Illuminating Bath’s lost quayside district
In the early 18th century, Avon Street was built to accommodate wealthy visitors to Bath’s fashionable spa waters. Within half a century, though, the area had degenerated into a notorious slum and red-light district. What have recent excavations revealed about the lives of its impoverished inhabitants? Cai Mason and Lorraine Mepham report.
Wandering through Bath’s grandiose neoclassical crescents, squares, and terraces, the modern visitor could be forgiven for thinking that most of its Georgian inhabitants were aristocrats who passed their time gambling, promenading, and ‘taking the waters’ at the famous hot springs. But while the annual influx of ‘the company’, as these wealthy individuals were known, was indeed pivotal to the city’s economy, they were always far outnumbered by the labourers, servants, artisans, and the ‘middling sort’ (shopkeepers, clerks, and small business owners) who made Bath function.
Where did these latter people live, and where are their houses and workshops? Whilst examples of more modest Georgian buildings do survive in parts of the city, the majority have vanished. Some were lost to early 20th-century ‘slum clearance’ programmes, others fell victim to the Luftwaffe, and many more were demolished during a much-lamented programme of post-war redevelopment documented in Adam Fergusson’s 1973 polemic, The Sack of Bath: a record and an indictment.
One of the most heavily affected areas was the notorious and densely populated Avon Street district. Sandwiched between the old city walls and the River Avon, this area was once home to 10,000 of the city’s poorest inhabitants, who lived in cramped dwellings nestled amongst the factories, stables, slaughterhouses, breweries, pubs, and warehouses that grew up alongside the riverside quays. Widely regarded as a lawless aberration that jarred with the city’s reputation as a respectable ‘genteel residence’ for the wealthy, it was amongst the first areas to be scheduled for wholesale clearance and rebuilding. By the early 1930s, large swathes of the area had been demolished to make way for blocks of new ‘model flats’ and the foundations for a hospital, but the outbreak of the Second World War brought construction to a grinding halt, and the harsh financial austerity of the post-war years led to the abandonment of the planned redevelopment. Instead, most of the resulting wasteland was tarmacked over for use as a car and coach park – and so it remained for the next 70 years.
The district’s story has now come to light once more, though, thanks to proposals for a major mixed-use development of the area (now known as Bath Quays), which gave Wessex Archaeology the opportunity to excavate a substantial riverside strip through the heart of the former Avon Street district. Funded by Bath and North East Somerset Council and carried out in 2016–2017, this investigation has shed vivid light on how the area developed and how the Industrial Revolution affected the living conditions of the district’s diverse inhabitants.
ORIGINS AND EXPANSION
Our story begins long before industrialisation, though – we start in the mid-16th century, when a spate of medical writings extolled the benefits of mineral waters, including the curative powers of Bath’s hydrothermal springs. Such recommendations inspired a gradual increase in wealthy visitors to the city, including royalty – beginning with Queen Elizabeth I in 1574, followed by the early 17th-century Stuart kings – which saw Bath become a fashionable destination for the aristocracy.
Development within the city remained slow, though, partly thanks to its abysmal transport links, which relied on poorly maintained roads across the steep surrounding hills. Despite some improvements following the formation of the Bath Turnpike Trust in 1707, transporting heavy goods remained difficult and expensive. This had not always been the case – during the medieval period the Avon was navigable between Bath and the Port of Bristol, but by the 14th century, mills and weirs were beginning to obstruct the river, and by the post-medieval period, the river was impassable.
Development also came late to the area that would ultimately become home to the Avon Street district. Prior to the 1720s it was split into three parcels of meadow – Ambury and Great Kingsmead, former properties of Bath Priory that formed part of the Gay family’s estate; and Little Kingsmead, which had belonged to the Hospital of St John since the 13th century – with a boundary demarcated by an artificial watercourse called the Fosse Dyke. We excavated a portion of this ditch (which measured 7.3m wide and over 2.4m deep) during our investigation, uncovering 0.8m-wide stone foundations revetting an earlier bank, which contained a few abraded sherds of late medieval pottery. The earliest maps of Bath, dating from c.1600 onwards, suggest that these represent the remains of a crenellated wall along the east side of the boundary.
