"Polite Society",

Bath, England in the 18th-century.

By Kathy Rasch, 3rd New York Regiment.

Visitors had been coming to Bath since Roman times to take the mineral waters for their health, when the 28-year-old Richard Nash arrived in about 1703. By 1706 "Beau" Nash had become the city's Master of Ceremonies and within a decade had transformed Bath into the resort of choice not just for the rich, but for the whole of "polite society". He did this by laying down a code of behavior - his famous "Rules". These encouraged sociability between the growing gentry class and the aristocratic elite, who had traditionally kept themselves apart from the rest of society. Nash forbade hard drinking and the wearing of swords, which often led to duels. He also set out a common dress code and rules of etiquette that made the less fashionably minded feel at home. Nash was so successful that the population rose from 3,000 in 1700 to 35,000 a century later, greatly swelled by visitors during the Bath season, which ran from October to early June.

RULES by general Consent determined

I. That a visit of ceremony at coming to Bath, and another at going away, is all that is expected or desired by ladies of quality and fashion - except impertinents.

II. That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen's coming to wait on them home, to prevent disturbances and inconveniences to themselves and others.

III. That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps, shew breeding and respect.

IV. That no person take it ill that any one goes to another's play or breakfast, and not to theirís - except captious by nature.

V. That no gentleman give his tickets for the balls to any but gentlewomen - N.B. Unless he has none of his acquaintance.

VI. That gentlemen crowding before ladies at the ball, shew ill-manners; and that none do so for the future- except such as respect nobody but themselves.

VII. That no gentlemen of lady take it ill that another dances before them - except such as have no pretence to dance at all.

VIII. That the elder ladies and children be contented with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.

IX. That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them - N.B. This does not extend to the Have-at-Alls.

X. That all whispers of lies and scandal be taken for their authors.

XI. That all repeaters of such lies and scandal be shunned by all company - except such as have been guilty of the same crime.

N.B. Several men of no character, old women and young ones of questioned reputation, are great authors of lies in the place, being of the sect of Levellers.

"Beau" Nash, 1742


Gaiety in the Assembly Rooms at Bath

An "assembly" was defined in 1751 as "a stated and general meeting of the polite persons of both sexes, for the sake of conversation, gallantry, news and play". Guests amused themselves at cards, drank tea or just walked around talking and flirting. These pursuits were not new in themselves, but hitherto they had taken place in a sequence which everyone had to follow. The guests did one thing at a time and they did it all together. At an assembly, dancing, tea-drinking and cards went on at the same time spread through different rooms, if possible. The Assembly rooms at Bath had been constructed for this purpose. Each principal room had a specific function, but they could all adapt for other functions.

Dress Balls and Country Dances

Dress Balls were held once a week in Bath and began at six, when the eleven musicians in the first-floor gallery struck up. Between six and eight there were minuets, a stately dance performed by couples alone; "It is often remarked by Foreigners that the English Nation of both sexes look as grave when they are dancing, as if they were attending the Solemnity of a Funeral." The more energetic country dances followed between eight and nine and required rather freer dress, at the Roomsí rules noted: "No Lady dance country-dances in a hoop of any kind and those who choose to pull their hoops off, will be assisted by proper servants in an apartment for that purpose."

At nine the dancers moved to the Tea Room for refreshment. The entertainment continued with further country dances till 11, when the evening ended.


Gambling was endemic in early eighteenth-century Britain. As the historian William Lecky wrote, "At Bath... it reigned supreme; and the physicians even recommended it to their patients as a form of distraction... Among fashionable ladies the passion was quite as strong as among men..."

Food and Drink

In the eighteenth century the Tea Room at Bath was used primarily for refreshments and concerts. Meals were served throughout the day, from public breakfasts, to supper during Dress Balls. Food was laid out on side-tables that included "sweetmeats, jellies, wine, biscuits, cold ham and turkey". Tea was the favorite drink, usually drunk as a weak infusion without milk, but sometimes with arrack (fermented cocoa) and lemon. A foreign visitor noted that, at Bath "the Tea-Parties are extremely gay". Sometimes though things could get out of hand: "The tea-drinking passed as usual, and the company having risen from the tables, were sauntering in groupes, in expectation of the signal for attack, when the bell beginning to ring, they flew with eagerness to the dessert, and the whole place was instantly in commotion. There was nothing but justling, scrambling, pulling, snatching, struggling, scolding, and screaming."


The Museum of Costume & Assembly Rooms Bath The Official Guide. Published by the Museums and Historic Buildings section of Bath City Council in Association with The National Trust. 1994.