7 Of Hearts: History in Bath Part 2 – Permanent Monuments and Temporary Exhibits in Bath Abbey (CW: Slavery)

Bath Abbey feels like graveyard folded up and over on itself into a church. Every stone you stand on is a memorial, dedicated to an honoured (read: military or wealthy) individual. When the floor was repaired and upgraded with better heating systems a few years ago, these stones were carefully removed, their exact position marked, and returned to their original resting place. Similar, if in better shape due to not being stood on, memorials line the walls of the Abbey up to just above my full height, meaning they tower over most visitors. These memorials are often personal, marble inscribed with the names and stories of those they remember, listing their virtues as persons. Often they didn’t live most of their life in the city of Bath but rather across the world, working in the united states (including a US senator), Africa, the Carribean, India…

It is easy to miss, as I did initially, that these memorials, dating from the seventeenth and eightheenth centuries, are often memorialising those directly involved in British colonialism, up to and including the capture, sale, purchase and torture of slaves. It is, for obvious reasons, rarely mentioned on the memorials. Except for when it is, with pride. One of the largest monuments is to William Baker, who was the director of the East India Company and later Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, two power private companies that helped establish the British Empire’s colonies in India and Canada, and who controlled vast amounts of the global trade network of the eigthteenth century. Above the plaque listing his life stands a carving showing a woman, representing London, obtaining resources from figures representing the various colonies.

Much like the Pitt Rivers museum, the Abbey is well aware of this history, and has been taking steps to address it. In the North transept stands the Monuments, Empire and Slavery exhibit. It was this exhibit that alerted me to the nature of the monuments in the church, and how, like so many institutions of the British Isles, the Church and the City of Bath profited massively from the colonialism of the British Empire and the slave trade it engaged in for many years, the Church of England outright owning plantations that used slave labour. The Abbey is, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, examining and making public this dark history of both the Abbey and those it memorialises. It is a good exhibition I think, particularly at the beginning, where it lays out very clearly the overarching history and issues it is confronting, and at the end, where it discusses what the Abbey is planning to do further and the organisations such as the Black in Bath Network and the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association that they are partnering with. There is a prayer, which I do understand is important for a Christian church, and it is acknowledged in the prayer itself that action must be taken to address this, as well as a poem, Dark Shadows, written by the local black poet Mark De Lisser a reading of which by the poet is avaliable here.

The middle of the exhibit is for me the weakest part of it, or at least the weakest part of the content, where it focuses more on specific stories involving the Abbey’s links to slavery, but it felt rather more…not outright apologetic, but pulled itself back a bit from its criticisms of them, describing how, for instance, a man hired as an explorer by the Royal Africa Company wrote in his personal log how he didn’t personally agree with slavery but he brought slaves at a market under orders of the RAC anyway. The poster ends on a line about how he viewed it as his duty, which just felt incomplete. In some ways it feels like the opposite of the musical Hamilton, which was happy to criticise Hamilton and his contemporaries on a personal level but struggles to criticise them on a political level, which explains the issues the musical has in approaching issues like slavery. Here, the exhibition is perfectly willing to make criticism on a political level, clearly laying out the moral failings of institutions, but seems to struggle with extending that criticism onto the people who made up those institutions, the people who’s memorials decorate the Abbey’s walls and floor. This issue of who’s stories are told in the exhibition extends the other way as well. While there are still discussions about enslaved people at the Abbey, including some who got baptised while they and the ones who currently enslaved them were visiting Bath, as far as I could tell and as far as I remember there weren’t any direct names or stories of the enslaved people given in the exhibit. Even in an exhibit discussing slavery and how we memoralise those involved in it, there were no stories of the enslaved.

That choice, whether due to unconcious bias or practical issues in the records the Abbey has historically kept (i.e. the evidence of the slave owners is far better perserved than the enslaved), is kind of a microcosm of a major issue with history. History is not the past. The past is far larger and includes everything, all the information lost to time, malice and apathy, all the people who’s story has, for whatever reason, not been told, but history is the stories we tell about the past, informed by the information that survives and reaches us in the present day and by our own biases and views. Every new examation of history, every narrative constructed in someway attempts to rewrite history, for better or for worse, and part of that is often establishing what information you think should be examined and what you think is important to leave for future historians when we become history ourselves.

And it is this, the information that is left behind and how it is preserved, that is probably my biggest issue with the exhibit. The monuments in the Abbey are old, centuries old, and are impossible to miss whether on the walls or beneath your feet. The stories as framed by those rich enough to have them carved into marble are a permanent part of the abbey, carefully replaced in the exact places they originally lay when the floor beneath them was modernised. The exhibition, for all the geniune good in it, is a temporary fixture, running till the fourth of september 2021, literally the day this blog post goes live. The posters are placed in a quiet corner of the Abbey, not as immediately eye catching as the monuments, and are on temporary wooden boards, not stone designed to last long after we are gone. It is a good step to make, and I wish Bath Abbey and its partners the best in their attempts to bring to light to these dark shadows, but I simply could not escape the contrast between wood and stone, paper and carvings.

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5 of Hearts: History In Bath Part 1 – A Morning In The Park

Like so many cities, the Bath is defined by its geography. Crossing several hills, the core of the city is the hot spring that still bubbles away today, producing millions of liters of water at temperatures of 46 degrees centigrade. Rainwater that fell on the hills thousands of years ago slowly drops through the rock below until it is heated enough by geothermal energy it is forced back up through a fault in the Earth’s crust. This spring is the only hot spring in the british isles, and it has been a major focus throughout human habitation here, and that has been a long time.

