Tag Archives: Museum

Focus on Bath – Museum of Bath at Work

Walking around Bath you can’t help but admire the beautiful architecture, wonder at the ancient baths, or imagine yourself dolled up to the nines at a Regency Ball in the Assembly Rooms. However, all that you see in beautiful Bath was constructed and created by the working people of the city; an oft forgotten element to Bath’s story.

MOBAW - outside

The Museum of Bath at Work records and celebrates all that made Bath great – the industries within it and the people who made it happen.

The main bulk of the Museum of Bath at Work’s collection is the J.B.Bowler collection, an amazing reconstruction of an entire business that was saved by local businessman Russell Frears in the late 1960’s.

Bowler’s was a shop that supplied practically almost anything to the industries of Bath, from nuts and bolts to fittings and brass works. What was even more extraordinary about Bowler’s and thus the items that were saved, was that nothing seems to have been thrown away from the time it began in the 1860’s! Next door there was also the family owned Mineral Water factory, and this too was saved piece by piece.



Bowler’s really was a family business. Started in 1860 by Jonathan Burdett Bowler, or the “Governor” as he became known as, eventually every member of his family was involved in the business. His daughters ran the Mineral Water side, while his sons assisted him in the brassworking and shop side.

In the days before recycling was fashionable, J.B.Bowler was a pioneer. Nothing was thrown away, everything that could be reused was. This wasn’t just something the Governor did, this thriftiness was passed down; for example there are 19th Century receipts with 20th Century notes on the other side of them.

J.B.Bowler was also a real Alan Sugar of his day. He tried his hand to everything. We know from the collection that he attempted a boot and shoe business in Southgate Street in 1882, however significant losses meant that it was closed within 3 years. His entrepreneurial spirit lived on after his death in 1911 through his 13 children, and the business continued to put its hand to everything and anything. By the 1930’s the shop was involved in the public house and brewery hardware side of business, as well as its other concerns, and as such at one point the company started to buy Smith’s crisps and sell vinegar to the pubs it did work for!

Bowler's in 1972 being pulled down to make way for Avon St car park (in the background).

Bowler’s in 1972 being pulled down to make way for Avon St car park (in the background).

Bowler’s building was to be found on Corn Street, the site of which is now the Avon Street car park. There is brilliant footage that the BBC produced of inside Bowler’s. The building was compulsory purchased by the Council to build a new car park in 1969; its fate was sealed, but Frears had enough foresight, and money, to offer Ernest Bowler, the last of the Bowler family working there, to save the entirety of the shop and Mineral Water factory. He then went about photographing every single room and pieces so that when it was reassembled it could be done so exactly.

By the 1970’s Frear’s had found the perfect building for the collection, and set up the Bath Industrial Heritage Trust to maintain the museum and to portray the rest of Bath’s Industrial history. In 1978 the doors of what is England’s only 18th Century Real Tennis court opened its doors as The Museum of Bath at Work.

MOBAW - Russell Frears

Russell Frears

If you’re visiting Bath it’s important to go and see this collection, not only because of its uniqueness and rarity, but to get a more rounded picture of the city. For instance, did you know that Plasticine was invented and produced here? Shorthand was also developed here by Isaac Pitman. You can learn more about the local stone mines that turned out the creamy coloured limestone that makes up the beautiful buildings of our city today, and even see a car that was created and built in the city between 1914 and 1928, the Horstmann.

MOBAW - Horstmann

When you arrive at the Museum, the building itself is imposing. You walk up to the first floor where the shop is and the first thrill is that you purchase your tickets at what was the original shop counter of Bowler’s. Everything is exactly how it was, with drawers stuffed full of items, chains hanging from the ceiling and plaques around the walls. You really feel as though you are transported back to the 1900’s!

