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.