Bath is an old city. According to legend, as told by a sign near a statue of a man and his pig, the city was founded around a millenia before the arrival of the romans by a figure named Bladud, one of many individuals proclaimed at one time or another to be “The Rightful King of the Britons”, but was unable to take the throne due to contracting leprosy. Bladud was banished to become a swine herd, wandering the edge of the provience, where his pigs found a strange bath of hot water and mud. Upon bathing in it, the pigs’ various afflictions were miraclously cured, and so was Bladud’s when he followed their lead. In gratitude, after returning to the throne, he established a city around the healing springs, dedicated to the celtic goddess Sul. Later on the Romans arrived and called this place Aquias Sulis, a place sacred to the goddess Minerva, combined with Sul as Minerva Sulis. They build a complex combining a spa, what we might almost consider a health and leisure centre, and a temple, using the waters for worship, curses, health and pleasure at once. Once the romans have disappeared, the temple is built over with monestries and a new road plan, leaving the ruins untouched below the city for centuries. An Abbey is created where a king of England is crowned in a cermony that becomes the blueprint for all future corinations of English royals. The city starts as a royalist stronghold in the city The georgians return the focus of the town to a spa, the rich of that era flocking to the waters and the city to both heal and entertain themselves. The astronomer siblings William and Caroline Herschel lived and observed in the town. There is a museum in what once their house, but I didn’t have time to visit them, or the botanical garden further out of the city.

I found the story of Bladud on a sign in the city’s Parade Gardens, a waterside green space by the side of the river Avon, overlooking the Georgian era Pulteney Bridge and a v shaped weir built in the 1970s. The park, unusually, charges to enter the well maintained space: another sign explains that it was a private park for people living in the expensive nearby road, but a deal made years ago allows for public access as long as the council charges a small sum for upkeep. It is a very nice park, and for a single visit £2 is not bad, but it would be a lot if you lived nearby and used the space regularly like I do with my own local park. The gardens are below the level of the modern streets, the parades they are named for, and a private stair case still stands opposite to the public entrance I came in by. Another sign explains the history of the round band stand, decorated with musical notes, that stands in the middle of a lawn that was once a bowling green. Another details how this space was once outside the city walls, under the ownership of the first abbey of Bath, with a very small ruined wall left standing here that was once the Abbey’s mill. There is huge wall plaque detailing all the rewards Bath has won for the aesthetics of its city centre, like Britian in Bloom. The flowerbeds in the gardens are indeed impressive. To the right of the stairs leading up to the plaque are the public toilets, which charge 20p each, an issue in a post covid world where we have been encouraged to pay by card for so long I rarely carry physical cash. One of the flushes doesn’t work.

There is also a giant wooden slug big enough to be sat on, which isn’t really relevant. There are also photographs of an exhibit that once stood in the gardens, a trio of bears made from flowers grown, I assume, on a metal frame, surrounded by disapproving looking men in a style of dress I am unable to place other than “in the past”. I am both disappointed and very grateful these bears were not still here: it would be fun to see, but their eyes are hauntingly creepy just in these photographs and I am a crybaby who can write and GM horror but not experience it myself. Instead there stands a Armilary Sphere Sundial, with a note the time given on the sundial will need to be corrected depending on the time of year. I know I once knew exactly how to explain the plot it gives to explain the correction, but I have forgotten it now. It was cloudy anyway, so the sundial didn’t work.

Looking up from the gardens is like looking up at a collaged skyline, with buildings cut from history. The modern, the georgian and the medivial intermix and layer upon each other, and I already know there is more here, more history that I just cannot see while standing where I am.

For lunch, we go up to Pulteney Bridge, which is not just a road bridge but a whole street, with shops and cafes down the side. From the gardens it looked like the road was covered, but this was simply a strange optical illusion with the roofs of the buildings lining the side. The shops are varied and often specialist. One sells handmade masks and kits to make roman style mosaics, which I thought about but did not buy (although I did make a note to do some mosaic style collages), which shared a door with a shop buying and selling rare coins, while across the road is a shop that seems to only sell merchandise for the Bath Rugby team. Further down, a sign in the window of another shop proclaims that they only buy and sell geniune antique maps and that they do not sell reproductions: I look at the prices in the window on the old maps and wince. Finally we reach the end of the bridge, and find A.H.Hale Ltd, a pharmacy established in 1826, which, like so much here, wears its history on its sleeve, the window spilt between advertising for modern drugs and showing old pharmacy equipment and products once sold, a hand operated pill making machine next to a box declaring the wonderful hair brush inside made of that most magical material, plastic. We look at the houses beyond, and while there is something vaguely interesting looking at the end of the street, hunger instead proritises wandering back across the bridge this time looking at the cafes avaliable, not the shops. We find a pleasant cafe selling decent sandwiches and sit down, planning to visit two more locations in the afternoon. The Abbey and the remains of the roman baths.

Throughout this trip, and throughout other trips I’m going on with my family this week, I am making notes in a notebook and thinking about how I can put this together, both for my own sake, remembering the information I’ve learnt and the experiences I’ve had on the trip, but also thinking about how I can use this to create new things, whether taking reference photos for a collage or pulling all the notes together into a blog post like this, both for the sake of creating and to produce content for the internet.

History is not my field. I am interested in it, both the history of things I am otherwise invested in from mathematics to atmospheric science to Pokemon, and how history is used to tell stories about ourselves here and now, both on a personal and a political level, but I feel I need to establish now, during this slightly rambly introductory post to these three posts inspired by my visit to historical places in Bath that I am not speaking as an expert. Still, I hope I bring up some interesting points.

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