As the meadows entered the 18th century they remained relatively undeveloped, with the exception of quarrying at the southern end of Little Kingsmead, and the construction of a small stone footbridge over the Fosse Dyke. This was all to change in 1724, however, when a consortium of businessmen (nominally headed by the 17-year-old Duke of Beaufort, but in reality led by the postmaster and quarry owner Ralph Allen) banded together to form the Avon Navigation Company. The opening of the Avon Navigation – a navigable stretch of the river between Bristol and Bath – in December 1727 significantly lowered the costs of transporting heavy goods such as building materials, which in turn provided a spur for the first major phase of speculative development outside the walls of Bath.
It was in this spirit that both Kingsmead Square and Avon Street were constructed in the late 1720s and early 1730s, with well-built townhouses intended to accommodate wealthy visitors to the spa. Meanwhile, the southern end of Avon Street housed non-domestic structures – probably warehouses and stables – which were constructed alongside a small quay that incorporated a slipway and what appears to have been a subterranean boathouse. There was another focus of development around the Avon Navigation’s main quay (Broad Quay) at the eastern end of the site.
THE NYMPHS OF AVON STREET
By the mid-1760s, it was Ambury meadow’s turn to be developed, with the construction of houses along Little Corn Street and the western end of a riverside road known as New Quay (its eastern end was built up in a more piecemeal manner in the 1770s and 1780s). There, our excavations uncovered the remains of diverse structures, including lodging houses, stables, warehouses, stone yards, and a fellmonger and parchment-maker’s workshop.
Fellmongering – dealing and processing animal (normally sheep) pelts – is a filthy trade. Freshly skinned pelts need to be washed, scraped, soaked in lime pits, and washed again prior to further treatment to manufacture leather or parchment. These processes generate considerable quantities of smelly liquid effluvia, which would have been particularly noticeable during the warmer months – such businesses were decidedly antisocial neighbours. Beyond the excavation area there were also breweries, slaughterhouses, and bone yards – all contributing their own pungent aromas to the pervasive smell of coal smoke from nearby houses and factories.
The insalubrious nature of these industries, coupled with the district’s less than optimal location near a commercial quayside and a flood-prone river, led to a gradual exodus of the area’s wealthier patrons to the new developments to the north and east of the old city. With the rental value of their properties falling, landowners sought to maximise revenues by increasing occupancy, subdividing and extending their properties, and infilling their gardens with courts of blind-back and back-to-back houses. Our excavation showed that the creation of court housing was already well under way by the early 1770s and was largely complete by the end of the 18th century.
During this period, Avon Street acquired a fame of sorts, though not for the reason its architects had intended: it was the city’s principal red-light district. Letters from the Whig politician Henry Penruddocke Wyndham preserve references to its brothels, recalling his visits to ‘Mother Adams’s’ in 1762, while a 1766 letter from Rev John Penrose describes how he and his family took pains to avoid the ‘street of ill fame’. The ‘nymphs of Avon Street’ are also mentioned in Tobias Smollett’s picaresque novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, which was published in 1771.
By 1776, one in eight of the buildings along Avon Street was a public house, and many of the publicans supplemented their income by providing rooms for prostitutes to practise their trade. One of the area’s infamous drinking dens lay within our excavation area. Founded in 1794 on the ground floor of a quayside warehouse, the Duke of York was a frequent witness to criminality and violence, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s. In addition to stabbings and bar brawls, contemporary newspapers and police records note that the bar was frequented by street-thieves, burglars, and prostitutes; in 1851, a notorious gang of pickpockets was captured sleeping in an upstairs room. Despite this chequered record, the pub continued trading until 1869, before briefly becoming a vagrant ward for the Bath Board of Guardians, and finally reverting to its original function as a warehouse.
On the land to the west of Avon Street, development began with the construction of Milk Street in the late 1760s. The east side of the street was lined with warehouses, small workshops, and a three-storey back-to-back tenement block known as Lockyer’s Court; the land to the west was used as a refuse dump until it was developed in the 1790s. It is uncertain if this dumping was officially sanctioned as a means of raising the ground level, or opportunistic fly-tipping – the absence of food waste may indicate the former, though bones could have been gathered and sold to the local bone mill.
Instead, the refuse dump comprised a mixture of clinker, ash, construction and industrial waste, domestic pottery, and glass – material that is likely to have originated from multiple sources across the city, reflecting Bath’s wider late- 18th-century material culture rather than the locale in which it was dumped.
