than is possible to detail in one blog piece and has already been the subject of much research. The eighteenth century however, witnessed resurgence in the flow of people to the town hoping that the waters will wash a multitude of illness away. As the town became part of the fashionable route, more visitors came along with their bulging pocketbooks, passions and vices. My undergraduate research into female gamblers often lead back to Bath which apparently despite Beau Nash’s attempts at civilising it, was still a den of iniquity. It seems that some sins cannot be washed away. Beau Nash himself, the MC of Bath as his plaque in Bath so helpfully details was Master of Ceremony and not local DJ. His name to me conjures up a glorious dandy with perfect hair and teeth but someone you would not want to get on the wrong side of. Of course, I know very little about the man and wouldn’t at all like to speculate about his appearance.
On our amblings around the town, I spotted an inscription on the side of a yellowed building citing that there formerly stood the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases or Mineral Water Hospital (the ‘Min’) in 1738/9. Pleasingly, the same institution continues to promote the healing benefits of mineral water.
But, you ask – wasn’t there a lot of illness about and a large part of it water-borne throughout history? Well yes kids there was a lot of cholera and typhoid around and whilst the warm geysers of the Roman Baths would have provided some form of sanitation, many would still probably have come out worse than when they went in. A peek in the Cathedral will reveal hundreds of non-Somerset citizens that have perished in Bath throughout the centuries. It made me want to examine more closely the death rates of this town compared to other of a similar size but different role to see how much the dying flocking to a place burdened the town itself. Imagine so many thousands of people descending suddenly now on a relatively sparsely populated town and perishing; I bet their taxes were disproportionately high.
A final thought that came to me was what would happen if we weren’t so fond of water resorts. Would Bath rename itself with a less soggy name if the fountains dried up or would it become ironic? And the seaside towns like Brighton and Bournemouth that have been packed over the weekend; what would they look like? Actually, probably a little more like Blackpool in the winter, or summer…..But, where would people go instead if not to these places? That is something I will have to give a little more imaginative thought to.
My Grandmother was a prolific and accomplished letter writer. From the age of around 11 in the 1940s she wrote to a lady in theUSA, a relationship that continued through until her death 3 years ago. This paper-based friendship was the most important of her life despite the 3000 mile distance between the two women. What they wrote about was of neither worldly or of national import but to them, it was a comfort and an outlet for their emotions. Even when email became the preferred tool of communication, these women continued to pen their thoughts to each other. Whilst I embrace the changes to technology and correspondence, part of me misses that excitement of receiving a hand-written note through the letterbox, the anticipation of when the next letter will arrive and the feeling of accomplishment when you have completed a response.
Historians and other academics research correspondence a great deal to uncover information about the daily lives of our ancestors (as well as their dirty secrets). Whilst I personally find the trivia of daily life more insightful than the letters of great men and their conquests, I have found an interesting correspondence that echoes sentiments of recent events inLondonand demonstrates how history indeed has the habit of repeating itself.
The following text appeared in the Bath Chronicle in 1791 written by Reverend Robert Wells demonstrating his concern for the patriotic rioting of the supporters of Tom Paine.
“From the dreadful disturbances that have happened in Birmingham and its neighbourhood, I cannot being led into reflections on the propriety and impropriety of Revolution Clubs….I would only wish them to consider the danger they are incurring, by poisoning the minds, and rousing the imaginations of common people….”
Conversely, on reflection, during the eighteenth century when letter writing was the norm of every literate citizen, perhaps it was viewed much as we view email today; without excitement or ceremony. Perhaps now is the heyday of the letter sender and receiver as it is such a rarity that it can only auger joy on receipt. The posted letter may be dwindling in popularity but when one does receive a handwritten address, a certain amount of magic remains.
After you all did so well on the last challenge – here is another print to test your visual skills on. This time the artist is William Hogarth.
The same rules apply as last time – no google allowed. Just look at the print, tell me what you see and what you think it means.
Whether it is talking in your mobile loudly on train, not saying please and thank-you or asking for the receipts for your birthday presents because you don’t like your Mum’s choices, manners are expected and ignored everywhere. In Britain more than most places in the world, there is an overriding sense of anguish if the strict code is ignored or if a child is not imbued from birth with a decent moral fibre. And yet, many of the habits and rituals that are today accepted as the custom were once seen as immoral or would now appear alien to any of our predecessors lucky enough to have a time machine and the will to visit the 21st century.
The eighteenth century was awash with literature, print, pamphlets and a plethora of other ephemera telling one how to behave. To conduct one’s self appropriately and lead a morally righteous life there were strict guidelines that dictated the dos and don’ts in everything from what to wear, what books to read and games to play with whom and when. Nothing was left to the possibility that desire and vice would tempt the god-fearing away from the moral path. In reality though, the picture was somewhat different. A large proportion of the educated populous were questioning the place for religion in society. Even larger portions were indulging in the heady world of fashion, luxury and worst of all, pleasure.
In 1754 a pamphlet was published entitled “Admonitions from the Dead in Epistles to the Living” and consisted of several letters purporting to be, as suggested, from those that had passed proffering advice to those left behind. Each letter highlights a particular evil that the author/ess feels needs to be addressed. For example, Letter XII is from a father to his son on “Intemperance in Eating” using both definitions of the word to ward against excessive drinking and partaking in pleasures deemed unsavoury from the heavenly realms. Through several protracted pages of brow beating, the Father shows his concern at the vice of his son (although by the end one feels like a swift gin).
Further advice comes from Lady ****** to Miss G*****G amusingly allaying the fears of the latter by assuring her that whilst ghostly apparitions are frightening, the dead write letters as much as the living and should therefore not fear her advice. The theme of this counsel is the ‘Insignificancy of Beauty’ deriding beauty over character. The Lady writes “to have one man say we are good, is worth a Thousand calling us handsome.” She warns her reader to beware the advances of men who prey on beautiful girls and bestows the wisdom that it is better to avoid parties of pleasure should one feel ill at ease with the company. Good advice indeed but whether heeded by the young Miss, we shall never know.
There are a multitude of pieces like the “Admonitions” although many perhaps not so sinister in nature and yet in allows a glimpse into the contradictory world of the period. At once both indulgent in pleasure and terrified of vice.
So, should we all feel lucky or privileged that no herald bears down on us when we break wind or forget to thank Aunty Sue for the lovely dinner? When your epistolic admonition arrives, don’t say I didn’t warn you!