MOBAW - Front desk 2

You’re given an audio guide to use as you walk around the Bowler collection, and it really is worth a listen. The Museum has also added sound effects as you walk around, which really brings alive the working areas, such as the forge and brass finishing room. There are panels on the walls too that give you further information if needed, but it’s just great to look at the plethora of items that are piled everywhere.

MOBAW - workshop

On the tour you are able to even start original 1880’s machinery. This is a real thrill to watch the fan belt machines begin to start up one by one until they are fully going. Originally powered by steam, and then gas, it is electricity that starts these great pieces today.

MOBAW - typewriter

Another room has the Bowler’s office fully assembled as it was found in 1969. It’s amazing to see piles of original ledgers and invoices, some dating back to the 19th Century, in situ. You almost feel that the staff have popped out for tea and will be back soon; a real Marie Celeste moment.

MOBAW - Mineral vats

Frear’s saved every single bottle, every single scrap of paper, every nut and bolt of Bowlers; so when you walk into the area that displays the Mineral Water Factory, you can see every element. In the mixing room, where flavours were created for their cordials, even the jars still have the original brightly coloured mixes within them. Above the bottling area is crate upon crate of glass bottles, unused. Simply extraordinary.

MOBAW - mineral flavours

Once you have finished with your tour of the Bowler collection you head up to the mezzanine level where you can find out more about the history of industry in Bath over the centuries, plus children can enjoy the dressing up box and activities here. There are also wonderful displays about the medieval cloth trade, the crane works of Stothert and Pitt, and even the last plate from the printing press of the local paper, The Bath Chronicle, before they turned to lithography.

MOBAW - Stothert

This floor is also where you will find the temporary exhibition space. Currently, until the end of October, there is an exhibition celebrating 65 years of Clark’s Desert Boot. Plus there are some interesting panels created by local groups of Bath, giving an historical A to Z of their area that is definitely worth a look at.

You can also find refreshments up here and seats where you can enjoy a sit down and reflect on what is all around you. When you’re ready to continue, head down the stairs to the ground floor and enter the final part of the museum. Here you can listen to part of the Museum’s oral history collection; an important record with hundreds of the city’s workers’ recollections preserved.

MOBAW - Mining

There is also a reconstructed workshop of one of Bath’s many cabinet makers which once again reminds you of the craft and skills that once dotted the streets of the city. There is also stone quarrying equipment plus a mock-up of a mine with explanations of how the stone was cut and transported to the city for use in the building trade.

I was privileged enough to be shown into the basement of the Museum by Stuart Burroughs, the Museum’s Director, and there I saw the shelves of paperwork gathered from Bowler’s, along with the boxes of negatives, prints and photographs by Russell Frears. All the equipment and machinery from Bowler’s is actually on display, there is nothing in the archive, which is incredibly unusual for a museum as a lot of the time not all can be shown. It’s only the vast amount of paperwork that can’t be put on display, for preservation reasons as well as sheer size of the collection.

MOBAW - Archives

It is in the basement that you are reminded again of the original building’s use, for it is at this level you have the original 18th Century flagstones of the Real Tennis court. It was only a tennis court for a short period of time before going through many transitions before it became a museum in the 1970’s.

To be honest the Museum is packed with so much it cannot all be listed here! But is it worth a look? Absolutely! I have to confess having lived here all my life I had never been, and after my visit I do wonder why I hadn’t before.

You don’t have to be into engineering or industry to enjoy this collection; it’s fascinating for anyone who has an interest in the past. It’s also a great place to bring children. With the advent of the computer age, it is a good reflection on what has been, and how far we have come. It also looks to the future too. Some areas of the museum are available to hire for meetings, lectures and performances; plus it hosts the Bath Young Inventor of the Year awards.

MOBAW - Awards

The most important thing to come out of my visit was that when I re-emerged I realised we need to appreciate that there is much more to the city than just the tourists, the Romans and the Georgians. We should be more aware of and celebrate what enabled Bath, and still does today, to feed itself, to clothe itself, to run itself – the industries and the workers!

