The administration of Bath

Bath: administrative life.

The first basic source to go to is still John Wood’s An Essay towards a Description of Bath, published in 1765. In ch. VIII, part IV, pp. 394 ff., he gives a long list of the items comprehended in the 1590 Charter of Incorporation: « the Rights, Liberties, Franchises, and Privileges, together with the other Customs, Exemptions, and Jurisdictions, ... by Reason and Virtue of divers Charters, Grants and Confirmations,... made by the Kings of England, to the Citizens of BATH,. ..are for the most Part, said to be comprised in the CHARTER granted by Queen Elizabeth, to the said Citizens, upon the fourth Day September, in the two and thirtieth Year of her Reign, A.D. 1590 ». Before the charter was granted, Bath had long had an uninterrupted series of Mayors, since the first Mayor on record was John du Port in 123O, mentioned in a deed of grant of land.

By this charter the City was to be a « Body corporate and Politick... capable of purchasing and selling Lands; to plead, and to be impleaded... in any Courts, and before any Judge and Justice whatsoever ». This is enough to show that the City could handle money and bring an action, or be actioned against, that is, had a legal life of itw own. « The Body was to consist of one Mayor, four Aldermen at the least, and not exceeding ten at the most, and twenty chef Citizens, or Counsellors, to be called the Common Counil of the said City ». Then the charter recites the list of officers to be constituted: a Recorder, a Common Clerk or Prothonotary, a Chamberlain, Constables... A Court of Record was to be held every Monday at the Guildhall. This is important because a court of record was a superior court, insofar as it had records. The Mayor, the Recorder and two Aldermen were ex officio Justices of the Peace. A11 offices were held annually by rotation, including that of Mayor. The mayor was also to be the exclusive Coroner. The charter had appointed the first mayor, who chose the rest of the councillors and the greater part of the Aldermen. The tradition was carefully preserved ... Through the greater part of the century, the number of of ficers remained constant at thirty. All councillors were chosen by co-optation, which means that there could exist no real democracy. The City petitioned for an additional charter in 1794, in order to be allowed to elect between four and nine additional justices, because the increase of population had transformed the life of the city.

Top of Page


Among other prerogatives granted by the Charter, the Common Council could make such bye-laws as were necessary for the welfare of the City and its inhabitants; the Corporation might, from time to time, make of the Inhabitants of the said City, Free Citizens and Burgesses. The problem is here that of the right to freely exercise one’s professional activity, at the end of a regular period of indentured apprenticeship, or by marriage into a family of tradespeople, or by buying from the corporation the freedom of the City.

Let us remember that the task of a well-meaning J.P. was enormous, and covered almost every single aspect of public life in the country. A J. P. could deal with road mending, the upkeep of turn-pikes, bridges, churches, prison buildings, clearing ditches, hedges, etc. He could be an investigating magistrate, a judge in summary cases, deal with health and sanitary problems, etc. But if the fields of a J.P.’s intervention were almost infinite, the power wielded was also enormous, hence its political importance. When young men entered the Corporation, beginning at the lowest step, i.e. being constables, they slowly moved up the ladder to being promoted chamberlain, alderman, and mayor.

