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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Society of Dilettanti

Group of members of the Dilettanti Society by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779)  The central figure with the vase is Sir William Hamilton  from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
Group of members of the Dilettanti Society by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779)
The central figure with the vase is Sir William Hamilton
from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
The foundation of the Dilettanti Society

The Society of Dilettanti was founded in the early 1730s by a group of men who had visited Italy on the Grand Tour and wanted to continue to share and build on their experiences.

The preface to Ionian Antiquities stated that:
In the year 1734 some gentlemen who had travelled in Italy, desirous of encouraging at home a taste for those objects which had contributed to their entertainment abroad, formed themselves into a society under the name of the Dilettanti.1,2
The name Dilettanti comes from the Latin 'dilettare', to take delight in, and the Society adopted a policy of 'seria ludo' – looking at serious subjects in a light-hearted manner.


In 1736, there were 46 members, mostly “young men of rank and fashion”3. New members had to be personally known to an existing member and elected in a secret ballot.

The ballot box  from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
The ballot box
from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
In 1743, Horace Walpole criticised the Society of Dilettanti, saying that it was
...a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy.4
The influence of later members such as Sir William Hamilton, Charles Townley and Richard Payne Knight shifted the focus of the Society toward archaeological investigations. By the end of the 18th century, the Society was the top British establishment for the study of classical antiquities.


The Society’s first documented meeting was at the Bedford Head Tavern, Covent Garden, on 6 March 1736. Subsequent meetings were held in various taverns, but by 1757, the Society usually met for dinner on alternate Sundays at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall.5

From 1800 to 1810, they met at Mr Parslow’s tavern in St James’ Street. The Society bought a site in Cavendish Square in 1747 to erect their own building, but plans were later abandoned and the land sold again, at a profit.

Two boxes were commissioned by the Society – an elaborate balloting box for the secret ballots and a box in the shape of the Tomb of Bacchus to hold the Society’s records.

The ballot box  from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
The Tomb of Bacchus
from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
There was an element of mystery surrounding the proceedings of the Dilettanti Society. It was rumoured that the Society’s rituals were infused with sexual and religious overtones. The officers of the Society were required to dress for their roles. According to the minutes, the President was supposed to wear a crimson toga and the Secretary, to dress like Machiavelli. Some of the members had secret cabinets filled with erotic curiosities.

Portraits and face-money

The Society appointed George Knapton as painter and passed a resolution that every member should have his portrait painted and presented to the Society. A further resolution introduced an annual fine of one guinea on any member who had failed to present his portrait. This was designated 'face-money' and raised considerable sums of money for the Society.

Knapton resigned in 1763 and was replaced by James Stuart, but Stuart failed to paint any portraits and Sir Joshua Reynolds took over in 1769. Reynolds painted two large pictures of members of the Dilettanti Society. These reflected both the serious nature of the Society and the light-hearted camaraderie between its members.

Group of members of the Dilettanti Society by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779)
from History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914)
Subsequently, Sir Thomas Lawrence and then Sir Martin Archer Shee were appointed to this role.

The Royal Academy

In the 1750s, the Society was involved in discussions about the creation of a Royal Academy of art, but it wanted too much influence and the negotiations broke down. However, the Society provided financial support for the Royal Academy in 1775 by starting to provide scholarships for Academy students to study in Italy and Greece.


The Society raised money through membership subscriptions and face-money and used it to influence taste and sponsor the study of Greek and Roman art.

In the 1740s, the Society sponsored the Earl of Middlesex’s series of Italian operas in London.

In the 1750s, the Society sponsored James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Athenian expedition. This resulted in the influential publication, Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated which was published in three volumes between 1762 and 1794.

View of Athens from The Antiquities of Athens (Vol I)
by J Stuart & N Revett (1762)
In 1764, the Society backed a trip to Ionia – the first archaeological trip to Asia Minor sponsored by any British Institution. The men sponsored were Richard Chandler, a classical scholar and inscription expert; Nicholas Revett, the architect from the Athenian expedition; and William Pars, a topographical artist. They carried out the first excavations of the temple of Zeus at Nemea. The findings of the trip were documented in Antiquities of Ionia (1797).

