Saturday, 13 February 2016

36 'Beau' Nash

36. Beau Nash - 13 Feb 2016 (photos: Beau Nash, Caer Street premises)

Some may recall the original Beau Nash House in Swansea’s town centre before the war.  It stood in Goat Street, at the top of what is now Princess Way, and like the large Wesley Chapel opposite was destroyed during the aerial bombardment of February 1941.  It had been the premises of Sidney Heath’s draper’s shop, and was believed to have been the birthplace of the Regency dandy ‘Beau’ Nash.  When Sidney Heath re-located after the war to Caer Street (now Yates’s Wine Bar), he named the larger premises with the mock Tudor façade Beau Nash House. 

But who was Beau Nash? 

By contrast with Thomas Bowdler, the ‘censor of Shakespeare’ who was from Bath but moved to Swansea, Nash was born in Swansea but lived much of his life in Bath.  Born Richard Nash in 1674 in Swansea, his father ran a bottle-making business.  With the growth of the wine trade and demand for medicinal waters his father could afford to send Richard (he also had two daughters) to Carmarthen Grammar School.  Richard Nash boarded in Carmarthen until he was 17, and went on to Jesus College, Oxford.  He was never forthcoming about his past, and as his fame increased he ignored rumours and let admirers embellish anecdotes about him. 

Bath was a spa town known for its mineral springs, which became popular after Queen Anne’s visit in 1702.  But fashionable visitors found that Bath was ill-prepared to receive, house and entertain guests.  From 1710 Nash is first mentioned in documents as living in Bath.  He briefly assisted Captain Webster, Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, who was a compulsive gambler, and succeeded him when Webster was killed in a duel over gambling.  Thereupon Nash instigated changes to encourage gentry and nobility to visit Bath. 

He had the streets patrolled by night watchmen, ordered residents to hang lanterns outside their houses to deter crimes in the hours of darkness, and excluded vagrants and professional beggars who would prey on wealthy visitors.  He regulated the conduct of the sedan chair porters and, instead of the variable quality of local musicians, he booked London musicians to play at the Pump House during the daytime, and at the evening dances in the Assembly Rooms.  With his charm, assurance and confidence, Nash was a superb Master of Ceremonies, enforcing standards of civility and politeness.  As he raised standards people took pride in their appearance - households began to have more than just one mirror!  Nash gentrified behaviour, holding court at the Pump Room and acquiring the nickname ‘Beau’.  He laid down rules of mutual respect, including “that all whisperers of lies and scandals be taken as their authors.”

Visitors would walk, ride, bathe in the Baths, dance, play card games like whist, piquet or quadrille (an early form of bridge).  A keen gambler himself, Nash would restrain compulsive gamblers and warn players against risky games or suspected cardsharps.

As Master of Ceremonies he observed distinctions of rank at minuets - initially just one couple would begin the dance, before Nash would bring forth a different partner, and so on.  With his be-jewelled snuff-box he became a distinctive figure. 

It was a great coup for him when Bath was visited in 1738 by Frederick, Prince of Wales, with his consort Princess Augusta.  Nash transformed the spa city into the most fashionable place in England, organising magnificent public balls and raising nearly £20,000 to improve the state of the roads. 

It was said that he ‘was the life and soul of all their diversions’ - in some ways he was the prototype of the modern celebrity: famous for being famous.  Today he would be an impresario, or in PR.
Among Bath Abbey’s memorial tablets is one to this Swansea man who promulgated rules that had a beneficial and lasting effect on society.  ‘Beau’ Nash sounds just the person to make a party go with a swing!

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