MOBAW - Come again sign

Museum of Bath at Work – for opening times, hire costs, and ticket prices, please see website
With thanks to Stuart Burroughs and all the volunteers at the Museum

Focus on Bath – The Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Museum

Hidden around the back of Marks and Spencer’s, down a non-descript cobbled street in Bath, is a treasure of a building that preserves an important part of the city’s history.


Few visitors seek it out, but those who do are well rewarded with a fascinating glimpse into the past, and I urge both visitors and Bathonians alike to seek it out! Where else can you peek behind a Georgian theatre’s stage, stand where a famous actress once performed, and delve deep into the cellars to seek the secrets of Freemasonry?!


The wonderful building that was the Old Theatre Royal is now run by the local Freemasons Lodge, who not only care for the building, but also run the guided tours .The couple of hours that you spend with your knowledgeable guide can in no way cover every aspect of the building’s history, but luckily there is a guidebook you can purchase to help fill in any blanks.

My guide for the afternoon was none other than the Grand Master himself, the wonderfully named Trevor Quartermain. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and really brought to life the history of the building.

Starting outside in Orchard Street itself, the only clue to the building’s former use is a plaque on the wall that informs you of its previous incarnation – the site of St James’ Theatre, the first Theatre Royal in Bath, built in 1750 by local businessman John Palmer, and where the famous Shakespearean actress, Sarah Siddons, trod the boards.


This area of Bath looked very different in the 18th Century. Where Henry Street now runs adjacent to Orchard Street, one has to imagine the River Avon’s floor plain spread all over this area, and the end of the street accessed via stone steps that led down to it. Today this area has long since been drained and levelled, with the river now running much further away, but as a location for a theatre, it was not a promising start.

The only access therefore to the theatre was via Pierrepont colonnade, the opposite end of the street that can be entered from Manvers Street. However there was nowhere for the carriages to turn around until improvements were made to the carriageway in 1774 creating a turning area and stabling to encourage more theatregoers.


Where you enter the building today, this is part of the 1774 extension of the theatre. The original front doors of the theatre are still extant within the foyer area, and through the right hand doorway there is a further internal door, white and peppered with iron bolts with a small peek hole. This white door in fact is the original back door to the theatre, moved here at some point in the building’s ever changing history.


Because the old theatre has not only been used as a place of entertainment but also as a place of worship for the Catholic Church, and then as a Freemasons Lodge, the building has a varied and interesting story to tell.

Within the foyer do head to the first landing where there are displays on the staircase of various masonic aprons, gauntlets, portraits and information. Resting on top of the staircase are two coade stone beehives that were once part of the original Masonic temple here. Trevor informed us that all the furnishings we see today at the Lodge are actually replicas of those that were sold off at auction in the 1930’s. Today the originals can be seen at the Barnstaple Freemasons Lodge in Devon.


The original Masonic museum was housed on the upper floor, but it has now been moved to the basement to make access easier. Trevor did allow me to pop upstairs to take a peek in the library and to see what had been the principle actors’ dressing room. Although a simple room to look at, the more you looked the finer the details stood out in the plasterwork and fireplace.

When you begin the tour you head through the white iron studded door into the first room of the theatre. This room would have been the Crush Bar. This area would have housed the audience before a performance, and where they could mingle, gossip and take refreshment. Space was limited, hence the apt name of “Crush” bar.

All around this room today are the records of the seven craft lodges and 13 associated side degrees that make use of the building today. The oldest of the Bath lodges, the Royal Cumberland, predates the theatre, and began in 1732. The certificate granting this lodge a licence can be seen on the wall next door.


Heading through from the Crush bar you enter the main auditorium. Originally there would not have been the wall separating the Crush bar from the auditorium, but a series of internal columns.