A second expedition to Ionia was sponsored in 1812, with the team headed by topographical artist, William Gell. Their research was recorded in Unedited Antiquities of Attica (1817).

The Society in disrepute

In 1787, the Dilettanti published An Account of the Worship of Priapus. It included a letter from Sir William Hamilton to Sir Joseph Banks describing his finds concerning the Neapolitan cult of the worship of Priapus. More controversially, it included an essay by Knight which made outrageous suppositions about ancient sexual conduct in religious ceremonies. It was ill-received and damaged Knight’s reputation.

Specimens of Ancient Sculpture

In 1808, the Society published the first volume of Specimens of Ancient Sculpture Aegyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: selected from different collections in Great Britain. John Samuel Agar was responsible for the highly detailed drawings of the classical statutory which were then engraved for this volume. The collections were all held by members of the Dilettanti, but those of Knight and Townley were the most prominent.

The Elgin Marbles

Some of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum
Knight was vehemently opposed to the purchase of the Parthenon marbles brought back by Lord Elgin. For more than ten years, he attempted to discredit them as Roman copies of Phidias’ originals. Other members thought differently. The British Museum bought the marbles in 1816 and the Dilettanti Society donated the two pieces of Parthenon frieze that they had brought back from the first Ionian expedition. The episode further damaged Knight’s reputation.

Prominent members

In its early days, prominent members of the Dilettanti Society included:
• Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, later 2nd Duke of Dorset
• Sir Francis Dashwood, later Lord le Despencer
• Simon Harcourt, Viscount and later Earl Harcourt
• Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne
• William Ponsonby, later Viscount Duncannon and Earl of Bessborough
• Richard Grenville, Earl Temple
• Sewallis Shirley, Comptroller of Queen Charlotte’s household
• Sir James Gray, British Resident at Venice and British Envoy to Naples and later Spain
• Simon Luttrell, later Earl of Carhampton
• Sir George Gray
• George Knapton

Other notable members included:
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1766)
Charles James Fox (1769)
• George Selwyn (1770)
• William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (1770)
• Sir Joseph Banks (1774)
• Charles Francis Greville (1774)
• Sir William Hamilton (1777)
• David Garrick (1777)
• Richard Payne Knight (1781)
• Sir George Beaumont (1784)
Charles Townley (1786)
Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Baronet (1792)
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1792)
• Benjamin West (1792)
Thomas Hope (1800)

(1) The exact date of the formation of the Society of Dilettanti is unknown. This passage states that it was formed in 1734, but the first recorded meeting was not until 1736. Society annals indicate that the first meetings of the Society may have been held as early as December 1732 in Italy.
(2) From the introduction to Ionian Antiquities, published by the Dilettanti Society (1769).
(3) From History of the Society of Dilettanti by L Cust (1914).
(4) In a letter from Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann 14 April 1743 in Letters of Horace Walpole (1840).
(5) From Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds by CR Leslie and T Taylor (1865). Jason Kelly in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography refers to the Society meeting five times a year in the Star and Garter from 1757, but this may have been referring to business meetings as opposed to regular dining.

Sources used include:
Cust, Lionel, MA and Colvin, Sir Sidney, MA, History of the Society of Dilettanti (1914)
Kelly, Jason, Society of Dilettanti (act. 1732-2003), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, May 2006; online edn Sept 2012, accessed 12 Jan 2013)
Leslie, Charles Robert, RA, and Taylor, Tom, MA, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865)
Stuart, James and Revett, Nicholas, The Antiquities of Athens, measured and delineated Vol I (1762)
Walpole, Horace, The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, in six volumes (1840)

John Paul Getty Museum website – Dilettanti exhibition (2008)

Photographs ©

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mary 'Perdita' Robinson (1757-1800)

Perdita - Mary Robinson from The Poetical Works of   the late Mrs Mary Robinson (1806)
Mary 'Perdita' Robinson
from The Poetical Works of the late Mrs Mary Robinson (1806)

Mary Robinson (27 November 1757 – 26 December 1800) was an actress and author, famous for being the first mistress of the young George IV.

