Walking around Bath you can’t help but admire the beautiful architecture, wonder at the ancient baths, or imagine yourself dolled up to the nines at a Regency Ball in the Assembly Rooms. However, all that you see in beautiful Bath was constructed and created by the working people of the city; an oft forgotten element to Bath’s story.
The Museum of Bath at Work records and celebrates all that made Bath great – the industries within it and the people who made it happen.
The main bulk of the Museum of Bath at Work’s collection is the J.B.Bowler collection, an amazing reconstruction of an entire business that was saved by local businessman Russell Frears in the late 1960’s.
Bowler’s was a shop that supplied practically almost anything to the industries of Bath, from nuts and bolts to fittings and brass works. What was even more extraordinary about Bowler’s and thus the items that were saved, was that nothing seems to have been thrown away from the time it began in the 1860’s! Next door there was also the family owned Mineral Water factory, and this too was saved piece by piece.
Bowler’s really was a family business. Started in 1860 by Jonathan Burdett Bowler, or the “Governor” as he became known as, eventually every member of his family was involved in the business. His daughters ran the Mineral Water side, while his sons assisted him in the brassworking and shop side.
In the days before recycling was fashionable, J.B.Bowler was a pioneer. Nothing was thrown away, everything that could be reused was. This wasn’t just something the Governor did, this thriftiness was passed down; for example there are 19th Century receipts with 20th Century notes on the other side of them.
J.B.Bowler was also a real Alan Sugar of his day. He tried his hand to everything. We know from the collection that he attempted a boot and shoe business in Southgate Street in 1882, however significant losses meant that it was closed within 3 years. His entrepreneurial spirit lived on after his death in 1911 through his 13 children, and the business continued to put its hand to everything and anything. By the 1930’s the shop was involved in the public house and brewery hardware side of business, as well as its other concerns, and as such at one point the company started to buy Smith’s crisps and sell vinegar to the pubs it did work for!
Bowler’s building was to be found on Corn Street, the site of which is now the Avon Street car park. There is brilliant footage that the BBC produced of inside Bowler’s. The building was compulsory purchased by the Council to build a new car park in 1969; its fate was sealed, but Frears had enough foresight, and money, to offer Ernest Bowler, the last of the Bowler family working there, to save the entirety of the shop and Mineral Water factory. He then went about photographing every single room and pieces so that when it was reassembled it could be done so exactly.
By the 1970’s Frear’s had found the perfect building for the collection, and set up the Bath Industrial Heritage Trust to maintain the museum and to portray the rest of Bath’s Industrial history. In 1978 the doors of what is England’s only 18th Century Real Tennis court opened its doors as The Museum of Bath at Work.
If you’re visiting Bath it’s important to go and see this collection, not only because of its uniqueness and rarity, but to get a more rounded picture of the city. For instance, did you know that Plasticine was invented and produced here? Shorthand was also developed here by Isaac Pitman. You can learn more about the local stone mines that turned out the creamy coloured limestone that makes up the beautiful buildings of our city today, and even see a car that was created and built in the city between 1914 and 1928, the Horstmann.
When you arrive at the Museum, the building itself is imposing. You walk up to the first floor where the shop is and the first thrill is that you purchase your tickets at what was the original shop counter of Bowler’s. Everything is exactly how it was, with drawers stuffed full of items, chains hanging from the ceiling and plaques around the walls. You really feel as though you are transported back to the 1900’s!
You’re given an audio guide to use as you walk around the Bowler collection, and it really is worth a listen. The Museum has also added sound effects as you walk around, which really brings alive the working areas, such as the forge and brass finishing room. There are panels on the walls too that give you further information if needed, but it’s just great to look at the plethora of items that are piled everywhere.
On the tour you are able to even start original 1880’s machinery. This is a real thrill to watch the fan belt machines begin to start up one by one until they are fully going. Originally powered by steam, and then gas, it is electricity that starts these great pieces today.
Another room has the Bowler’s office fully assembled as it was found in 1969. It’s amazing to see piles of original ledgers and invoices, some dating back to the 19th Century, in situ. You almost feel that the staff have popped out for tea and will be back soon; a real Marie Celeste moment.
Frear’s saved every single bottle, every single scrap of paper, every nut and bolt of Bowlers; so when you walk into the area that displays the Mineral Water Factory, you can see every element. In the mixing room, where flavours were created for their cordials, even the jars still have the original brightly coloured mixes within them. Above the bottling area is crate upon crate of glass bottles, unused. Simply extraordinary.
Once you have finished with your tour of the Bowler collection you head up to the mezzanine level where you can find out more about the history of industry in Bath over the centuries, plus children can enjoy the dressing up box and activities here. There are also wonderful displays about the medieval cloth trade, the crane works of Stothert and Pitt, and even the last plate from the printing press of the local paper, The Bath Chronicle, before they turned to lithography.
This floor is also where you will find the temporary exhibition space. Currently, until the end of October, there is an exhibition celebrating 65 years of Clark’s Desert Boot. Plus there are some interesting panels created by local groups of Bath, giving an historical A to Z of their area that is definitely worth a look at.
You can also find refreshments up here and seats where you can enjoy a sit down and reflect on what is all around you. When you’re ready to continue, head down the stairs to the ground floor and enter the final part of the museum. Here you can listen to part of the Museum’s oral history collection; an important record with hundreds of the city’s workers’ recollections preserved.
There is also a reconstructed workshop of one of Bath’s many cabinet makers which once again reminds you of the craft and skills that once dotted the streets of the city. There is also stone quarrying equipment plus a mock-up of a mine with explanations of how the stone was cut and transported to the city for use in the building trade.
I was privileged enough to be shown into the basement of the Museum by Stuart Burroughs, the Museum’s Director, and there I saw the shelves of paperwork gathered from Bowler’s, along with the boxes of negatives, prints and photographs by Russell Frears. All the equipment and machinery from Bowler’s is actually on display, there is nothing in the archive, which is incredibly unusual for a museum as a lot of the time not all can be shown. It’s only the vast amount of paperwork that can’t be put on display, for preservation reasons as well as sheer size of the collection.
It is in the basement that you are reminded again of the original building’s use, for it is at this level you have the original 18th Century flagstones of the Real Tennis court. It was only a tennis court for a short period of time before going through many transitions before it became a museum in the 1970’s.
To be honest the Museum is packed with so much it cannot all be listed here! But is it worth a look? Absolutely! I have to confess having lived here all my life I had never been, and after my visit I do wonder why I hadn’t before.
You don’t have to be into engineering or industry to enjoy this collection; it’s fascinating for anyone who has an interest in the past. It’s also a great place to bring children. With the advent of the computer age, it is a good reflection on what has been, and how far we have come. It also looks to the future too. Some areas of the museum are available to hire for meetings, lectures and performances; plus it hosts the Bath Young Inventor of the Year awards.
The most important thing to come out of my visit was that when I re-emerged I realised we need to appreciate that there is much more to the city than just the tourists, the Romans and the Georgians. We should be more aware of and celebrate what enabled Bath, and still does today, to feed itself, to clothe itself, to run itself – the industries and the workers!
Museum of Bath at Work – for opening times, hire costs, and ticket prices, please see website
With thanks to Stuart Burroughs and all the volunteers at the Museum