Entering the main room your breath is taken away by not just all the pomp and plushness of the Freemasonry, but the huge dominating stage at the far end. Tearing my eyes away from all the furnishings and symbolism that surrounds, Trevor pointed out the outlines of the original theatre. The site of the boxes on the walls, the ghostly image of the door that led up to the dressing room I had seen earlier and where the actors and actresses would have made their entrance on to the stage, and of course the stage itself.

Note the ghostly outline of a door and where the boxes once were

Note the ghostly outline of a door and where the boxes once were

Looking around there is much extant evidence of the 18th Century theatre. There is even the remains of one of the original Georgian boxes, high up on the left hand side of the stage. Apparently there would have been 3 tiers of boxes spread all the way along both side walls. The main auditorium, what we would call the stalls today, would have been lower down than where we stand, and tiered to ensure everyone had a view. When the 1774 refurbishment took place, 200 extra seats were added at the back of the theatre and above the Crush bar; these would have spread out in a fan like shape.

A curious feature of the stage that one cannot miss, are the four large columns that dominate the main stage area. One would presume this would block any view of the actors and actresses on stage, but performances were very different in the 18th Century to how they are today. Two hundred and sixty five years ago actors and actresses didn’t move around as much as they do in today’s theatre. In fact they were more likely to stay in one spot for their speeches and monologues. It wasn’t “acting” so much as intoning to their audience.


As you imagine the hundreds of people crowded into the theatre, you realise how close the people would have been to the stage, especially those in the side boxes that were actually on the stage itself. People in the 18th Century didn’t sit reverently through productions as we do now. There was talking, flirting, gossiping, heckling and it was not unknown for those in the side boxes to stride across stage mid act to chat to those the other side, or to leave if bored!

The first refurbishment of the theatre actually took place a decade before the 1774 alterations. It is recorded that in 1764 a large dome was added to aid the acoustics and ventilation of the theatre. If you look up at the sky blue ceiling, peppered with stars, you can see the ventilation shaft, cleverly disguised in the central boss. Two hundred and fifty years on and this is still what cools the hall to this day!


Yet, in the 18th Century this ventilation shaft was greatly needed and relieved the long suffering theatre goers. When first built no one had thought of adding windows or some form of air flow into the theatre. Imagine 900 people crowded in to this space on a hot summer’s evening. Most people never washed, many would be wearing powdered wigs, rouge and various other unguents, and all of them festering and sweating away while watching a play by the light of hundreds of tallow fat candles. The stench!!

In 1768, John Palmer’s son, John Palmer Junior, took over the running of the theatre and applied for letters patent from King George III. It was in this year that Bath’s St James’ Theatre, became the first provincial theatre to gain a Royal Patent, and thus have permission to call itself a “Theatre Royal”. It was in fact the third in the country to gain such a title after Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres in London.

Those who came to the theatre would have included all the great and good that came to take the waters in Bath. It was another place to see and be seen. Visitors included Jane Austen and Horatio Nelson. William Herschel the astronomer is known to even have conducted an organ recital here, although the original organ has long since gone.

Sarah Siddons

Sarah Siddons

Between 1778 and 1782 the St James’ Theatre was where Bath’s most famous actress, and later England’s most lauded tragedian actresses, Sarah Siddons, began her career. She was inevitably enticed to the London stage, but she never forgot Bath, and in 1799 she performed for the last time in the city at a benefit performance. Her fame was so huge that tickets had sold out immediately. The theatre workers could not hold back the over-excited crowds that thronged outside. Unable to get a ticket, but after a glimpse of their heroine, many people took advantage of the confusion and pushed their way in. Siddons was not in fact due to appear until the second act of the play, however her arrival at the theatre caused such a furore the other actors had to stop and the play did not continue that night.

It was in 1809 that the Theatre Royal we know today opened its doors on Beaufort Square. The change in venue was not just to do with the bad positioning of the St James’ Theatre, with restricted access; but a combination of factors including the fact that by around 1805 acting had progressed to moving around the stage, more in reminiscence of what we know today. The Orchard Street theatre with its huge columns and no more room for extension could not meet the standards of 19th Century theatre, and thus the new Theatre Royal took over.