Family background

Mary Darby was born in Bristol on 27 November 1757 (1), the daughter of Nicholas Darby, a merchant sailor, and his wife Hester, who was thought to have married beneath her. Mary had two brothers, John and George, who survived into adulthood.

Mary was educated in Bristol, at a school run by Hannah More and her sisters. In 1765, Darby left to try to establish fisheries on the Labrador coast. The enterprise failed and they were forced to sell the family home. Mary’s parents separated and Mary went to live in London with her mother.

Marriage or the stage

Mary was introduced to David Garrick who coached her for the stage. But before Mary’s theatrical career could get started, she was persuaded to marry Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk with good prospects. Robinson and Mary were married on 12 April 1773, but it soon transpired that Robinson had lied and his future prospects had been grossly exaggerated. He proved to be an unreliable and unfaithful husband.

  David Garrick  from Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick by T Davies (1808)
David Garrick
from Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick
 by T Davies (1808)

On 18 October 1774, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Maria Elizabeth, who was Mary’s constant companion for the rest of her life – her “adored and affectionate secondself”. A second daughter, Sophia, was born in May 1777, but died from convulsions as a baby.

Money problems

The Robinsons lived beyond their means and in May 1775, Robinson was arrested for debt. Mary and baby Maria spent 15 months in the Fleet Prison with him.

The Fleet Prison, from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Fleet Prison, from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Desperate for money, Robinson agreed that Mary should go on stage. She was engaged by Richard Brinsley Sheridan at the Drury Lane Theatre and Garrick loyally came out of retirement to coach her for the part of Juliet. On 10 December 1776, she gave her first performance and was an instant success.

Perdita and Florizel

Mary was very attractive with curly, dark auburn hair and soft blue eyes. George, Prince of Wales, became obsessed with her after seeing her in the role of Perdita in Florizel and Perdita, on 3 December 1779. The Prince embarked on a passionate correspondence, styling himself as Florizel to Mary’s Perdita.

George IV from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
George IV from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
George and Mary became lovers after he gave her a bond for £20,000 to be paid on his majority. At the Prince’s urging and to help reduce the bad press they were getting, Mary gave up her career, performing for the last time on 31 May 1780. But by the end of the year, the affair was over. The fickle Prince had transferred his affections to the courtesan, Elizabeth Armistead.

Read more about Mary's affair with the Prince here.

Mary was deeply in debt and accepted £5000 and the promise of an annuity in exchange for the Prince’s love letters.

Fashion leader

Mary’s relationship with the Prince pushed her to the forefront of the fashionable world. She introduced new styles from Paris and English designs were named for her, such as the Perdita – “a chip hat with a bow and pink ribbons puff’d round the crown” (2) in spring 1781. Mary was also famous for her smart carriages.

Whig supporter

Mary was an ardent Whig and supporter of Charles James Fox, both on the streets like the Duchess of Devonshire in the 1784 election campaign, and through her poetry.

Charles James Fox  from Memoirs of George IV   by R Huish (1830)
Charles James Fox
from Memoirs of George IV
 by R Huish (1830)
Mary’s lovers

Mary was continually propositioned by gentlemen including Lord Lyttelton and George Fitzgerald, who Mary claimed tried to abduct her from Vauxhall. As well as the Prince, Mary’s name was linked with several other prominent figures including Viscount Malden, the Duke of Lauzun, Charles James Fox and Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

Colonel Banastre Tarleton

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton  Print by M Rosenthal after C Blackberd (1885)  © British Museum
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton
Print by M Rosenthal after C Blackberd (1885)
© British Museum
Mary’s most enduring relationship was with Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the love of her life, which lasted, on and off, from 1782 until 1797. Their affair was passionate but stormy. Tarleton was expensive and a gambler and they were always short of money.

In 1783, Mary became pregnant with Tarleton’s child. Fearing that he was deserting her and fleeing the country to escape his debts, Mary pursued him through the night. As a result, she lost her baby and became extremely ill with a rheumatic fever which left her lame for the rest of her life. (3)

This time, she and Tarleton were reunited, but in 1797, he left her permanently and afterwards married Susan Bertie, an heiress of £20,000.

