A Glimpse of how it was in the Early Days

It's easy to forget how different the world was for the first residents of Sydney Buildings - those in the houses that were built before 1850. In fact all the Regency-style houses were built between 1815 and 1837- between Waterloo and Victoria - but 1850 makes a good timeline.

It was a richly inventive period, culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Michael Faraday invented the electric motor (1821), W.H.Fox Talbot the photographic negative (1835) and Isaac Pitman shorthand (1837). "Firsts" included the passenger train (1825), the electric telegraph (1836), and pre-paid postage stamps (1840).

It was also a period of profound political change punctuated by civil disorder. Early on there was widespread unrest about the Corn Laws, which kept the price of food higher than it might have been. In 1822 agricultural workers rioted in several towns near Bath and the yeomanry (local militia) had to be called out.

The Corn Laws were introduced by a Parliament in which aristocratic landowners controlled a large proportion of the seats (through "pocket boroughs" and "rotten boroughs") Struggles to broaden the franchise and achieve a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats were an important element in the political backdrop.

A notorious incident in 1819 was the Peterloo Massacre, when the Manchester yeomanry attacked a mass demonstration for political reform, killing eleven people and injuring several hundred. Closer to home, Bristol was in the hands of rioters for three days in 1831 following the defeat of a bill to reform parliament.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished most of the pocket boroughs, created 135 new seats where they were needed, and enlarged the national electorate from 400,000 to 653,000 (from a population of about 14 million). But many of the early residents of Sydney Buildings would have had no vote, including all the women and any tenants without property of their own.

Further reforms were sought through national petitions in 1839, 1842 and in 1848 - a year when there were revolutions and regime changes throughout Europe. It was not until 1867 that every adult male householder regardless of religion had the right to vote. Votes for women didn't arrive for another 51 years.

Bath was growing apace, with a surge of new developments originally encouraged by the ending of the Napoleonic Wars. From about 34,000 at the start of the century, the population of the city grew to just over 53,000 in 1841, the year of the first national census. The strongest growth was during the second decade of the century. Bathwick usually accounted for 8-9% of the city's total population, with women usually outnumbering men in the ratio 6:4.

That ratio may reflect the considerable number of live-in female servants in Bathwick. In the 1841 Census, servants were on the returns for 22 of the then existing 36 houses in Sydney Buildings, usually one per house but sometimes two or even three. Similarly with the 37 houses in the 1851 Census - 33 servants at 23 houses, and this time we know their ages (12 to 60) and some job titles (housemaid, cook, upper servant).

As live-in servants they presumably all got their keep, but what they would have been paid we only know in a general way - very little in most cases, just a few pounds a year. That must have been so since as late as 1861,in the first edition of Household Management, Mrs Beeton wrote that a household income of £150 a year justified the employment of a maid-of-all-work, and an income of £500 a cook as well. (For comparison, the pay of a Post Office clerk in 1834 was £90 a year, rising by about £7 a year to £140 in 1841).

Bank failures were not uncommon at that time, and in 1847 new legislation forced the Bank of England into the position of having to refuse credit. The results were eerily like those of the recent credit crunch - prices of shares and commodities crashed and many people were ruined. It may be a reflection of the difficulty some residents of Sydney Buildings were having in making ends meet that in the 1851 Census lodgers, ten in all, were on the returns for eight of the houses.

The Bath Directory for 1850 nevertheless gives the impression of busy, prosperous city infused with what are condescendingly called "Victorian values". Advertisers included six hatters, four perfume-makers, a feather merchant and a paper hanger. In the Bath Markets, open two days a week, there were three tripe sellers and four game dealers as well as many butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers. A tailor at 14 Southgate Street, offered "splendid" tousers at seven shillings a pair or three pairs for £1.

Big business in Bath was mainly in the transport and energy sectors. Companies with offices in the city included Great Western Railway Co., Kennet & Avon Canal Co., Bath Gas Light & Coke Co. and Somerset Coal Canal Co. The canals were apparently a major hazard as the Bath Humane Society (still in evidence at Top Lock) had numerous stations "for recovery of persons apparently dead by drowning".

Rising levels of education and a great appetite for reading are reflected in the number of booksellers in the 1850 Directory (seven) and the presence of 12 circulating libraries in Bath at that time. Popular mid-century novelists included the Brontë sisters - Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights were both published in 1847 - William Thackery and Charles Dickens. Before them came Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott - Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Ivanhoe and Heart of Midlothian all came into the bookshops while the first houses were going up in Sydney Buildings.

Many teachers, especially of music and genteel languages such as French and Italian, advertised their services. "A thoroughly scriptural and gentlemany education" was offered by Mr. Clarke at Bathwick Hill School, A more mundane offering was 16 lessons for three guineas from Lanley's Riding School in Upper Bristol Road.

Places of "resort and amusement" in 1850 were in many cases the same as today, for instance the Assembly Rooms, Royal Victoria Park and the Theatre Royal (where She Stoops to Conquer shared the bill with a "screaming farce" entitled Chamber Practice). The Roman Baths had yet to be rediscovered, Sydney Gardens were still described as "a la Vauxhall" and the New Club at 4 Edgar Buildings would have had little in common with Po-Na-Na.

There were four newspapers with Bath in their title - the still-surviving Chronicle, the Herald, the Journal and the Gazette. Reporting of world affairs was rather leisurely - it took the Chronicle eleven days to report Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo! In 1850 it was complaining that the recent repeal of the Navigation Acts, restricting the use of foreign shipping, would benefit France rather than Britain. Rather more space was taken up by announcements about the ten hunts that met in the country around Bath, and by local law court reports.

Bath had its own gaol staffed by a governor, a chaplain and a matron. Its police force numbered 87, including 4 inspectors, 10 sergeants, 57 constables and 10 probationary constables. Normal crime aside, they aimed to "discourage as much as possible the system of idle mendacity" and administered arrangements "such that no person need beg in Bath".

There were two main hospitals, also an ear and eye infirmary and several dispensaries. For religious observance there were 39 churches - 12 Church of England, 14 Episcopalian, 14 Dissenters - plus two Roman Catholic chapels and a synagogue.

Chris Morrissey

April 2009

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