1735. The Master of Ceremonies

Beau Nash in 1745

A scene is repeated each year in Tunbridge Wells from 1735 onwards: a large carriage rolls into town, pulled by six grey horses and followed by footmen, servants on horseback and a band of musicians blowing French horns. When the carriage pulls to a stop, a man emerges from it who has a stout figure, a red face, a long nose and a double chin. His clothes are showy, although not in the latest fashion, and on his head he wears a three-cornered white hat. From the manner of his arrival an onlooker might suppose that a royal visitor has arrived in town, but local residents know that he is not a royal, or even an aristocrat. He is Beau Nash, the Master of Ceremonies and this is his usual manner of arriving in town for the summer season.

Tunbridge Wells in 1748. From an engraving by Samuel Richardson

More than 100 years after Long North discovered the spring, the location’s popularity had grown. The Walks (Upper and Lower) had been built alongside the wells, consisting of lodging houses, separate coffee rooms for ladies and gentlemen, a circulating library, shops and the Assembly Room. Further accommodation was available close by on Mount Sion and up above the common on Mount Ephraim. However, only a small number of people lived in the town permanently and their houses were scattered through woods and commons. The place still felt more rustic than urban – something which was attractive to visitors from London.

When 61-year-old Welshman Richard ‘Beau’ Nash declared himself Master of Ceremonies in 1735, residents of Tunbridge Wells (as the place was now known) were delighted, especially traders who were aware of the boost his presence had given to Bath over the past 30 years. While he was not handsome, or from a noble background (his father was a glass bottle maker), he was supremely confident and his wit and abundance of small talk made him popular, especially with ladies.

Beau Nash, who called on all new visitors to the spa, set a programme that was to be followed each day which included promenading, taking the waters, attending the chapel of King Charles the Martyr, tea drinking, gaming and (twice a week) public balls. He also prescribed a code of behaviour which visitors were expected to observe, including a ban on men carrying swords.

Sarah Porter by William Pether (in the National Portrait Gallery)

Dippers, musicians, bellringers, waiters, clergy, booksellers the sweeper and others all had to be paid and Nash set subscriptions to be levied from visitors. He employed Sarah Porter, who became known as the ‘Queen of the Touters’, for this task. She would stand at the door of the ballroom and greet each new arrival, enquiring after their mother, sister, brother or aunt, as though she was intimately acquainted with them. The visitor would then be expected to pay up. If they refused, Sarah would follow them round the room, with paper and pencil in hand, until they did so. However annoyed people became, however rude they were to her, she never lost her cool or became uncivil.

For most visitors the gaming part of Nash’s schedule, which included dicing, cards and lotteries, was of more interest than the healing properties of the spring water and huge sums of money were won and lost. However, in 1739, 1740 and 1745 successive acts of parliament reduced the number of legal forms of gambling, putting this form of entertainment in jeopardy.

To get round a ban on games involving numbers, local resident Humphrey Cook invented ‘Evens and Odds’, a game which involved a roulette wheel with letters. EO was played at the Assembly Rooms, but it was not long before a dispute arose between Cook and the manager there over how profits should be shared. Beau Nash intervened and negotiated a resolution, after which it was agreed that he would receive a portion of the profits. In return he undertook to encourage people to play, while making out that he was just a fellow gambler. Nash kept no records, but after a while he became convinced that he was being cheated out of his share; he reckoned he could have lost out by as much as 20,000 guineas here and in Bath. He took legal action, but it brought him no benefit and the only real consequence was that his deceit in misleading visitors was revealed and his reputation damaged irreversibly.

Nash remained Master of Ceremonies in Tunbridge Wells for a further period, but suffered from increasingly poor health. His final visit seems to have been in 1755, after which he remained in Bath, where he died in 1761

Note

  • The wonderful writing group I belong to meets at Nash House on Mount Sion, which is currently home of author Sarah Salway, but said to have at one time been Beau Nash’s home, where he enjoyed illegal gambling sessions!

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