Mary the writer

  Mary Robinson  from an engraving by Smith after Romney  in Memoirs of Mary Robinson (1895)
Mary Robinson
from an engraving by Smith after Romney
in Memoirs of Mary Robinson (1895)
Mary’s illness forced her to adopt a new way of life. Back in 1775, she had published a book of her poems and gained the patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire. Now she dedicated herself to writing.

Mary wrote profusely. She published more volumes of her poetry and wrote for different publications, such as The World, The Oracle and The Morning Post, using pseudonyms, such as Laura, Tabitha Bramble and The Sylphid, as well as her own name. She published several novels with feminist undertones and a feminist essay. She also wrote two plays and an opera, but these were not successful.

Mary also composed her Memoirs (4). Although they were predisposed in her own favour, they nevertheless represent an early instance of an English writer’s autobiography.


Mary inspired devoted friendships. Amongst her close friends and supporters were Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge  from The Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
from The Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840)
Money problems

Despite her diligence, Mary’s income was low and her expenses high. Her lameness necessitated keeping a carriage and payment of the annuities from the Prince and Lord Malden were erratic. In 1800 she was arrested for debt but released soon after.

Illness and death

Mary struggled with poor health for the rest of her life and visited Bath, Brighton and continental health resorts in search of some amelioration for her sufferings. She lived at Englefield Cottage, in Old Windsor, with her daughter, where she still entertained a small group of intimate friends.

Mary died on 26 December 1800 and was buried in Old Windsor churchyard. Only two people attended the funeral: the satirist, John Wolcot, (who used the pseudonym ‘Peter Pindar’) and William Godwin.

(1) There is some confusion over Mary’s birth year. Her gravestone and the printed version of her Memoirs state her birth date as 27 November 1758. However, there is a baptismal record in the church of St Augustine the Less in Bristol of a Polly Derby on 19 July 1758. If this was indeed Mary’s baptism, then she must have been born the year before, in 1757. In her Memoirs, Mary stated that she was married at the age of 15. This supports a birth year of 1757.
(2) From The Lady’s Magazine (1781).
(3) Martin Levy in his article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography wrote that Mary had a paralytic stroke at this time and suffered from rheumatism later in life.
(4) Memoirs of the Late Mrs Robinson written by herself were published posthumously by her daughter in 1801.

Sources used include:
Byrne, Paula, Perdita, the life of Mary Robinson (2004)
Davies, Thomas, Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick (1808)
Levy, Martin J, Robinson, Mary (Perdita) (1756/8-1800) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2008, accessed 2 July 2013)
Robinson, Mary, Memoirs of Mary Robinson "Perdita" from the edition edited by her daughter with intro & notes by J Fitzgerald Molloy (1895)
Robinson, Mrs Mary, The Poetical Works of the late Mrs Mary Robinson: including many pieces never before published (1806)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The First Georgians exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery

Entrance to The First Georgians exhibition inside the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The First Georgians – Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 was an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, which ran from Friday 11 April to Sunday 12 October 2014.

Why I am blogging about The First Georgians

I was privileged to attend the exhibition preview. But I claim to blog about late Georgian and Regency history, so why am I writing about the First Georgians exhibition which stops in the year that George III became King?

There are two reasons why this exhibition is still relevant. Firstly, the reigns of George I and George II were immediately before that of George III and so set the scene for the late Georgians. What took place in those years shaped the nation that George III became ruler of. Secondly, George III was born in 1738, and so his formative years took place during the last 22 years of his grandfather George II’s reign.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the early Georges, here is a very brief introduction:

George I (1714-1727)

George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller c1715
George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller (c1715)
(On display in the portrait room)
The Act of Settlement of 1701 decreed that Great Britain had to be ruled by a Protestant monarch. Accordingly, George I, Elector of Hanover, was proclaimed King on the death of Queen Anne who had no surviving offspring.

George I had two children, George and Sophia, but was no longer married to their mother, Sophia Dorothea. George had divorced and incarcerated his wife for abandoning him when she had eloped with her lover, whose death it was generally believed that he had arranged.