Bath, being a corporation, was a corporation borough that is, elected or nominated its own representatives in Parliament. Bath had been represented in Parliament since 1297 by two members (?).The system of co-optation ensured that only reliable persons could be sent to Westminster. If in the course of the 17th century, there happened occasionally to be one member only, the list of members since 1614 shows that after 1748 the election was not disputed within the Council, since two members are reported elected without any third competitior, until 1832. Bath was in fact a “close corporation”, and in all such boroughs, there was little or no democracy: “the Council being self-perpetuating, it allowed no external participation by Bath citizens” (Mr C. Johnston). It remained throughout the century within the hands of very few families, which did not prevent them from being relatively independent from the political patronage so characteristic of the period. Two unpublished theses on the development of Bath in the 17th- and 18h centuries clearly show how the Corporation came to be in the hands of a small number of families ’: the Chapmans, the Phillots, the Cowards, the Attwoods, the Wiltshires. The members of the council were indeed of the middling sort, slowly rising up from the lower trades to the professions, by intermarriage, industry and application. The case of the Chapmans family is studied by O. Gray, who shows (p. 61) that from the cloth and leather trade of the Renaissance the family and its descendants did rise up to dominate the townhall. ’ From 1547 to 1833, 37 mayors of Bristol were closely related through marriage within one or two generations to the Chapman family, whilst 37 were direct descendants ». These would also be found on the lists of Grand Juries, thus taking part in the civic and judicial life of the city. It was easy for the members and associates to receive the freedom of the City, or hold the mastership of St John’s Hospital. From the mid-century, the Chapmans were also members of the Freemasons’ Lodge(s)) in Bath. Lists of parliamentary representatives of the Corporation prove how the same names can be found for decades: George (later General) Wade, Lord John Ligonnier, the Hon. William Pitt, Sir John Seabright.

Top of Page


Membership of the Corporation carried the privilege of voting for these two representatives. Freemen of the City endeavoured several times to obtain the right to vote, but several petitions in the 17th century, and again in 1705, 1715, 1728, were all unsuccessful: the initial charter ensured that only the Corporation could vote. Bath’s municipal life was inseparable from its parliamentary representation, since the MPs were nominated by the Corporation. From the list drawn by Mc Intyre of ’Occupations of members of Bath Corporation in the 18th century’, only one ’gent’ can be found in 1740, and one ’Esq.’ in 1760 and three in 1800. This means that the middling sort was still largely predominant.

Although Bath is well-known for its Abbey church, ’the Lapthorn of the West’, it seems that the town’s religious life was relatively free from quarrels. Again, the example of the Chapman family, described as “multidenominational”, shows that there might be at times a Catholic councillor; and we know that there were difficult times for John Wesley in Bath, his adversary being no other than King Beau Nash himself. We can remember R. Graves’s Spiritual Quixote and Christopher Anstey’s famous New Bath Guide describing the adventures of the Blunderhead family, both poking fun at Methodists. Later on, Selina Countess of Huntingdon erected her private Methodist Chapel, and the Octogon Chapel was the church of all the rich and fashionable people who objected to being told in public of the devil for their (many) sins ! The social life so characteristic of this City probably helped people to be more tolerant of other forms of worship than their own.

Top of Page


It is difficult to say more of the economic life of Bath than what we know from Defoe’s Tour in 1723. From a cloth trading town, Bath became the place of diversion Defoe regrets so evidently, when compared to her sister town Bristol. The fame of her baths was one of her riches, soon supplemented by all the luxury demanded by the people of fashion. Lodgings and land speculation became another source of riches, best illustrated by the development of the Royal Crescent and others later on. Literary texts are the best evidence on the subject: Anstey, Graves, and chiefly T. Smollett in H. Clinker, as well as letters sent from Bath. The links with the metropolis were provided by the regular stages coaches leaving from a number of inns, according to a time-table published in the yearly Bath guide and in the local newspapers. Road improvements, turns-pikes, greatly helped reduce distances and time: Bath was connected to London by the ’Flying Machine’ in little less than twelve hours by the two last decades of the century. Coach services from London to Bath grew nearly eight times between 1766 and 1811.

The evolution of the Bath population can be measured from the following figures: by the Restoration, it was estimated at 1,200, at 3,000 by the end of the 17th century, three times this number by 1750, and the first official census return of 1801, was 34,160. The number of houses, used by some as a basis for an estimate of the population, was approximately 670 in 1700 to 3,946 in 1801. The rate of population growth (= x 11,38) was therefore much higher than that of housing (= x 5,9).


  • Oliver GRAY, The Rise of the Middling Sort and their Influence on local Politics and the Economy of 17th- and 18th-century Bath ( 1985) ch. 5 -
  • Sylvia MCINTYRE, Towns as Health and Leisure Resorts: Bath, Scarborough, and Weymouth, 1700-1815. (1973). pp. 59-64, 78-79.