Saturday 28 January 2012

Richard 'Beau' Nash by Marie-Louise Jensen

My latest novel The Girl in the Mask (publishing 1st March 2012) is set in my home town Bath.

In the early Georgian era, Bath was second only to London as a destination for the rich and titled; many of the aristocracy spent the winter in London and the summer in Bath.

It may seem to have been an odd choice. Why spend the summer months walled up in a shabby, overcrowded medieval city in the bottom of a river valley? But royalty had been pleased to praise the benefits of the spa waters and that was enough, it seemed, to catapault steamy, smelly, dirty Bath (as it was then) to the height of fashionable desirability.

The Bath Corporation realised they needed to organise entertainment for this sudden annual influx of visitors. They firstly appointed a Captain Webster as 'King of Bath', or Master of the Ceremonies. But Captain Webster was most unfortunately killed in a duel the following year. And so in 1705, Richard Nash was offered the post.

Richard Nash, born son of a Swansea glass manufacturer in 1674, might not have seemed an obvious choice. He had no birth and no standing in the world; he had attended a grammar school, gone to study law at Jesus college Oxford, but spent his whole allowance on clothes and then dropped out because of one too many intrigues with the ladies. A brief career in the military was likewise unsuccessful.

But Nash had caught the King's notice in 1694 when he organised the pageant for William III and had been offered a knighthood, which he refused. The role in Bath was far more to his taste and he accepted.

Richard Nash, Or Beau Nash as he later became called, transformed fashionable life in the city. He was a tremendous facilitator. He persuaded a Mr Harrison to build Assembly Rooms by the river; he set up subscriptions to cover teas and musicians. He organised gambling of all kinds. Gambling was practically a national obsession at the time, and was so widespread and ruinous that it threatened to destabilise the economy. But cards were also how Nash made his living. His post was prestigious but most unfortunately unpaid, thus he needed some means to fund his lifestyle. It is said that he swore most terribly when he was losing, but he usually won.

He continued to organise balls and famously regulated the tone of the balls most strictly. They ended punctually at eleven, and from this he would not be moved. It is remarkable that a man of no birth could manage his social superiors so successfully, but Nash was most adroit. He banned boots and spurs from balls. One night a gentleman arrived in boots and Nash stopped him at the door with words to this effect. "Why sir!" he said. "You have forgot something. I see your whip and spurs, but where is your horse?" The gentleman concerned retired abashed. Nash also banned the fashion of aprons, and once stripped a costly lace apron from a duchess at a ball and cast it aside.

He was tolerated and - by the ladies - much admired. For many years, he reigned supreme. He raised huge sums of money for charity, ran the entertainment flawlessly and generally appeared at all times gorgeously and richly attired.

Nash is remembered as a local celebrity in Bath to this day. His name can be found in many museums and guidebooks. But the ending to his story is rather sad. Gambling was outlawed, removing almost his only means of subsistence. He grew portly and unwell as he got older and began to be crushed by debts. He took to spending his evenings in the Bath taverns, telling tales of his grand past in exchange for drinks. Gradually he became an object of ridicule. He eventually died in poverty in 1761, cared for by his mistress - reputedly one of many women who had supported him over the years.

Nash had reigned as uncrowned king for some 55 years and the city would scarcely have been what it was without him.

Marie-Louise Jensen's latest book, The Girl in the Mask, publishes on 1 March 


Unknown said...

Makes me want to rush off to Bath immediately! Instead, I shall wait patiently for The Girl in the Mask!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Hard to think of lovely Bath being dirty! Great post, Marie-Louise. I too, can't wait to read The Girl in the Mask!

Sue Sedgwick said...

Look forward to reading this, Marie-Louise. I'm looking out over the rooftops of the city even as I type ...

H.M. Castor said...

I found this very interesting indeed. I knew nothing of Nash... How unreasonable - criminal! - not to pay him for all that work! Certainly only a few years ago it was, I've heard, deemed eccentric among certain sections of the royal staff if you actually attempted to live off your salary alone (surely, it was thought, everyone has a private income?). I do hope it has changed...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I could say something about volunteering and the Big Society...but perhaps I'd better not! Yes, people should be paid for work they do.