He did not marry again, but had two main mistresses, Ehrengard Melusina von Schulenburg, Duchess of Kendal, and Charlotte Sophia Kielmannsegge, Countess of Darlington.

In 1717, he fell out with his son George so badly that he banished him from the Court. He often visited Hanover and died there unexpectedly in 1727.

George II (1727-1760)

George II by Sir Godfrey Kneller 1716
George II by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1716) - note his wonderful red heels!
(On display in Georgian royals, giltware and the Garricks)

George II was the last British monarch not to be born on British soil. His wife was Caroline of Ansbach, a beautiful and intelligent woman, who was very popular at Court. She embraced the philosophy of the enlightenment, respecting reason above tradition, and was a keen collector of art.

Queen Caroline by J Highmore (c1735)
Queen Caroline by J Highmore (c1735)
(On display in the Portraits room)

They had four children in Hanover: Frederick, Anne, Amelia and Caroline, and another four in England: George who died in infancy, William, Mary and Louisa.

George II was the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle, which he did at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.

Like his father, George II quarrelled with his eldest son. He banished Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife Augusta from Court in 1737 after a row over the birth of their first child. Frederick had whisked Augusta away from Hampton Court whilst she was in labour to make sure his parents would not be there at the birth. The breach between Frederick and his mother was never healed.

Frederick died in 1751 leaving his eldest son, George, to become King George III in 1760.

The exhibition

The exhibition composes entirely of items from the Royal Collection. It presents us with a snapshot into the lives of the first Georgian Kings: their families and where they lived; the battles they fought and the works of art with which they surrounded themselves.


The first room introduces us to the early Georgians with some lovely portraits, including that of Caroline of Ansbach (above) and a pastel of George III by Jean-Étienne Liotard.

George III by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1754)
George III by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1754)
The next three rooms are themed: royal residences, maps and the prints of Hogarth:

Royal residences

This display includes prints of some of the internal rooms of the royal residences, such as the King’s Gallery at Kensington and the Queen’s State Bedchamber at Hampton Court.

The King's Gallery, Kensington Palace by Charles Wild (c1816)
The King's Gallery, Kensington Palace by Charles Wild (c1816)

The maps were largely collected by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, a younger son of George II. He was nicknamed ‘Butcher Cumberland’ because of his ruthless policy against the Jacobite rebels after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Medley drawing by JFC Schilling (1767)
Medley drawing by JFC Schilling (1767)
It may have been a gift to George III.
The Hogarth room

This room includes a selection of prints by Hogarth including The Harlot’s Progress which acted as a comment on the society of the time. This series of prints tells the story of the fall of the harlot, Moll Hackabout, and they were hugely popular in the 1730s.

The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth (c1721)
The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth (c1721)
Old Masters

From the monochrome prints of Hogarth, you pass into the first of the large display rooms, where you are dazzled by colour. The walls are covered with paintings, including several huge pieces by Rubens, collected by the early Georgians and exhibited symmetrically as they would have displayed them.

Room displaying Old Masters
Room displaying Old Masters
There are two tables, beautifully gilded and supported on either side by gilt pedestals which would have held candelabra. The candlelight would have been reflected in the mirrors which would originally have been behind each table to dazzling effect.

One item that particularly caught my interest is a clock. It was bought by Frederick, Prince of Wales, but you have to search to find the clock which is very small compared to the overall size of the piece. In the bottom, there is an organ which plays tunes by Handel.

Miniatures and botanical drawings

Two small chambers off the Old Masters room show displays of royal miniatures and beautifully illustrated books of botany. A further anteroom has a collection of pistols, snuff boxes and other decorative items.

Botanical drawings by GD Ehret described by CJ Trew (1750-73)
Georgian royals, giltware and the Garricks

The second of the two large display rooms is my favourite and contains portraits of all the early Georgians. There is an enormous painting of six of Frederick Prince of Wales’ children, including the eight year old, George III, wielding a bow.

Detail from painting of Prince Frederick of Wales' children
 showing the future George III and his brother Edward
 by Barthélemy du Pan (1746)
This room also boasts two paintings by Canaletto depicting the River Thames and a table laden with gilt tableware.

