A window into Bath’s history

PUBLISHED: 10:35 14 November 2017 | UPDATED: 10:35 14 November 2017

River Avon and Pultney Bridge in Bath (c) csfotoimages / Thinkstock

River Avon and Pultney Bridge in Bath (c) csfotoimages / Thinkstock


In Bath there are more than 60 blue heritage plaques. Bernard Bale gives us a glimpse into these remnants of the city’s historic past

In fact not all the plaques are actually blue. There are green, grey and even black ones. Blue is the most common colour of course and can be seen dotted around the streets and buildings of the city.

There are some unexpected names on those plaques too. Take a walk along Great Pulteney Street and as you pass the plaque on the wall of no. 55 you might be surprised to see the name Napoleon staring back at you. A closer inspection reveals that the plaque is actually talking about Prince Louis Napoleon or Napoleon III – nephew of the more famous Bonaparte. What was he doing in Bath?

Louis Napoleon was the President of the French Second Republic and the ruler of the Second French Empire. He ruled as Emperor of the French until September 1870, when he was captured during the Franco-Prussian War. After his capture he was deposed and retired to England with his wife and family. He often visited Bath and stayed at either the Sydney Hotel, which is now the Holburne Museum or at 55 Great Pulteney Street, where the plaque resides.

With so many plaques in Bath it would take several days to visit them all, but it is worth the exercise as we are reminded of so many great and famous characters whose feet have walked the same streets as ours as we look at their tablet of fame.

Charles Dickens visited Bath and some believe he was inspired to write The Pickwick Papers after encountering Mr Moses Pickwick, one time landlord of the White Hart Inn.

The plaque at Great Pulteney Street (c) Liz BuggThe plaque at Great Pulteney Street (c) Liz Bugg

Dickens often visited Bath to spend time with an old friend, Walter Savage Landor at 35 St. James’s Square, where his plaque can be seen.

Quite a number of writers have been associated with Bath, some more famous than others. We have all heard of William Wordsworth, who stayed at 9 North Parade where we find his plaque. Wordsworth stayed for several months from April 1841 and witnessed the wedding of his daughter Dora at St. James Church.

Another giant of literature resided for a while at 6 South Parade. Who? The plaque will tell you, but if we think of Ivanhoe it can only mean Sir Walter Scott. He spent some of 1775 in Bath when he was just four years old having been brought to the city by his aunt who hoped that the famous spa waters would cure young Walter’s limp, the result of an attack of polio before he was two years old.

During that same year Jane Austen was born in Hampshire and a plaque commemorating her time in Bath can be found at 4 Sydney Place. She lived there for three years from 1801, one of several addresses linked to her and her family.

The inspiration Jane gained from her time in Bath is clear to see as the city features prominently in both Persuasion and Northangar Abbey.

Jane Austen's plaque at 4 Sydney Place (c) Liz BuggJane Austen's plaque at 4 Sydney Place (c) Liz Bugg

While it’s untrue that someone once bumped into a famous explorer in The Circus and said: “Dr Livingstone, I presume”, Dr David Livingstone did indeed stay at no. 13 The Circus where we find the plaque commemorating the great man’s visit. He was in Bath to present a paper on Africa to the British Association in September 1864 and the city has proudly held on to its connection ever since.

Napoleon III was not the only royalty with a Bath connection. William, Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV, stayed at 103 Sydney Place with his mother Queen Charlotte in November 1817, hoping the famous waters would ease her ailments. She died a year later but did indeed gain comfort from the healthy waters of the city.

Politicians have also flocked to Bath. Both the elder and younger William Pitts frequently visited Bath for health matters. A plaque can be seen at 7 The Circus marking the visits of the elder while another plaque at 15 Johnstone Street recalls the visits of Pitt the younger. William Wilberforce and Edmund Burke were among many others and there were members of the military too, none more famous than Clive of India who lived in Bath for health reasons from 1767 until he died in November 1774. At first he lived in Westgate Buildings but later moved to 14 The Circus, which is where we find his plaque.

Many more military men are connnected to Bath as well as actors, clergymen and others, all celebrated by their plaques.

There are still two men though who must receive a special mention. One is Sir Isaac Pitman who lived in the city for quite a few years. Pitman was a man who thought outside of the box: an inventor and an innovator known to this day for the invention of speed writing. Pitman’s shorthand has been taught for generations to secretaries, journalists and many others. Pitman’s plaque is not written in shorthand and can be clearly read at 17 Royal Crescent.

The plaque at 35 St. James Square (c) Liz BuggThe plaque at 35 St. James Square (c) Liz Bugg

Finally we come to another man with a brilliant mind. His plaque is at Sydney Gardens, attached to a pillar of a railway bridge. Who else but Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

Brunel was famous as a leading British civil engineer and among his accomplishments were bridges, tunnels, dockyards, steamships and the construction of the Great Western Railway.

He spent a fair bit of time in Bath working on every level of design and detail of the Bristol to London railway, including the landscape at Sydney Gardens – hence his plaque.

How many times do we walk past plaques, blue or otherwise, and not really give them a second glance? If we would only look, they would provide us with windows into the world of the past rich and famous, the poor but defiant, the creators, the inventors, military heroes, entertainers and even a few of the villains.

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