11 November 2017

Special Guest Post: Regency era Tenby, by Kyra Kramer


Tenby, a coastal town in Pembrokeshire, Wales, was the site of one of the most important events in Tudor history. It was in Tenby that Jasper Tudor hid from the forces of Henry IV with his teenage nephew Harri in the summer of 1471. The fugitives were shielded by the loyal Welsh folk and by the mayor, Thomas White, in tunnels under the town. It was in one of Thomas White’s ships that Jasper and young Harri were smuggled out of Tenby toward the relative safety of the continent.

When Jasper’s nephew later became King Henry VII, he showed his gratitude to Tenby in the form of royal grants that turned the small Welsh town into a center of international trade. For more than two centuries the small costal town thrived as one of Britain’s most important ports. Turkish merchants and Irish pirates alike moored anchor in Tenby’s harbor and traded along its docks.  
Alas, disaster struck Tenby during the middle of the 17th century in the form of the bubonic plague. Approximately half the population of the town – more than 500 people -- died in one virulent outbreak in the winter of 1650, and Tenby (like many small towns decimated by the plague) couldn’t recover from such drastic losses. By the time the Georgian kings began their reign the once-booming town of Tenby was mostly an empty shell of abandoned buildings. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, came through Tenby during his efforts as a traveling preacher and reported that, "Two-thirds of the old town is in ruins or has entirely vanished. Pigs roam among the abandoned houses and Tenby presents a dismal spectacle”.  
Nevertheless, happier times were just around the corner for Tenby. The town would enjoy a resurgence in the Regency era thanks to the efforts of one man -- a merchant banker named Sir William Paxton. With brilliance and foresight, Paxton thought to turn Tenby and its lovely white beaches into a spa town for sea bathing, in the likeness of Brighton or Weymouth.
With that in mind, Paxton began investing heavily in Tenby property at the beginning of the 19th century, buying a significant portion of the buildings in the older part of the town. He wrote a friend about his plan to “lay out some thousands in building lodging houses etc. which being much wanted, may be of some benefit”. When Paxton informed the town council of his hopes for Tenby in 1805, they nearly wept with gratitude and bent over backwards to help him along.
Paxton already knew exactly who he needed to remake Tenby and design a "fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society" one of the most renowned architects of the era, Samuel Pepys Cockerell. This was the same architect who had recently designed Paxton’s splendid new mansion, Middleton Hall, just a few years prior. Paxton also turned to his estate agent, an engineer named James Grier, and his landscaper, Samuel Lapidge, for help.
He knew he could trust the genius of Cockrell, Grier, and Lapidge because they had turned Middleton Hall and its gardens into one of the marvels of Pembrokeshire. Not only was the mansion elegant and charming, it was modernized to the hilt. There were elevated reservoirs of water from natural springs behind the residence which filled a lead cistern on the hall’s roof, giving Paxton’s mansion the luxuries of hot running water and flushing toilets. There reservoirs were moreover used to create an unparalleled water park on the grounds surrounding the mansion. A clever network of dams, sluices, bridges and cascades moved the spring water from the reservoirs into the multiple ponds, lakes, and streams in Middleton Hall’s gardens.
In a stroke of luck, Paxton had discovered a chalybeate spring on his estate. The heated, mineral-rich waters of this spring not only supplied the warmth for Paxton’s baths and hothouses, they were considered medicinal. Ferruginous water was believed to provide a cure for colic, melancholy, and “the vapours” because it “loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain". Moreover, drinking the mineral water “killed flat worms in the belly” and could make “the lean fat [and] the fat lean”.
Paxton came up with the idea of piping the ferruginous waters into Tenby, in order to offer the discerning tourist health-granting mineral waters like those provided at Bath or other spa towns. This would give Tenby a real edge in the tourist trade, since other places could offer only one or the other of these treatments; Bath had healing waters, but no seashore, while most seaside resorts could boast no mineral water. Tenby would thus become the place to be if one wanted to restore one’s health via mineral waters and sea-bathing.
While he was it, Paxton commissioned Grier to come up with a plan to bring fresh drinking water into Tenby, as well as the mineral waters from Middleton Hall. They had already created watering system in the town of Carmarthen, where Paxton had formerly been mayor, using iron pipes and the techniques they had refined on Paxton’s estate, so they knew it could be done. Even in its heyday Tenby had a constant problem with obtaining sufficient fresh water for its residents, and Paxton knew an abundance of potable water was crucial for building up the tourist trade. He was determined to use cutting edge innovations to turn Tenby into the perfect resort town, and make it the center of tourism in Wales.
In this same vein, the bath house Grier and Cockerell designed for Tenby was not only aesthetically pleasing, it was technologically brilliant:
The bath house was in fact not only a fancy establishment built by a much respected architect to receive the best company, it was also a remarkable feat of engineering. The top floor was on street level and contained the elegant assembly room, a bar, the vestibule mentioned above and two bedrooms for those who were too infirm to be lodged in the town of Tenby. One floor down were three hot baths with attached dressing rooms, a pump room, a vapour bath and a shower bath. The hot baths were fed by a water-tank placed under the vestibule where the water was heated by a furnace. The bottom floor was fitted out with two cold plunging baths, one for the ladies and the other for gentlemen. Four private baths with attached heated dressing rooms were available for those wishing to bathe in the most exclusive privacy. This floor was below the level of high tide and the baths were fed by sea water from a large reservoir that was refilled with every new high tide. The waste water from the baths was piped into two large basins on either side of the reservoir which were emptied at low tide … It was equipped with a handsome assembly room commanding a view of the sea and harbor and a spacious vestibule "for servants and attendants on the bathers to wait in without mixing with the company". Its front entrance was adorned with a quotation from Euripides' "Iphigenia in Tauris" which, translated, still reads; "All man's pollution does the sea cleanse". 