Detail from London: The Thames from Somerset House terrace
by Canaletto (c1750)
One of my favourite works of art on display is the picture of David and Eva Garrick which has been used as the definitive image of the exhibition. I was surprised to discover that this very colourful and cheerful picture was in fact painted by William Hogarth, whom I have always associated with the rather sobering black and white prints displayed in the earlier room.

David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel  by William Hogarth (1757-64)
David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel
by William Hogarth (1757-64)
The Georgian coffee shop

The Millar Learning Room set up as a Georgian coffee shop
The Millar Learning Room set up as a Georgian coffee shop
The final room to explore is to the left of the portrait room at the start of the exhibition. This is the Millar Learning Room which has been set up as a Georgian coffee shop. This is an interactive space, particularly good for those with children. There are background noises and ‘windows’ displaying Georgian street scenes. There are bags full of family activities available, short videos playing on a screen set within a picture frame and period hats with headphones, so that you can take in the atmosphere. I really enjoyed visiting the exhibition.

Rachel Knowles in the Georgian coffee shop
Me in the Georgian coffee shop

There are three videos which you can watch online:
Warrior Kings
A King’s Ransom
The Enlightened Queen
and lots more information about the different items on display on the Royal Collection website.

Watch out for Dr Lucy Worsley’s television series, The First Georgians: The German Kings who Made Britain, which was due to be broadcast on BBC4 in late April 2015.

Sources used include:
Plumb, JH, The First Four Georges (1956)
Royal Collection website

All photographs © Andrew Knowles

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Leamington Spa - a Regency History guide to the Georgian watering place

Royal Pump Room and Baths, Leamington Spa
Royal Pump Room and Baths, Leamington Spa
Royal Leamington Spa is a town in Warwickshire that is famous for its mineral springs. It became a fashionable watering place in late Georgian England.

Leamington Priors

Leamington Spa was originally called Leamington Priors, named after the River Leam and Kenilworth Priory, who owned it in medieval times.

During the 18th century, when spa towns were becoming fashionable, the only known mineral spring in Leamington was situated on the Earl of Aylesford’s land. The Earl wanted the water to remain freely accessible and refused to build commercial baths on the site. A well was later built over the spring but people were still allowed to take small quantities of water for free.

The Jug & Jester pub, Bath Street
The Jug & Jester pub, Bath Street,
part of which used to house the theatre.
The blue 'Spring' artwork marks the spot of Aylesford's Well.
Abbotts’ Baths

Two entrepreneurs, William Abbotts and Benjamin Satchwell, eagerly searched for a second spring. In 1784, they discovered a new saline spring on Abbotts’ land, and in 1788, Abbotts opened Leamington’s first baths. They were rebuilt by James Gould in 1826 and renamed Gould’s Original Baths and Pump Rooms.

More baths

As the town became more popular, the demand for mineral water grew and the search for new springs intensified. In the years that followed, four more springs were discovered. Leamington was overrun with a choice of baths. Feltham listed five different sets of baths in his 1815 guide:

• Abbotts' or Mrs Smith's Baths, Bath Street (1788)
• Wise’s Baths, Bath Street (1790)
• Read's Baths, Warwick Row, High Street (1806)
• Robbins’ Baths, Bath Street Bridge (1806)
• The New Pump Room Baths (1814)

The price of bathing at the old baths was:
A Hot Bath 2s 6d
A Child's Bath 1s 6d
A Marble Bath 3s 0d
A Cold Bath 1s 0d

The New Pump Room Baths

The Pump Room and New Baths at Leamington Prior  from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places by John Feltham (1815)
The Pump Room and New Baths at Leamington Prior
from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places
by John Feltham (1815)
The New Pump Room Baths, also known as the Royal Pump Rooms, opened in 1814. They were the only baths situated on the north side of the River Leam where the New Town of Leamington had sprung up to accommodate and entertain visitors to the spa. They boasted 20 baths – 17 hot and 3 cold – together with spacious dressing rooms, a pump room and exclusive gardens for patrons to walk in.

