Hester Thrale and Admiral Nelson’s physician in Bath

I have recently been looking over notes for a house in Bath which was formerly the home of socialite and friend of Samuel Johnson, Mrs Hester Thrale. I first researched the house for my book, House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door, and along with Mrs Thrale, it has also been the home of celebrated artists and the physician who treated Admiral Nelson!

Gay Street - Bath
Gay Street – Bath

The house is situated half way up Gay Street in central Bath, a key part of the development of John Wood the Elder, leading from Queen Square to The Circus. Gay Street was first named Barton Street, but was later renamed to honour former landowner and MP for Bath, Robert Gay.

No.8 Gay Street was completed in 1753 and has been known as ‘The Carved House’ due to its additional ornate decoration. The first leaseholder of the house was artist, Prince (yes, that was his first name) Hoare, a noted sculptor, who completed commissions for many famous names of the time, including Alexander Pope and Beau Nash. By 1770, the lease for No.8 Gay Street had passed to Prince’s brother, William Hoare, who was also a successful artist, who excelled in portrait painting. He painted a number of 18th century celebrities, including Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and composer, George Frederic Handel. And, along with Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, William Hoare was one of the founders of The Royal Academy.

William Hoare
William Hoare

The records reveal that in 1775 the house had become the home of Dr Woodward, one of the many doctors practicing in Bath at this time. This was during the Georgian period when it was extremely fashionable to visit Bath for the healing spa waters. However, amongst all the doctors practicing in Bath at the time, Dr Woodward was recorded as the personal physician to naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, in 1781. Horatio Nelson was in Bath during 1780-81, when he was only Captain Nelson, and was suffering with a fever or tropical disease (possibly malaria) but by the August of 1781 he had recovered and was appointed Captain of the Albermarle.

After the departure of Dr Woodward, perhaps the most famous occupant of No.8 Gay Street, Hester Thrale, took up residence. However, by this time Mrs Thrale had lost her first husband and had remarried and become Mrs Piozzi, but she is most often remembered as Hester Thrale or simply ‘Mrs Thrale’ and for her close connection to writer, Samuel Johnson.

Mrs Piozzi by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Piozzi by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Prior to her marriage to her daughter’s music teacher, Gabriel Piozzi, in 1784, she had enjoyed a fashionable social circle, and along with Samuel Johnson, was friends with Fanny Burney, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, and Sarah Siddons.

After the death of her husband, the brewer, Henry Thrale, it was suspected Hester would marry Samuel Johnson, but instead she shocked society by marrying the poor Italian musician, Mr Piozzi. She was immediately shunned by her former friends and associates and not accepted into fashionable society. It was during this time that she spent the winter months at the house in Gay Street.

Mrs Piozzi was a writer in her own right and published several works. After the death of Samuel Johnson (with whom she was reconciled before his death) in 1784 she published Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, in 1786, along with her letters in 1788. Mrs Piozzi later died in Bristol in 1821.

Plaque on No.8 Gay Street
Plaque on No.8 Gay Street

After the departure of Mrs Piozzi, No.8 Gay Street became the home of a variety of different occupants. These included spinster sisters, Elizabeth and Jane Severs, who occupied the house for many years from the early 1800s through to the 1860s. By the late 19th century, the house returned to being the home of a doctor, when surgeon, Dr Samuel Budd, moved in. He was appointed surgeon of the Eastern Dispensary, but his position in Bath also brought him many high class clients. He continued in the house in Gay Street until he passed away in 1899.

The 20th century brought many changes to the house in Gay Street. It continued as the home of a doctor through to the 1920s. However, after the Second World War, the large Georgian house suffered the fate of many homes across the country and was simply too expensive to maintain as a single family home and was converted into office space.

A skeleton in the priest hole

Yes, it’s true, I have researched a house where a skeleton was uncovered in an old priest hole! Certainly, one of the most unusual stories I’ve heard in researching the history of houses!

I was recently asked by a journalist to tell her the story of priest holes and secret tunnels found in houses. It is a fascinating element in the history of some 16th and 17th century houses when the need for hiding or a quick escape from authorities was a genuine consideration in house design. In speaking to the journalist, I recalled a house I researched in the past which involved the discovery of an old priest hole – and the priest was still in it! The story was mentioned in the article – read it here in The Sun – but it inspired me to write more of the story in a new blog post!

Roof line

Sadly, I’m not able to divulge the name and location of the house, but it is situated in a small village in Wiltshire and has been dated back to the early 1600s, at the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and when James I came to the throne. By this time, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics had been a fact of life in England for almost 70 years, from the time of Henry VIII, accelerating during the reign of his children, Edward VI and ‘Bloody’ Mary.

Priest hole in Boscobel House, Shropshire (Wikimedia/Nilfanion)
Priest hole in Boscobel House, Shropshire (Wikimedia/Nilfanion)

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the persecution of Catholics was extreme and practicing the Catholic rites or holding Mass was seen as an act treason and resulted in imprisonment, torture, and in some cases death. It was these extreme circumstances that provoked the creation of priest holes.

Priest holes were built in many places within a house – under staircases, behind fireplaces, between walls, under floorboards – anywhere where there was enough space to create a secret hiding place for a priest.

There were several Catholic plots to assassinate the queen, so the need to hunt down and quash any catholic support was much bigger than just a personal choice of worship – not to mention the threats from Catholic Spain and rebellions with the support from the Pope in Rome.

‘Priest-hunters’ might suddenly appear on the doorstep and a quick hiding place was a matter of life or death! However, one of the most serious problems with priest holes was the lack of space, but also the lack or air or access to food or a place to go to the toilet. So, hiding in a priest hole could be just as dangerous if forced to remain there for an extended period of time.

This is clearly what happened in the case of the Wiltshire house where the priest was still hiding in the priest hole 300 years later! The story of the poor priest was passed on from the former owner and a little more investigation would be necessary to uncover the full story of what happened, but it all started when former owners began renovations on the house in the late 1940s.

Roof and trees

The Grade II listed house was first constructed in the early 17th century and features exposed timbers with brick infilling, but it has also been altered several times, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first family connected to the house were recorded with Catholic connections, and given the date of construction, it seems likely it was constructed with a priest hole, or one was added soon after. This is understood further when considering the date of another Catholic plot against the reigning monarch, this time James I, with the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605.

Priest hole in Havrington Hall, Worcestershire (Wikimedia/Quodvultdeus)
Priest hole in Havrington Hall, Worcestershire (Wikimedia/Quodvultdeus)

Despite an understanding of the times and the need for a priest hole in the house, the true story of how a priest came to be stuck in the priest hole for 300 years is a bit of a mystery. One speculation is that the family had time to hide the priest away, but they were arrested and there was no way of getting back to the house to release the priest. Whatever the circumstances, it was over 300 years later, in the late 1940s when new owners were renovating the house that they pulled away a internal panel to find the hidden priest hole and the skeleton of the priest – what a discovery!

The gruesome discovery is certainly unusual, but once again it reveals the extraordinary stories that can be found in researching the history of a house.