As well as arranging the best sea-bathing apparatus and baths for Tenby, Paxton bought a local inn and renovated it, creating very stylish accommodations for the Beau Monde and upper crust merchant class whom he hoped would visit. Additionally, he had ‘picturesque’ yet functionally modern cottages built alongside the baths for those guests who would prefer to spend their summers in Tenby ‘taking the waters’ from the convenience of a more private residence. He furthermore widened the main roads, as well as building livery stables and coach houses, to promote ease of travel and to meet the needs of the wealthy visitor to Tenby.
Paxton’s sea-bathing resort opened in July 1806, but he knew a nice beaches, bathing facilities, and mineral water were only half the battle to bring in tourism. The tourists needed something to do. Thus, Paxton set out to provide easy access to, or even outright create, places to visit on short pleasure outings. The yen for brief forays to nearby areas of interest started in the Regency era and would become a central feature of Victorian tourism.

With day-trippers in mind, Paxton invested in turnpike roads and bought several coaching inns spanning as far to the east as Swansea and as far to the north as Narberth. He built bath houses on his own estate, well-warmed with furnaces and chalybeate spring waters, which he made open to the public. He also commissioned Cockerell to build what became known as Paxton's Tower, an ornate garden folly in memorial to Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, on his property to complement the immense water garden and create a delightful site for tourist jaunts. The tower was an ideal place to take in the breathtaking views over the Tywi valley, with the additional feature of a banqueting room that would allow more formal receptions and entertainments.
It is most likely Paxton who published a small guide book, "The Tenby guide; Comprehending such information relative to that town and its vicinity as could be comprehended from ancient and modern authorities", which detailed all these various wonders to enjoy in the area. He was probably the mastermind behind the numerous magazine and newspaper articles praising Tenby as THE place for seashore holidays in Wales, as well.
In 1814 Paxton paid for the construction of a road overlooking Tenby harbor atop Romanesque arches that is still in use today. The new road served the twofold purpose of “providing a good approach to his bath house” and allowing “the clientele of that establishment to observe the activity in the harbor without having to mix with the workmen and the public.” One wanted lovely vistas, not the reality of the laboring classes, on one’s holiday! Preserving class boundaries was as important to the Georgian tourist as it was for the future Victorian visitors … maybe even more so. Paxton, born middle-class and now ascended to the nouveau riche elite, was profoundly aware of these sociocultural niceties and pandered to them.
The one failure in Paxton’s investment plan for Tenby was a local theater. Built to entertain the tourists, it opened at the beginning of August 1810 and featured a long-standing favorite Georgian farce, “The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret by Susanna Centlivre, and John O'Keeffe’s comedic opera “The Poor Soldier”. In spite of a good start, the theater only lasted eight years before closing down. A theater, it was speculated, would encourage ‘vice’ in Tenby and was a source of contention among some of the moralistic tourists and locals. When ceased its performances in 1818, Paxton promised to use the building for something “unobjectionable” in the future, and reimbursed the other investors out of his own funds.
Paxton poured a huge outlay of money into Tenby and Pembrokeshire, but it proved to be a wise gamble. His efforts to turn Tenby into one of the premier watering holes in Great Britain succeeded beyond even his hopeful expectations. It thrived in the Regency, and the Victorians would treasure it, calling it the “Naples of Wales”. Mary Ann Bourne would write a popular guide book about Tenby, pointing out that it was the ’judicious choice of rank and fashion’ as a seaside destination. It remains a favorite tourist destination today.
Kyra Kramer 
Sources
Strother, Edward. 1721. Dr. Radcliffe's practical dispensatory: containing a complete body of prescriptions, fitted for all diseases, internal and external, digested under proper heads. 4th ed. Rivington, London.
"Sir William Paxton". kuiters.org
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About the Author
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is an American anthropologist living in south Wales best known for her work on Tudor history. Her first historical novel, Mansfield Parsonage, a retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park from the point of view of Mary Crawford, was released earlier this year. You can read her blog at kyrackramer.com, follow her on Twitter @KyraKramer, or like her Facebook author page.

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