The "new" Theatre Royal in Bath, Beaufort Street entrance

The “new” Theatre Royal in Bath, Beaufort Street entrance

The building was bought by the Catholic Church who set about removing much of what was within – the boxes were taken down, the floor levelled, and stone vaulting was added below to act as a burial ground within the city. Soon it became a place of worship and most traces of the 18th Century theatre had disappeared or been hidden.

Catholic records imply that there are over 380 people buried beneath the old Theatre Royal, however as you see when you reach the vaults, few of them have actually been cleared to access the burials. Most of the vaults are backfilled with dirt and rubble and require an extensive and costly archaeological investigation. I was given a peek into one of these inaccessible tunnels and my torch beam bounced upon beautifully carved monuments and tombstones broken and buried beneath piles of brick and stone. What treasures lie in these tunnels?!


After its tenure as a Catholic Church, the building was left vacant for a number of years. The Freemasons of Bath were seeking a permanent home by the mid 19th Century. Previously lodges had met at particular pubs within the city, but by 1865 it was decided by members of the Royal Sussex Lodge to purchase what was then known as the “Orchard Street Chapel”. Further lodges joined the Royal Sussex here and so its use grew.

The building itself was almost destroyed in the 1942 Bombing of Bath, and as such was placed on the Council’s demolition list. Luckily its fate was not sealed, but the Freemasons didn’t move back until 1950.

Continuing on the tour, you not only get to walk upon the stage, but take a look behind too. An 18th Century theatre really had little behind the scenes. The space between the stage and the back wall is tiny. Fascinatingly you can see the access door to the remaining Georgian theatre box, iron key still in situ in the lock. Original wooden hanging boards remain, and would have been where the scenery panels or sheets would have been hung. There was no space for the addition of flies to lift curtains or scenery. Both acting and scenery was static it appears in 18th Century theatre!

Behind the Stage - Georgian theatre box and Scenery Hangings

Behind the Stage – Georgian theatre box and Scenery Hangings

During the Catholic Church’s tenure of the building, a small private chapel was added to the back of the theatre, today this space is still used for prayer by the Templars and Knights of Malta who meet here.

Our guide and Grand Master, Trevor Quartermain, in the Chapel

Our guide and Grand Master, Trevor Quartermain, in the Chapel

To gain access to the final part of the tour, the basement vaults, you have to retrace your steps and head downstairs. Here you can see not only some of the Catholic memorials that have been found, but this is where the bulk of the Masonic museum can be found. Room after room is filled with fascinating objects. There is a pair of gauntlets and an apron that date from the earliest Bath Lodge of 1732 in one room, while another room is filled with beautifully enamelled and bejewelled medals and trinkets. The further in you go, the more there is to see, and it’s definitely worth a second visit to be able to spend some time just here in the basement museum.


Trevor is happy, as are all the guides, to answer any questions people may have on Freemasonry. He says he wants to debunk the myths that have grown up around it, especially since Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code was published! From the tracing boards and globes to the all-seeing eye and set squares, everything has meaning that you see around you.


Although the building is used primarily by the various lodges as a meeting space, the building is still used today as a theatre. Only recently Bath Fringe Festival used the stage for many of its shows, and you can find on the Old Theatre Royal website a whole list of upcoming recitals, performances and gigs. At Christmas time there is even a Pantomime staged, with free entry for children.

It’s wonderful to know that this building in the heart of the city is still used today, including in its primary purpose. It’s important that it remains open to the public to visit and enjoy, but the cost of keeping up a Grade II listed building such as this does not come cheap, and currently all the costs are met by the Freemasons themselves. So I urge everyone to come and support the preservation of this fascinating building, packed full of history. It’s more than just the old theatre of Bath and a Masonic Museum, it’s a must-see!

