Art and Culture in Georgian Bath 1714-1830
Leisure: Assemblies, Dancing and Gambling
Cards, dancing and mixed-sex socialising in public spaces were an essential part of the social scene at Bath throughout the eighteenth century. The spa attracted gamesters, fortune-hunters, adventurers, marriageable misses and masters (and their parents or guardians), as well as gouty aristocrats, widows, spinsters, clerics, and the like. Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (1674–1761) was one of the early gamesters. His arrival at Bath in or before 1705 owed much to Bath’s reputation for gambling; however, his long-term legacy to the city owed more to his success, through astute use of his position as Master of Ceremonies (1705–61), in turning Bath in to a place noted for polite socializing.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bath had nowhere that the Company could gather conveniently, to meet, eat, gamble, or dance. Assembly Rooms filled this gap. The first was built against the city walls in the Lower Town by a Londoner, Thomas Harrison, in 1709; the second on Terrace Walk in 1730 by another Londoner, Humphrey Thayer. The Rooms were comfortably exclusive — people in trade, which included many Bath residents, were not welcome — and visitors paid a subscription in order to attend the autumn or spring Season’s events. The proceeds covered the costs of the balls and the music at the Assembly and Pump Rooms. Card games and gambling remained at the heart of Assembly Room culture, even after the introduction of tighter laws between 1739 and 1750. The new Upper Assembly Rooms, opened in 1771 to cater to the increasingly fashionable Upper Town, still catered to the polite gambler, although faro, the illegal game of fashionable gamesters, had to be played elsewhere. Even the Sydney Hotel, opened in 1796, provided rooms for coffee, cards and dancing. Dancing played a notable part in the social life of eighteenth-century Bath. Balls were imposing social occasions and the ability to dance well was deemed important, especially for young women. Bath had numerous dancing masters who taught etiquette and graceful movement, as well as dance. For most of the eighteenth century, balls began with a series of demanding minuets, performed in front of the gathered company, followed after tea by enthusiastic country dancing. By the end of the century, cotillions and fancy dress balls had become more popular.