In this third and final instalment of our ‘Plaque’ trilogy, we return to the lives hidden behind Bath’s historical plaques. Our previous two blogs – Plaque To The Future and The Empire Strikes Plaque – shone a light on ten remarkable lives, from the first White Rajah to a dueling thespian to the pioneer of the abolition of slavery, and this blog introduces five further colourful characters.
1. William Pitt
15 Johnstone Street
Here lived William Pitt
In modern times, we have come to distrust those who rise to power at an early age, but William Pitt was aged just 24 when he first became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1783.
He remains Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, and went on to serve a second term in office. Over the course of both terms, he served as Prime Minister for just shy of 19 years – the second longest serving Prime Minister in British history. His tenure in office coincided with a turbulent time abroad; the American War of Independence strained public finances and forced Pitt to introduce the first ever income tax. Pitt resigned as Prime Minister in 1801, but three years later and with Napoleon threatening invasion, King George asked him to form a new government. The war against France strained Pitt’s already weakened health, and he died just a few months after Britain’s decisive victory at Trafalgar.
2. Prince Louis Napoleon III
Prince Louis Napoleon.
Napoleon III. Stayed here 1846. B. 1808. D. 1873.
Louis Napoleon III, nephew and heir to Napoleon I, was the first President of the French Second Republic. However, his path to the throne was not straightforward and led him via London and Bath to the becoming the first French President to be elected by popular vote. Ever since the fall of Napoleon I, a movement existed in France to return a Bonaparte to the throne. Napoleon I’s son lived in virtual imprisonment in Vienna, and he harboured no ambition to return to public life. Upon his death, Louis Napoleon assumed the role heir to the dynasty and leader of the Bonaparte movement.
His first attempted coup began in Strasbourg but was quickly quelled. Napoleon sought refuge in Switzerland and subsequently fled to London, where he was well received by the political leaders of the day. From London, he planned his second coup, which turned out to be a bigger fiasco than the first, as all mutineers were arrested on the beach as they arrived in France. Napoleon was imprisoned, only to simply walk out of the prison gates six years later disguised as a labourer carrying timber. He returned to London, again warmly greeted.
It was at this stage of his life that he made frequent visits to Bath, staying in the Sydney Hotel – now the Holburne Museum. In 1848, Napoleon returned to France amidst the chaos of the French Revolution; King Louis-Philippe had abdicated and assumed his own exile in London, and a new constitution was drafted. The Second Republic was born, and Napoleon was voted its leader with a staggering 74% of the votes cast.
3. Sarah Siddons
33 The Paragon
Here dwelt Sarah Siddons B.1755 D.1831
Considered by many as the greatest Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons’ performance of the Scottish queen was described by a noted critic as being ‘above nature’. She enjoyed a 20 year career as the leading actress at one of London’s premier venues, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She retired from the stage in 1812; her final performance of Lady Macbeth had to be halted, such was the enthusiastic response from the audience to the famous sleepwalking scene. When the applause would not cease, the curtain was lowered; after several minutes it was raised again to reveal Mrs Siddons in her civilian clothes, who went on to deliver an 8 minute farewell speech.
The 1950 film ‘All About Eve’ features a fictional award for stage acting called the Sarah Siddons Award. In 1952, the award was made reality and is annually given to an actor for an outstanding performance in a Chicago theatrical production; past winners include Faye Dunaway, Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews and Elaine Stritch.
4. Major John André
22 The Circus
Here dwelt Major Andre A.D. 1770
By the age of 29, John André has worked his way through the ranks of the British army to become the head of the secret intelligence. His early military career had seen him posted to Canada via Boston and Philadelphia. In 1775, during an American siege on St John’s, he became a prisoner of war and was transferred to Pennsylvania. Later the following year, he was released back to the British army as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1777, André was one of 17,000 British soldiers to land in Maryland and occupy Philadelphia, where he spent the next 9 months living in Benjamin Franklin’s house. When the time came to evacuate the city, Major André looted the house and took with him musical instruments, scientific apparatus and an oil painting of Franklin, which was not returned to the United States until the first half of the 20th century.
In September 1780, André became detached from his regiment who, under heavy artillery fire, had retreated without him. In order to rejoin them, André had to pass through American-held territory, which he attempted to do disguised in civilian clothes with an American passport. Having successfully done this, Major André was then stopped and searched in British territory by soldiers wearing British uniforms. When he informed them that he was a British officer, his captors revealed themselves to be undercover Americans. André tried to change his story by brandishing his American passport, but by this point suspicions had been aroused and he was arrested. After one further failed escape attempt, Major John André was hanged as a spy at noon on October 2nd 1780.
5. Sir William Herschel
19 New King Street
Here lived William Herschel A.D. 1781
It was from German-born astronomer William Herschel’s New King Street abode that he first spotted what he thought was a new comet or star in the night sky. After further observations and calculations, he realised that this was actually a previously undiscovered planet beyond the orbit of Saturn.
The planet was initially named the ‘Georgian Star’, which curried Royal favour but didn’t exactly roll off the tongue; eventually the planet became known as Uranus. To this day, the astrological symbol for Uranus represents the capital initial letter of Herschel’s surname:
The discovery made Herschel famous overnight and led to his appointment as ‘Court Astronomer’ by George III. 19 New King Street is today the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, a testament to his life and work.
This blog concludes our Plaque Trilogy and, whilst we have selected fifteen of the most intriguing and fascinating stories, Bath’s Georgian walls are lined with many more names. You can find the locations of every plaque we have mentioned in our blogs by clicking here; they are found on some of Bath’s most famous streets, so why not use the map to help you to guide yourself around the city and find them? You can refer to our blogs to find out more about each plaque once you have found it.