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 Prime Minister, Jane Austen, and Alexander Graham Bell

I openly admit it – I love Bath! Every time I visit (which is quite often) I will wander around the beautiful crescents, streets and squares, and even though I’ve seen them numerous times before, I just can’t get enough of the beautiful Georgian architecture and glowing Bath stone (if you catch it on a sunny day). Not to mention Bath Abbey, Pulteney Bridge, and of course the Roman Baths.

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I have been fortunate in having the opportunity to research a number of locations in Bath, including the history of Great Pulteney Street for my book Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep and also two houses, No.8 Gay Street and No.11 The Circus, which appear in my first book House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door. While both houses were fascinating, it was the stories found at No.11 The Circus which I will often come back to.


IMG_0893The Circus, first known as The King’s Circus, was designed by John Wood the Elder in the 1740s with the foundations laid in 1754. However, John Wood the Elder died just three months later and it was left to be completed by his son, John Wood the Younger. It features three sections, completed over a period of years, and the final section completed and occupied in 1768. The Circus is impressive when viewed as a whole, but it is also in the detail that it features ‘…a tour-de-force of external decoration’. Each level features paired columns of the different classical order – Doric on the ground, Ionic on the first, and Corinthian on the third. Amongst the many decorative details it also includes a carved frieze with hundreds of pictorial symbols, including emblems of science, arts, and industry.

However, it was delving into the history of No.11 and the many former residents that the history of The Circus came to life.

The first occupant of No.11 was William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, often known as William Pitt the Elder to differentiate him from his son William Pitt the Younger. William Pitt the Elder took No.11 as his Bath home in 1768, the year it was completed, and the same year he resigned as Prime Minister of Great Britain.

scan of William Pitt_The Elder_grayscale

William Pitt the Elder retained No.11 until 1776 and by 1782 it had become the Bath home of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, whose country seat was Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Throughout the late 18th century and into the early 19th century, No.11 was home to a number of notable residents, including Dr. Mapleton, who was a friend of the Austen family, and it is recorded that Jane Austen, along with her mother and sister Cassandra, visited the doctor and his family at No.11 several times during the early 1800s.

By the 1850s No.11 The Circus was transformed from a private home into school rooms and offices for the prestigious Somersetshire College. It continued to be used by Somersetshire College for many years with boys being sent to the school from all over the country. However, in 1866 it welcomed a now famous name as one of its tutors, the scientist and inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who later invented the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell

At the time he arrived as Somersetshire College he was only 19 and while teaching he continued his experiments and work on telephony and communications. It is believed Bell actually sent his first telegraph message while living in Bath. However, he only remained at Somersetshire College for one year and within a few years had moved to Canada with his family.

No.11 continued to be the home of Somersetshire College until the 1880s, but then converted into the home and surgery of Dr. Hugh Lane. The 1891 census reveals Dr Lane with his wife Frances and their three children and four live-in servants. But, along with the family, a boarder was recorded in the house, 49 year old Fanny from Russia, who was recorded in the census as a ‘lunatic’.