More usually associated with eighteenth-century Bath, Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (1674-1761) was also a significant presence at Tunbridge Wells, where he presided as Master of Ceremonies from 1735 until his death. Having acted as Master of Ceremonies at Bath since the early 1700s, Nash took over at Tunbridge following the death of Bell Causey, a formidable woman who had dominated proceedings there during the preceding decade. Once installed at Tunbridge, as Phyllis Hembry outlines, Nash imposed the same ‘social code’ and ‘social routine’, introducing the ‘Bath programme of dancing’ at twice-weekly public balls (comprising minuets, tea-drinking, country dances, and a strict 11pm finish) and arranging for new arrivals to be greeted by musicians (rather than the bells that greeted visitors at Bath).
The source of Nash’s authority was as much personal as municipal: he dictated social behaviour at Bath and Tunbridge largely through force of personality. As Oliver Goldsmith observed in his Life of Richard Nash (1762), Nash was not naturally qualified for social eminence: ‘Nature had by no means formed Mr. Nash for a Beau Garçon; his person was clumsey, too large and aukward, and his features harsh, strong, and peculiarly irregular’. Yet, as Goldsmith also conveyed, Nash was masterful in his presentation of himself as not simply genteel but singular and extravagant, as displayed on his departures to Tunbridge: ‘His equipage was sumptuous, and he usually travelled to Tunbridge, in a post chariot and six greys, with out-riders, footmen, French horns, and every other appendage of expensive parade’. Whether at Bath or Tunbridge, as Goldsmith also noted, Nash was never seen without his white hat: an odd affectation that enabled him to stand out from the polite Company even as he presided over it.
During Nash’s tenure, Tunbridge was both subsidiary and complementary to Bath. On the one hand, as Goldsmith indicated, ‘We see a kingdom beginning with him, and sending off Tunbridge as one of its colonies’ – Tunbridge here forming an extension of Nash’s personal dominion. At the same time, Bath’s social seasons, which ran from March-June and September-December, fell either side of Tunbridge’s, allowing for Nash’s residency and an influx of visitors at the height of summer. Although Tunbridge could not actually challenge Bath’s pre-eminence as a spa town, Nash’s arrival did much to change perceptions, enabling a further movement away from the reputation for licentiousness that, historically, Tunbridge had shared with other spas (witness Rochester’s poem ‘Tunbridge Wells’, 1675). Tunbridge’s more respectable mid-eighteenth clientele is visualised in a somewhat fanciful print from 1804 titled ‘The Remarkable Characters who were at Tunbridge Wells with Richardson in 1748’. Along with Samuel Richardson, the image incorporates such notable cultural and political figures from the era as Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, William Pitt, and Nash himself.
In the decades following his death, Nash’s reign as Master of Ceremonies passed into myth. This was usually in relation to Bath but sometimes encompassed Tunbridge also. Looking back a century towards the end of his Spas of England (1841), Augustus Granville contrasted the ‘modern’ Tunbridge to ‘the “Wells” of old’, when ‘promenading under a narrow wooden arcade, yclept the Pantiles, (still in existence), listening to the best musical band Beau Nash could procure, or to his own fâde nonsense and priggish civilities, formed the ne plus of aristocratic mineral-water drinking in times now almost forgotten’. Yet if Nash’s time at Tunbridge seemed like a distant age by the mid-nineteenth century, traces of Nash still remain. Today, it is possible to eat and drink at the Beau Nash Tavern, to shop at Beau Nash Antiques, and even – should finances allow – to live at Richard Beau Nash Apartments. Since 2006, when Tunbridge celebrated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of its Chalybeate Spring, a claret plaque at the Pantiles has commemorated the role of Nash – a ‘Dandy and leader of fashion’ – as ‘Master of the Ceremonies at the Wells 1735-1762’. The characterisation of Nash as a ‘Dandy’, a term that postdates him, may reflect the difficulty involved in ‘perfectly comprehend[ing] the meaning of the word’ beau, as Elinor Dashwood puts it in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (chapter 21). At both Bath and Tunbridge Wells, though, Nash’s status as the self-styled ‘leader’ of eighteenth-century fashionable society remains undeniable.
Goldsmith, Oliver, The Life of Richard Nash (1762), in Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), volume 3.
Granville, A.B., The Spas of England, and Principal Sea-Bathing Places, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1841)
Hembry, Phyllis, The English Spa, 1560-1815: A Social History (London: Athlone Press, 1990)
King, Melanie, The Secret History of English Spas (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2021)