amid the splendour
of Bath Masonic Hall
In 1781 a new coach road had been linked
with Orchard Street, and accommodation
provided for 50 or 60 carriages. Because of
this, and other expenses, Palmer had raised
the price of box seats to five shillings; and as
similar seats in the Bristol theatre only cost
four shillings, there were rumblings of
discontent among regular playgoers.
Keasberry and Dimond restored the
old price immediately on taking over, and
they were rewarded with capacity houses
throughout most of the season. They also
continued to encourage the introduction
of new acting talent, and Bath not only
maintained, but enhanced its reputation
as a nursery for the London stage.
Actors like Edwin, Murray, Middleton
and Elliston graduated to Covent Garden or
Drury Lane from Orchard Street, and
celebrated performers like Sarah Siddons,
G.F. Cooke and John Philip Kemble –
Sarah’s brother – made highly successful
visits to the city. Mrs Siddons and Henderson
remain the greatest players to have graduated
from the Bath theatrical academy.
At the turn of the century the Orchard
Street theatre was thriving under capable
management, and was supported
enthusiastically by both townspeople and
visitors. The only criticism leveled against it
during this period related to the inadequacy
of the building. A decision to build a new
and enlarged playhouse was taken in 1804.
By the early 19th century, following the
development of Queen Square and the
Royal Crescent, the focus of the city had
shifted. The site chosen for the new Theatre
Royal was in Beaufort Square, which
opened on 12 October 1805, nine days
before the Battle of Trafalgar.
The Orchard Street building remained
empty for four years, but in 1809 the Roman
Catholic authorities of Prior Park and
Downside Abbey acquired it for conversion
to a chapel.
Part of the theatre stage, the gallery and
most of the boxes were removed, and the
floor was raised to its present level. Pews
were installed for the congregation and
windows were opened up to give light to
Whilst the building was being used as a
chapel, interments were made in the vaults,
as the Roman Catholic Church was not
allowed consecrated ground for that purpose.
The spacious vaults had previously been used
to store the stage scenery and props.
Tombs were constructed of ashlars of
Bath stone, some six inches thick, in each
of which several bodies were interred. The
tombs were finally covered with a layer of
lime concrete. Over the years the head
height was considerably reduced to less than
the average height of a man – less than six
feet. In total, some 286 bodies were interred
in the vaults.
After the Emancipation Relief Act of
1829, the Roman Catholic church was
allowed consecrated ground and eventually
an RC church – St John’s Church in South
Parade – was opened in 1863.
Most of the mortal remains were removed
and re-interred in the newly consecrated
ground in the cemetery at Perrymead. The
old theatre building became redundant and
remained empty until it was acquired by the
Royal Cumberland Lodge No. 53 in 1866,
for conversion to a Masonic meeting house.
The building, together with the two
adjacent properties, was purchased for £636,
the leasehold for a further £150, with an
annual ground rent of £47.3s.0d.
When they sold the building the Catholic
authorities retained the right to enter the
vaults of the building once a year, to say
Mass for those interred there. This remained
in force for as long as there were any living
relatives of those interred there, but has since
During excavation work during the
summer of 2003, the remains of two caskets
and several bodies were discovered and reinterred
in parts of the vaults not being
The pews were removed and used to
make the present side-screens, and a wall
was built beneath the gallery to form the
ante-room. The new Masonic hall was
consecrated on 3 December 1866. There
are now eight Craft Lodges and 15 other
Degrees meeting at the hall.
Recent redevelopment has reopened
the vaults after 150 years, and the hall now
possibly possessed the only vaulted chamber
beneath a temple in the UK.
Anyone wishing to visit this historic
Masonic Hall, Bath, should visit the Somerset
Provincial website www.pglsomerset.org.uk.
is chairman of the
Bath Masonic Hall Trust
Part of the vaults