The Pump Rooms were designed by a local architect, CS Smith, and built at a cost of more than £20,000. According to Feltham, the mineral water was in such abundance and the pump that filled the baths so efficient that “the beautiful engine which supplies them, could force up as many tons of Mineral Fluid in a few hours, as would float a Man of War”. (1)

Dr Henry Jephson began treating patients here in 1823, prescribing a diet of plain meat, stale bread, plain puddings, sherry, black tea and butter to complement taking the waters!

Royal Pump Room and Baths, Leamington Spa
Royal Pump Room and Baths, Leamington Spa
The Apollo Rooms

A seventh spring was found in 1817 and a new set of baths called Smart’s Marble Baths, the Apollo Rooms or Imperial Sulphuric appeared on Clemens Street. The New Marble Baths included an assembly room and a library and offered three types of mineral water: saline, chalybeate (containing iron) and sulphurous.

The Apollo Rooms, Clemens Street
The Apollo Rooms, Clemens Street

Feltham’s 1815 guide mentioned two libraries: Mrs Rackstrow’s and Mr Olorenshaw’s, which also included a trinket shop and toy warehouse.

Assembly Rooms

The Assembly Rooms were situated in Cross Street in the New Town and in 1815 were superintended by Mr Rackstrow. The building included a refectory, a reading room and a billiard room as well as the “great room” where there was “a ball every week from April to November, also card assemblies almost every other evening”. (1)

The Old Town opened its own Assembly Rooms – at the Apollo Rooms on Clemens Street in 1817 and at the Parthenon on Bath Street in 1821.

The Parthenon, Bath Street
The Parthenon, Bath Street

The theatre, described by Feltham as “very compact”, was in Bath Street, opposite to the New Inn, in part of what is now the Jug & Jester pub.

The Jug & Jester pub, Bath Street
The Jug & Jester pub, Bath Street
Bowling green

There was a bowling green which was next to the Bowling Green Inn on the High Street.

Bisset’s Picture Gallery and Museum

James Bisset was a Birmingham businessman who “removed entirely to Leamington, leaving the Toy-shop of Europe”. (1) In 1812, he opened a picture gallery, public reading room and museum. Subscriptions cost three shillings per week, five shillings per month or 21 shillings for the whole season. Entry to each exhibition cost one shilling.

Bisset was an astute businessman. He wrote a guidebook and poetry to promote the town and enticed people to visit his gallery by maintaining a free list of visitors:

“A free Register of arrivals is kept at the Gallery, in which ladies and gentlemen are respectfully requested to enter their names and place of residence.” (1)

Rules for Drinking the Waters
by Mr Bisset

"At early dawn prepare to rise,
And if your health you really prize,
To drink the Waters quick repair,
Then take a walk to breathe fresh air,
Hie thro' the fields— or promenade
Round Pump Room grand, or Colonnade.

A second glass now take — what then?
Why! take a pleasant walk again,
The Waters, exercise, and air,
Will brace your nerves, your health repair.

Then to your breakfast haste away,
With what keen appetite you may." (1)

The site of Robbins' Well, Bath Street Bridge
The site of Robbins' Well, Bath Street Bridge
Local attractions

Visitors to Leamington could walk around Mr Mackie’s Ranelagh Gardens or explore the Priory Gardens or Holly Walk.

Places of interest further afield included:
• The Leasowes, the beautiful gardens developed by the poet William Shenstone
• Hagley, with the neo-Palladian mansion created by George Lyttelton, first Lord Lyttelton
• Guy’s Cliff
• Offchurch
• Stoneleigh Abbey
• Warwick Castle
• Kenilworth
• Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle
Important visitors

Many people of fashion visited the resort including the Prince Regent and his sister Princess Augusta, Queen Adelaide, John Nash and the Duke of Wellington.

The future Queen Victoria visited the spa in 1830, and in 1838, after becoming Queen, she agreed to the town’s application to become known as Royal Leamington Spa.

Regent Hotel, Leamington
Regent Hotel, Leamington
(1) From John Feltham’s A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places (1815)

Sources used include:
Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places (1815)
Watkin, Jeff (edited and revised from the exhibition in the Local History Gallery curated by David Howells), The Royal Pump Rooms and the growth of Leamington Spa (2002)

All photographs © Andrew Knowles -