This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne brings us a laugh-out-loud guide to the historic city of Bath. Written by Christopher Anstey in the mid-18th century, this long satirical poem traces the misfortunes of a young squire, his family and friends
The New Bath Guide
‘Twas a glorious Sight to behold the Fair Sex
All wading with Gentlemen up to their Necks,
And view them to prettily tumble and sprawl
In a great smoaking Kettle as big as our Hall:
And to-Day many persons of Rank & Condition
Were boil’d by Command of an able Physician …
What’s the funniest thing written about 18th century Bath? Sheridan’s The Rivals might be most people’s first choice, but (in my opinion) Christopher Anstey’s New Bath Guide (1766) is a cut above. There aren’t many things written 250 years ago that can still make modern readers laugh out loud, but this is one of ’em.
Anstey (1724-1805) was a wealthy and educated Cambridgeshire landowner who, in the way of much of England’s 18th-century gentry, paid several visits to Bath during the city’s heyday as a fashionable resort for the rich. He later settled there.
Bath’s popularity was based on the supposed healing qualities of its hot springs, supposedly originally discovered by the legendary King Bladud, and later exploited by the Romans. In the 1700s it had become a social centre for the upper classes. Behind the genteel chocolate-box exterior, though, it was a place of serious business; suitable marriages were arranged, huge sums were won and lost at the gaming tables, and the city teemed with parasites, charlatans and chancers.
Anstey’s lengthy satirical poem traces the misfortunes of impressionable young squire Simkin Blunderhead, his sister Prudence, cousin Jenny and a servant, Tabitha (‘Tabby’) Runt on their first visit.
Anstey has a great deal, for instance, to say about the city’s large complement of doctors and quacks, noting, for instance, that though they were quick to put their patients in the waters, they never bathed themselves:
But what is surprising, no Mortal e’er view’d
Any one of the Physical Gentlemen stewed;
Since the Day that King BLADUD first found out the Bogs
And thought them so good for himself & his Hogs ,
Not one of the Faculty ever has try’d
These excellent Waters to cure his own Hide
He also raises a minor concern over hygiene. The waters were not just for bathing; you were supposed to drink them as well (you can still sample the waters at the Pump Room if you visit Bath today.)
So while little TABBY was washing her Rump,
The Ladies kept drinking it out of a Pump.
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