The Streets are ours
Our walk through Bath’s radical past, present and future wends its way from Widcombe to Walcot, considering Bath’s industrial heritage; Chartists, protestors, suffragettes and socialist ramblers and cyclists; as well as celebrating the independent spirit of the City today.
Widcombe: The Ghosts of the Poor Laws
The Elizabethan Poor Laws were reformed in 1834. Paupers were classified as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ of charity and were maintained by parish rates. There were three main poor houses in Bath – in Walcot, Lyncombe and Widcombe, and the poorhouse of St. Peter and St. Paul. Poor Law attitudes to poverty were a mixture of paternalistic and punitive, dividing the poor into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’; a language which permeates political attitudes to poverty today. Many living in poverty resisted institutionalisation at the hands of the authorities, choosing rather to die than submit to a living death in the poor house: the Bath Chronicle accounts people like Diana Allen, Benjamin Parry, John Johnson and Joseph West, who died of exposure or starvation rather than be forced into the hands of the Poor Law Guardians.
Railway Station: City of Industry
Bath’s industries include engineering, mining, cloth works and printing, and the City established a Trades Council in 1891. As a result, Bath was a union-active city, involved in the struggle for basic improvements to working life and at the forefront of the debate for a state pension. The City’s workers were also active during the hungry inter-War years, supporting strikers and marchers for the National Unemployed Worker’s Movement.
The Guildhall: Rotten boroughs, Chartists and Reformers
Before the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, Bath was a ‘Rotten Borough’. Bath held such riotous elections and hustings both before and after the Reform Bill they regularly made the national press. When the House of Lords rejected the second Reform Bill of 1831, there were mass protests in Bath with some 20,000 people gathering outside the Sydney Hotel (now Holburne Museum). Of Bath was also a busy hub of Chartists; leading Chartist Henry Vincent (1813-78) settled in Bath in the 1840s, from where he published The National Vindicator. Vincent was, according to contemporaries, a gifted and charismatic orator, who campaigned not just for the Chartists but was also active in the anti-slavery movement and women’s suffrage.
Sawclose: The Clarion Calls
In 1895 the Socialist Ramblers united with local Clarion Cyclists to establish a group in Bath. They used to hold regular open-air meetings in Sawclose, and also cycled to nearby Radstock and Frome, to help establish socialist meeting groups there. The Clarion reminds us how active and joyful early socialist organising could be: not onlt did they have cycling and walking groups but also theatre, singing, handicrafts and children’s clubs. A group form Bath set off for the annual Clarion meeting in Bakewell, Derbyshire in 1896, cycling all the way from Bath and arriving at 2am. One member had done the whole route on a penny farthing.
Walcot Street and The Bell
We end our walk on Walcot Street, which is home to some of Bath’s independent shops and enterprises. Historically this was one of the poorer, working districts of the City, and the authorities made several attempts to regulate the city’s drinking habits. In the 1830s, inspired by Temperance, a group of factory workers established an Association for the Promotion of Order in Bath. The association promised to set a good example by ‘not going drinking in Twerton on a Sunday except under very particular circumstances.’