watercolour sketch of the rear of Pulteney Bridge Show image info

Watercolour sketch of the rear of Pulteney Bridge, showing arrangements for discharge of sewage and rainfall into the river, early nineteenth century (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath & North East Somerset Council, ref. 1991.135)

Records of public health infrastructure: drainage, street paving and other amenities, 1766-1850

In the second half of the eighteenth century the City Council needed to provide essential public amenities such as paved streets, lighting and ‘watching’ (police). It lacked the powers to do this itself, so set up ‘Commissions’ which could do so.

These Commissions, established by Acts of Parliament, covered small areas: Bath city centre (Acts of 1766, 1789 and 1814), Walcot (1793) and Bathwick (1801). The composition of each Commission varied slightly, but included representatives of the Council and of the parish(es) covered. The Bath Acts of 1766 and 1814, and the Walcot and Bathwick Acts, gave the Commissioners extensive powers and responsibilities over paving, cleaning and lighting of streets, and ensuring their drainage, the removal of ‘nuisances’ (rubbish), and ‘watching’ (policing). The Bath Improvement Act of 1789 was a little different, being concerned more with the built environment: it empowered the Commissioners to protect and secure the Hot Baths and Springs, rebuild the Pump Rooms, build new streets and widen existing ones, by compulsory purchase of premises if necessary.

1. Records of the Commissions
Excellent series of records for all of the Commissions have survived. They show how public amenities were provided, how the huge sums of money required were raised, and how the work was actually carried out. They throw light on the public health concerns of this period, which predates the era of sanitary reform, and provide insights into social conditions. The records of the Commissions include:

  • Minutes. These provide a very detailed record of the decisions and orders made by the Commissioners relating to improvements needed, giving specific details of each action to be taken. Not all the series of minutes are complete. Note that they do not include strategy or policy decisions, except occasionally by implication. A small number of miscellaneous papers for specific Commissions occasionally relate to strategic decisions; these are noted below in the sections on the individual Commissions.
  • Financial records. Again, these are very detailed, although not all series are complete. They include various types of account books recording income and expenditure, wages books and bills and receipts. For most of the Commissions they also include rate books which record the sums collected from householders, listed by name and address, levied according to the value of the property to pay for the work of the Commissions.
  • Administrative and operational records. These very detailed records include notice books (notices issued to householders for improvements to be made), survey books (reports of surveyors), watchmen’s duty, lamp and pitching report books, correspondence and other papers.

Records of the individual Commissions survive as follows:

Records of the Commissioners of the Bath Act 1766 (6 Geo. III c.70) and Bath Act 1814 (54 Geo. III, c.105), 1766-1851 (BC/22/2)

  • Minutes, 1766-1810 and 1814-1822 (BC/22/2/1)
  • Financial records, 1766-1851 (BC/22/2/3)
  • Administrative and operational records, 1766-1851 (BC/22/2/4 - BC/22/2/10 and BC/22/2/12-BC/22/2/14)
  • Proposed Bill for the extension of the Bath Act 1766 to include parts of Bathwick, c. 1790 (BC/22/2/11)
  • Statement of the defects of the 1766 Act and proposed amendments, c.1813 (BC/22/2/15)

Records of the Bath Improvement Act Commissioners 1789 (29 Geo. III c.73), 1678 -1851 (BC/22/3)

  • Minutes, 1789-1832 (BC/22/3/1)
  • Financial records, 1793-1851. As well as the usual series of records, these include detailed records of mortgage bonds: the Commission raised much of its funding by issuing mortgage bonds on the proceeds of turnpike tolls. Note that there are no rate books associated with this Commission, as it did not use rates to raise funds (BC/22/3/3)
  • Title Deeds, 1678-1825. The Commissioners purchased property in the city centre in order to carry out improvements. On purchase, they usually acquired the title deeds to the property, almost all of which pre-dated the formation of the Commission (BC/22/3/4)
  • Papers of the Clerk to the Bath Improvement Act, including papers relating to the development of the Act, 1789-1826 (BC/22/3/5)
  • Plans and elevations for building and street works, including Thomas Baldwin’s plans for the Pump Rooms and plans of the intended layouts for Stall Street, Bath Street, Cheap Street, and Union Street (BC/22/3/6)

Records of the Commissioners of the Walcot Act 1793 (33 Geo. III c. 89), 1793-1851 (BC/22/4)

  • Minutes, 1793-1815 and 1842-1847 (BC/22/4/1)
  • Financial records, 1793-1851 (BC/22/4/2)
  • Administrative and operational records, 1793-1849 (BC/22/4/4-BC/22/4/9 and BC/22/4/11)
  • Copy of a petition to Parliament from inhabitants of Walcot who were against the extension of the Walcot Act, 1825 (BC/22/4/10)

Records of the Commissioners of the Bathwick Act 1801 (41 Geo. III c.126), 1801-1851 (BC/22/5)

  • Minutes, 1835-1851 (BC/22/5/1)
  • Financial records, 1816-1831 (BC/22/5/2)
  • Administrative and operational records, 1817-1850 (BC/22/5/3-5)

Full catalogues for all the Commissions are available at https://somerset-cat.swheritage.org.uk/records/BNES/BC/22


2. Other Records: minutes of the City Council (BC/2/1/1/7-BC/2/1/1/16)
While public health work was mainly carried out by the Commissioners during this period, there are occasional references to sewers, drainage and ‘nuisances’ in the minutes of the City Council. The minutes are not indexed at this period, and the Council was mainly concerned with matters relating to its ownership of property; researchers should therefore be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time searching through the minutes in order to find relevant information.


3. Other records: local Acts of Parliament (BC/1/2)
The Acts of Parliament which established the Commissions set out in detail how the commissioners are to be appointed or elected, how often they should meet, the extent of their powers and how they should carry out their responsibilities. The Record Office holds a full set of all the local Acts relating to Bath, including the Acts setting up the Commissions.


4. Other records: local newspapers
Local newspapers contain valuable information on the work of the Commissions, public attitudes towards them and the political differences they could provoke.  They provide an alternative perspective to the official records. The Record Office holds various Bath newspapers, including the Bath Chronicle; details can be found in our research guide to newspapers.

The online British Newspaper Archive (BNA) at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk includes the weekly edition of the Bath Chronicle 1760-1950. The BNA enables targeted searches to be carried out, and is the best place to start research in the Chronicle. The Record Office offers free access to the BNA; for more information see https://www.batharchives.co.uk/computers-and-internet-access