Speaking of rubbish: although capped stone-lined wells were common across the site, the near-total absence of refuse- and cesspits was striking. The lack of the former could be explained by there being little room to dig in the cramped and mostly paved rear yards, whilst cesspits may not have been needed as most of the excavated latrines were linked to sewers via stone-lined drains, which were presumably flushed with rain and wastewater. So where did the 18th- and 19th-century inhabitants dispose of their rubbish?
One obvious solution, though officially frowned upon, was the river; those who lived further from the water are likely to have relied on Corporation-appointed ‘scavengers’, who were contracted to clean the streets and dispose of anything worthless on nearby farmland – the refuse dump to the west of Milk Street may reflect this type of activity. Unfortunately for archaeologists, no pits or cesspits means few large groups of finds that could be directly linked to individual properties – but there were some exceptions.
One of these was an accumulation of artefacts beneath the suspended wooden floor (replaced with stone paving in the 1830s or 1840s) of a 1760s tenement at 14 New Quay. They were all small items, which had probably been lost through gaps between floorboards: several coins of George III (spanning 1799–1806), a token from the Anglesey Mines Company (1791), buttons, a decorated scale-tang knife handle, a machine-stamped thimble, a small spoon possibly used for condiments, two stone marbles, a stone mortar, and a bone ‘gaming fish’.
There were also fragments of typical early 19th-century tea- and tablewares: porcelain, bone china, pearlware, and whiteware. Among the pottery, a transfer-printed pearlware ‘nursery’ plate bearing the words of an Isaac Watts hymn (‘Oh what a lovely thing for youth’) was particularly noteworthy, as was a sherd of creamware with black overglaze printing that read ‘en Vaderland’. This is part of the patriotic motto Voor Vryheid en Vaderland (‘For Liberty and Fatherland’), which appears on vessels produced in England for the Dutch export market during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The appreciation of these English imports in the Netherlands was not universal, though, as the local delftware pottery industry was badly affected. One 1780 pamphlet entitled ‘The Delft stick pulverizing the disgusting yellow and hideous red English earthenware’ recommended that English china should be used only by prison convicts (which would then give it a bad name), and in 1798 English goods were officially boycotted.
This period also saw a strong anti- British Patriot Movement rise in the Netherlands, but unfortunately for the delftware industry, the demand for high-quality English tea- and coffee-drinking ceramics outweighed patriotic considerations – Dutch citizens were not willing to sacrifice their pretensions to gentility for the sake of lower-quality local ceramics, and English potters had no objection to making products incorporating slogans unfavourable to themselves in the cause of good business. How, though, did this particular vessel end up in Bath? Did one of the tenants have Dutch connections?
HEALTH AND HYGIENE
From the 1790s onwards, development within the Avon Street area remained largely static, but further small-scale infilling between buildings continued as the population expanded. By the turn of the 19th century, the district was becoming seriously overcrowded. The consequences for the health of its inhabitants were dire, as described in Edwin Chadwick’s seminal 1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. This document included case studies written by local officials, and the report on Bath was written by a 26-year-old clergyman named Whitwell Elwin, chaplain of Bath Union Workhouse. Elwin’s work for the Poor Law Union made him intimately familiar with the lives of Bath’s poorest citizens, and his description of living conditions in the Avon Street district was both opinionated and shocking:
‘The deaths from fever and contagious diseases I found to be almost exclusively confined to the worst parts of the town. An epidemic of smallpox raged at the end of the year 1831, and carried off upwards of 300 persons; yet of all this number I do not think there was a single gentleman, and not above two or three tradesmen. The residences of the labouring classes were pretty especially visited, disease showing here and there a predilection for particular spots, and settling with full virulence in Avon-street and its offsets. I went through the registers from the commencement, and observed that, whatever contagious or epidemic diseases prevailed – fever, small-pox, influenza – this was the scene of its principal ravages; and it is the very place of which every person acquainted with Bath would have predicted this result.’
‘Everything vile and offensive is congregated there. All the scum of Bath – its low prostitutes, its thieves, its beggars – are piled up in the dens rather than houses of which the street consists. Its population is the most disproportioned to the accommodation of any I have ever heard; and to aggravate the mischief, the refuse is commonly thrown under the staircase; and water more scarce than in any quarter of the town. It would hardly be a hyperbole to say that there is less water consumed than beer; and altogether it would be more difficult to exaggerate the description of this dreadful spot than to convey an adequate notion to those who have never seen it.’