Guide tours of the Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Museum take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11am and 2.30pm. On Saturdays at 2.30pm only.

Ticket prices are: £6 for adults, £3.50 for children (aged 6 to 16), £5 for concessions and £12 for a Family Ticket (2 adults and 2 children).

For details of upcoming events, shows and for further information about the Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Museum, please go to the website.

[ Pictures copyright Old Theatre Royal & Masonic Museum, Catherine Pitt and Lawrence Tindall ]

Half Term Happenings!


If you’re aiming to visit Bath over the upcoming Half Term holidays, and are looking for some fun things to do with your children, not just the usual museums, then we’ve got a few suggestions for you.

Go Medieval mad this February with the unique Ora Et Labora. Not only do they sell products exclusively made my monastic communities around the world, have sampling suppers and now Lunchtime platters for everyone to enjoy; but from Monday 16th to Friday 20th February your kids can step back in time and enjoy a range of craft activities from candle making and brass rubbing to quill and ink writing and learning apothecary skills. Cost: £2.50 per child. No booking required.


If they haven’t had enough of medieval life then Bath Abbey is running a “Day in the Life of a Monk” on Tuesday 17th February, where from 10.45am to 2.30pm children will have a chance to enjoy a range of activities, dress up as a monk and even meet a real-life Benedictine Monk from Downside Abbey in Somerset! Bring a packed lunch to enjoy in the surroundings of the Abbey. Booking is essential and costs £5 per child.

If you want your little ones to get green fingered and enjoy the fresh air then grab the wellies and head on over to some of the National Trust owned parks in and nearby Bath this holiday. At Dyrham Park you can join in with the Spring bulb planting, from 2-3pm from Monday 16th to Friday 20th February. What a wonderful sense of satisfaction for all to return later on in the year to see your hard work blooming. If you don’t want to get so “hands on” then on Tuesday 17th and Thursday 19th February you can join a guided discovery tour around the more wilder parts of the parkland, with pond dipping and bug hunting to enjoy. There is also the chance to feed the Deer until March too.


The Bath Skyline walk is always a popular option when the weather is lovely, and a great way to tire the kids out with plenty of fresh air and hills! Prior Park has free activities for children (normal admission fee applies for entry to Park) based on traditional English customs, and working with local artists. Your children can enjoy Greenman workshops, tree dressing and magical trails through the Park.

Talking of traditional English customs, on Tuesday 17th February it’s Pancake Day! Otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday, in the Christian calendar it signifies the last day before the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. Traditionally a time to use up all your excess food before the time of self-restraint; in England, Pancake Day now sees perfectly sane people run up and down streets, gardens and roads with a frying pan frantically flipping a batter mix! Bath is no exception and it’s that time again for Bath’s Flipping Pancake Race, organised by Fringe Arts Bath. Taking place in the Abbey Courtyard on Tuesday 17th, both children and adults can join in the fun or simply cheer on the competitors. All money raised is going to Food Cycle, a charity that aims to reduce food waste and food poverty in the U.K.


During Half Term another important celebration takes place – that of the Chinese New Year. Thursday 19th February sees the Year of the Horse ride off into the sunset and the Year of the Sheep make its way to the forefront. The Museum of East Asian Art will be holding its Annual “Lunar New Year Extravaganza” on Sunday 22nd February, at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. This free event is a fantastic family attraction, and everyone can enjoy a day of entertainment, arts and crafts, and dance spectaculars. It’s certainly not an event to be missed!

For further ideas of what to do and where to take your kids this Half Term, take a look at Visit Bath. There’s plenty on at the Museums and Art Galleries, plus other great suggestions to keep everyone happy and having fun. If you’re celebrating the Lunar New Year, we wish you a very “Gong Hey Fat Choy/Gong Xi Fa Cai”, plus, we hope that everyone enjoys the Half Term!