Bath has lots of small museums. One of my favourites is the Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Hall. Mainly because, somewhat unusually, it is the building itself, with its multi-layered history, that is the main exhibit.
Entry is by guided tour (see website for times) but, visiting on a winter morning, I got the tour to myself. Roger, my enthusiastic guide, had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and current use of the building. (Unfortunately no photos are allowed, but I did get permission to reproduce some old postcards.)
The Old Theatre Royal
The history of the Old Theatre Royal goes back to the mid-18th century. It had become the custom for fashionable people to visit Bath for several months at a time, to take the waters and to mix with high society. However, more formal entertainment was needed and, following a public subscription for funds, the theatre opened in 1768.
My tour started with the original bar and meeting area, and then we went into the theatre itself. Apparently up to 400 people would have been packed into this relatively small space: by modern standards it must have been horribly overcrowded! But it was a place to see and be seen. It was this theatre that Jane Austen (and her fictional creations) would have attended. And it attracted the great actors of the day, including Sarah Siddons, who lived in Bath for many years.
The Benedictine Mission in Bath
By 1805 most of the wealthy visitors had moved away from the centre of Bath. A new theatre was built, closer to the new houses, and the Old Theatre Royal was closed. It was later purchased by a group of Catholics, many of whom had fled France in the wake of the Revolution. At the time Catholicism was still illegal in England, but no objection was raised to the building being used as a place of worship and as a home to the Benedictine Mission in Bath.
The old theatre now became a chapel. You can still see the evidence of this, with religious paintings and old church pews. And there is a small side chapel at the back of the theatre. One aspect of Catholicism being illegal was that they could not bury their dead in consecrated ground, so they created catacombs in the basement. Although the bodies were later moved, you can still see the catacombs and some of the gravestones.
A Masonic Lodge
After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 the building fell into disuse once more. It was purchased by the Freemasons in 1866 as a centre for all their lodges in the city. Today seven lodges are based here, and the theatre is in use again, as a place for ritual dramas. It is also popular for weddings and other events.
Roger, himself a former Grand Master, was fascinating in his explanation of Freemasonery. The lodges raise a lot of money for charity, but it is also “a personal journey”. He explained the symbolism of many of the items in the building, and showed me the collection of Masonic medals and other artefacts in the basement. (If you want to know more you’ll have to visit the museum for yourself…)
As I walked away I looked back at this small and unassuming building. I was amazed at how much history lay behind its walls.