On 29 and 30 September the opening of Bath’s historic (Upper) Assembly Rooms was marked with a conference over Zoom, followed by a live event in the Assembly Rooms where conference participants were able to experience a display of dances from the Ridotto, which had opened the Rooms precisely 250 years before in 1771. We welcome back one of the speakers, Jemima Hubberstey, a doctoral candidate at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to offer some reflections on the event.
To celebrate the 250th anniversary since the opening of Bath’s Assembly Rooms on 30 September 1771, Bath 250 brought together researchers, heritage practitioners and performers, to reflect on the many different histories of Bath and its Georgian heritage. Rather than considering the Assembly Rooms in isolation, the conference’s focus on the social life of the rooms allowed for many cross-disciplinary conversations, and revealed the broader contexts and networks in which the rooms – and Bath society itself – was situated.
Rather than simply reiterating well-rehearsed aspects of Bath life such as the high society parties and the bathing rituals, the conference explored the often-overlooked histories of the Assembly Rooms and Georgian Bath. Each of the papers took a nuanced approach when considering how Georgian visitors experienced the polite world of Bath, tracing not only the experiences of the social and political elites, but the people behind the scenes and the businesses who catered to the flocks of Georgian tourists, such as the boarding houses, companies selling Bath water, rival undertakers, and disorderly sedan chairmen.
The opening keynote by Hannah Greig sparked off the conference as she examined the Assembly Rooms as a ‘temple of sociability’ and placed them in the context of high society parties. Highlighting the differences between public assembly rooms and the lavish private parties hosted by some of Britain’s aristocratic elite, Greig demonstrated the way in which the plentiful activities reflected not only Georgian society’s insatiable appetite for different entertainments throughout the social calendar, but the way in which sociability itself was hierarchical and sometimes exclusionary. Anticipating later discussions at the conference, Greig also shared diaries and letter extracts from members of the Georgian elite who were less enamoured with Bath and the social obligations expected of them.
Considering Bath as a performance space was a key theme that emerged from the conference. Papers explored the Assembly Rooms as a site in which a rich variety of dances, music, and concerts were performed (there was even a pre-recorded harp recital performed by Maximilian Ehrhardt). Some papers also considered Bath as a theatre for celebrities to be seen, which on some level, allowed them to capitalise on their fame to promote their careers. Yet other papers also explored the performative aspects of Bath society, such as the obligation to perform politeness in public settings or perform as unwilling actors in courtship rituals.
As several papers explored, social performances could also offer opportunities to foster support and allegiance, as politicians and their often equally strategically influential wives took advantage of the informal political networking opportunities outside of Parliament. Politics did not end at the end close of the parliamentary session and, in fact, improved roads between London and Bath meant MPs and members of the Lords could even take breaks mid-session for their health. Papers drew attention to Bath’s integral role within eighteenth-century politics, as well as the way in which the city was a melting pot in which a range of figures across the social and political spectrum could find themselves jostling in the same spaces.
Several papers also considered Bath beyond its sandstone walls. A couple of papers examined architectural plans for Bath and reflected on alternative visions of what Bath could have looked like and suggested reasons these projects were changed or never built at all. Papers also explored the broader economic contexts in which Bath was situated: one paper importantly drawing attention to the fact that the wealth from subscribers – which had financed the Assembly Rooms – was derived from plantations. Papers also examined interpretations of Bath beyond the eighteenth century, whether it was the influence Bath had in spa towns throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, or the Edwardian interpretation of Bath in the 1909 pageant.
The rich array of papers demonstrated the multiplicity of narratives and stories to be told from the same architectural space, and it is fitting that the roundtable discussion should have questioned the dominant narratives within the heritage sector. Olivette Otele called for Bath’s decolonising and slavery projects to collaborate and generate further discussions about the complex histories of Bath, using it as an opportunity to reshape our communities and narratives of the past. Oliver Cox suggested that a ‘new politeness’ could animate eighteenth-century spaces, highlighting the importance of conversation and collaboration between academia and the heritage sector in order to share challenging narratives and make them accessible and engaging for modern audiences. Rounding off the discussion, Tom Boden highlighted the National Trust’s mission to change the experience of the Assembly Rooms so that they bring to life a range of stories of the past and engage modern visitors to create new experiences.
Transitioning from computer screens to the Assembly Rooms themselves, the in-person event at the end of the second day allowed participants to immerse themselves into the famous architectural space and re-enact eighteenth-century sociability and performance. Jonathan Foyle gave a fascinating keynote lecture on the architectural influences on John Wood the Younger’s design for the Assembly Rooms, before Hillary Burlock gave a talk on the Ridotto Redux in 1771 and the different sorts of dancing and music in Georgian assembly rooms. The conference ended with a demonstration from the Bath Minuet Company, a fitting way to celebrate the 250th anniversary by bringing eighteenth-century dance alive once more in the hallowed rooms.
The Conference was organized by: Hillary Burlock (Queen Mary, University of London), Elaine Chalus (Liverpool University), Oliver Cox (Oxford University), Robin Eagles (History of Parliament) and Rupert Goulding (National Trust); the conference webinar was managed by a team at the University of Liverpool, and the conference received support from the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Early Dance Circle, and the Royal Historical Society.