Chadwick’s conclusions about the health and living conditions for Britain’s urban poor were damning and led directly to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848 – the first instance where the British Government took direct responsibility for the health of the nation. The passing of the Act also provided the impetus for local authorities to start making improvements to sanitation, water supply, and other measures to improve the health of the urban population. At Avon Street, this entailed replacing leaky stone sewers with ceramic pipes, providing piped mains water, and the construction of a public wash house known as the Milk Street Baths.
Opening in 1847, the baths represent one of the earliest establishments of their type in the country, and the only well-preserved example to have been archaeologically excavated. Water for the wash house was drawn from the river using a steam-powered pump, whilst hot water was provided by twin Lancashire steam boilers. There were initially 14 laundry tubs and five baths, but these were insufficient to meet local demand, and in 1853 the building was extended to increase its capacity to eight women’s baths, 16 men’s baths, and 41 laundry tubs. Bathers were supplied with hot and cold running water and a private closet for changing.
Second-class baths cost tuppence and included the use of a towel, whilst first-class baths were available for three pence; these had more ornate closets, a floor-grate to stand on, a chair and cushion, a washstand, and a mirror. The wash house remained busy throughout the 19th century, but by the early 1920s fewer and fewer people needed to make use of its facilities, and when plans for a redevelopment of the area were drawn up, the Corporation explicitly stated that the baths and laundry would not be replaced. The new houses they planned to build would have their own bathing facilities, and it seems likely that the decision not to replace the wash house was, at least partially, driven by a desire to make a definitive break with the area’s ‘poor and dirty’ past.
INDUSTRIAL AVON STREET
Nineteenth-century Avon Street was an ethnically diverse area. Germans, Jews, Italians, and West Indians are all recorded as residents, but the most numerous migrant group was the Irish, who arrived in large numbers following an Gorta Mór (the Great Famine) of 1845–1849. By 1851, 17.9% of the people living in Avon Street were Irish, and material traces of their presence can be found in Irish-themed clay tobacco pipes featuring shamrocks and Irish place names, examples of which were found during our excavation.
The second half of the 19th century also saw the Avon Street area become increasingly industrialised, with the establishment of new businesses such as brass and iron foundries, dye and engineering works, and timber mills. Industrialisation was not restricted to this district, though: new factories sprang up around the city, particularly alongside the river and railways, and by the end of the century, Bath had become a major industrial centre, particularly for engineering. A notable example of this was Stothert and Pitt, whose vast Newark Works foundry on the south side of the river specialised in the manufacture of large dockside cranes, but also produced a bewildering array of other machinery, including steam engines, water pumps, iron lighthouses, mini-submarines, concrete mixers, and quarry crushing and screening plant.
These changes had mixed impacts on the Avon Street population. Whilst smoke and effluvia from factories would have had a detrimental impact on air and water quality – and, by extension, the health of local inhabitants – the increasing availability of skilled and semi-skilled industrial work would have provided job opportunities and increased incomes for many. Late 19th-century expansion of industrial premises led to the demolition of residential properties, which, together with stricter enforcement of lodging-house occupancy regulations, also reduced the size and density of the population.
It was these factors that spelled the district’s decline. The reduced availability of housing, coupled with industrial pollution and the stigma of living in the city’s red-light district, prompted many to migrate to Bath’s expanding suburbs, where better quality houses in more ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods were becoming more widely available. The intention of Bath Corporation’s 1930s clearance work was to rebuild the Avon Street district anew, but the outbreak of the Second World War put paid to these plans, and it is only now, nearly a century later, that the redevelopment of the area is finally being implemented. These modern works, and the archaeological investigation they sparked, mean that the remains of Bath’s industrial past and the lives of its forgotten 18th- and 19th-century inhabitants are gradually being brought to light once more.
TEXT: Cai Mason is a Senior Project Officer and Lorraine Mepham is a Senior Project Manager at Wessex Archaeology.
The results of this excavation and extensive documentary research that has since been carried out will be published as a highly illustrated Wessex Archaeology occasional paper, Bath Quays Waterside: the archaeology of industry, commerce and the lives of the poor in Bath’s lost quayside district, Wessex Archaeology Occasional Paper (available late 2020).