Strictly Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s Bath Spa Experience

Jane Austen knew Bath well. Deemed to be England’s leading spa throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth-century, the city and her experience of it was important for her work. In this month’s Musings our new guest blogger, walking tour guide Dr Moira Rudolf, takes a look at the baths of Bath, both as Jane would have known them and as they are today.

The baths of Bath – familiar and changed

Bath had (and still has) three hot springs:  The King’s Spring, Hot Spring and Hetling (or Cross) Spring and the fashionable baths at Jane’s time were the King’s Bath and the Cross Bath.  The Queen’s Bath had dropped out of favour and was demolished in the late nineteenth-century.

Today’s Abbey Churchyard (then known as the Pump Yard) and the open square, Kingston Parade, would look unfamiliar to Jane, although she would certainly recognise Bath Abbey and the Pump Room – but she might wonder why the ‘Imperial Roman’ building, the present entrance to the Roman Baths, had escaped her notice.  This is because it was opened in 1897 as the Pump Room extension, and – although magnificent – the appalling acoustics and awkward access to the musicians’ gallery made it unfit for its intended Concert Hall purpose.

Jane would be bemused, too, by the Roman Emperor-lined terrace surrounding the Great Bath, as this area was then covered by private dwellings (including the Duke of Kingston’s Private Baths), businesses, and lodging houses.  This would be no failing of hers as the Roman Baths – earlier known about, but not yet excavated – remained undiscovered until 1878-79, when Major Davis (City Surveyor/later City Architect) investigated a suspected leak in the King’s Bath or its reservoir below, fed by the Roman Sacred Spring:  hot water regularly flooded into the basements of neighbouring buildings….

Davis’s investigations are too complex to go into here, but they eventually led to the compulsory purchase and clearing of all the buildings above which, from 1880-81 – long after Jane’s death – began to reveal the Roman Great Bath, East and West Baths, and part of the temple precinct.

image courtesy Visit Bath

The Pump Room (created by architects Thomas Baldwin and John Palmer, 1791-96) was opened in 1795 by the Duchess of Kent and replaced a single-storey building resembling an orangery which quickly became too small for its purpose.  It was constructed around the earlier building that continued to operate throughout. The ancient Greek inscription, ‘Water is Best’, in the pediment indicates its dual social and medical purpose:  a meeting place and indoor promenading area where guests could take the waters – which you can still do today. 

The Cross Bath has its origins in a nearby Roman bath and was later named after its central medieval Melfort Cross (dismantled in 1783) just before Thomas Baldwin rebuilt it as part of his reordering of Bath Street. In 1792, John Palmer reconstructed/reconfigured Baldwin’s distinctive façade and updated the dressing rooms. The musicians’ gallery is long gone and all that survives of Baldwin’s interior today is an elegant relief of a vase and a patera.

Image by Rob Farrow, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7387640

The Hetling Pump to the left of the Cross Bath is still easily identifiable and the electrical treatment Jane tells her sister Cassandra their brother Edward received, probably took place at the Hot Bath, opposite; known during the Medieval period and rebuilt by John Wood the Younger in 1775-77.  It still retains vestiges of its original floor plan and is still used for novel treatments as part of the new Thermae Bath Spa.

Jane & the waters

Before Jane Austen lived in Bath (1801-1806), she was well acquainted with the city as her uncle and aunt, James and Jane Leigh-Perrot, resided at 1 Paragon Buildings.

In 1797 the Austens spent their summer holiday with them  – a visit we know nothing about – and in May 1799, Jane and Mrs Austen accompanied Jane’s elder brother, Edward Austen Knight to Bath, staying with him, his wife Elizabeth and their two eldest children at 13 Queen Square.  Edward – who had unspecified health concerns – took the house for six weeks; the standard time for a cure, which involved bathing in and drinking copious quantities of the naturally-occurring, hot mineral water, as well as sampling alternative therapies. It is interesting that Jane was probably drafting ‘Northanger Abbey’ at this time.

‘ What must I tell you of Edward? – Truth or Falsehood?  – I will try the former, & you may chuse for yourself another time. – (…)   He drinks at the Hetling Pump, is to bathe tomorrow & try Electricity on Tuesday; – he proposed the latter himself to Dr Fellowes, who made no objection to it, but I fancy we are all unanimous in expecting no advantage from it.’

Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, 2nd June 1799

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, dated 6th May 1801, Jane mentions walking, that morning, with her uncle James – who suffered from gout – to the Pump Room for his second glass of restorative water. 

The Pump Room kept a large book listing recent arrivals and looking up acquaintance was a popular pastime.  In ‘Northanger Abbey,’ Jane gleefully writes about Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe’s various encounters; Catherine checking up on Mr Tilney’s address, and ‘old friends’ Mrs Allen and Mrs Thorpe settling down to conversation under the ‘great clock’. This was the Tompion Clock, which remains in its original position under the statue of Beau Nash (the long-dead, self-styled King of Bath) and is still keeping time. 

If you wished, you might – though the recommended bathing hours were between 6am and 8am – take advantage of the King’s and Queen’s Baths, overlooked by the rear of the Pump Room. Open to the weather and overlooked by an outdoor terrace and tall tenements, there was little privacy in these baths, and they felt both uncivilised and unhealthy.  Jane certainly had no faith in the curative properties of the spa water, and there is no record that either she or her wealthy brother Edward ever used either of these establishments.

There is little doubt, though, that the more private, aristocratic, fashionable serpentine-walled Cross Bath would have appealed to Edward, as bathers could drink hot chocolate while musicians serenaded them from a gallery.  There was even a tiny Pump Room within its bowed northern wall and there were separate bathing days for ladies and gentlemen – though gentlemen were apparently admitted to the gallery on ladies’ days, so that they could throw tokens of regard to their chosen beauty below….

 ‘Edward has been pretty well for this last Week (…) & the Waters have never disagreed with him in any respect.’

Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, 11th June 1799

In her two ‘Bath novels’, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, Jane presents contrasting attitudes to the city – her own views, perhaps, at different times of her life, but whatever she thought of the city and its fashionable spa, it was important for her work. All of her novels mention Bath, with characters recently arrived from or about to set off to….

Dr Moira Rudolf, a Walking Tour Guide, first trained as an Art Historian (University of Manchester, Department of History of Art), with an especial interest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before she returned to her first love, Architectural History, in which she gained her doctorate (University of London, Courtauld Institute). She has a lifelong enthusiasm for the architectural/social history of Bath, having fallen in love with the city at the age of five, and – somewhat later – with the life, works and wit of Jane Austen. After all, who could resist Mr Tilney, or even Mr Darcy?