DoB unknown – 1st May 1801. CHILD STAR, COUNTER TENOR, ORCHESTRAL MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER Relation to me: 4 x great grandfather through my father.
THOMAS SHELL lived in Bath and was a professional musician at the end of the 18th century when music in the Georgian Era was at its height. Outside London, Bath was THE place to be. His date of birth is not known, nor, as yet, the names of his parents. We do know that he died in 1801. During his life, he held a reasonably high profile in the overcrowded music loving city, both as a child prodigy singer and later as a player of the double bass.
He may well have received lessons from the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini who had made Bath his home after his voice started to lose its bloom. Rauzzini was a consummate musician who composed and became a renowned teacher of singing.
The first mention we have of Thomas is in a concert of Messiah in the New Assembly Rooms (the ones we recognise today). Thomas must have already been known as a young singer of talent and promise to be picked for this event and to be given such a billing.
Anne Cantelo was a soprano who had lessons from Johann Christian Bach and sang in London as well as Bath. This concert took place on Christmas Eve 1783
Several concerts have mention of the Vauxhall Garden, however, this was a generic name for every such venue, copied of course from the famous gardens in London! The Spring Gardens in Bath are now the home of the Bath Rugby Club, but a few hundred years ago, they were alive with music and entertainments, some of which was supplied by Thomas!
The Bath Catch Club thought of itself as a level above the other catch clubs in the country, many of which could descend into bawdiness and debauchery! A catch club was where good, sight reading singers could meet (usually in a pub) and sing through songs. It was highly competitive and needed all voice types, including those of younger boy singers. Thomas must have been a very good musician, because he was always singing with the Bath Catch Club and later the Bath Harmonic Society.
Singers would be forfeited if they sang a wrong note or forgot words and the forfeit usually involved alcohol!
Bath Catch Club was founded by Dr Henry Harington who was a leading figure in Bath and went on to become Mayor of the city. Thomas would have known Dr Harington very well.
In 1785 Thomas sang in a benefit concert for Anne Cantelo and they were accompanied by Rauzzini himself. Our only example of this, but an indicator that Thomas and Rauzzini knew each other and worked together.
BATHWICK Around this time, Bathwick Villa became a fashionable venue for concerts. It was in the not yet fashionable part of town and was surrounded by meadows. The new Pulteney Bridge, named after Sir William Pulteney, had been built in 1774 and this lead to the villa. Thomas lived in Bath at a time of great expansion and therefore great opportunity.
"GENIUS MOST PROMISING": The esteem with which these child stars was held is seen here in this newspaper clipping from the Bath Chronicle in April 1785 and highlights Thomas as something particularly special to look out for even suggesting that he could be one of the ‘first vocal performers England has ever produced’. I wonder if that is supposed to be ‘finest’.
The musicians with whom Thomas was mixing were already of the highest calibre. Another concert at Bathwick took place on 23rd April 1785 and started at 11am. The announcement in the paper says this is a benefit concert for the two boys and it is a big affair. A benefit concert means that the recipients were given the money taken from the event although not necessarily because of straightened circumstances. At the top of the advert it says it is the ‘desire of several of the nobility and gentry’ which does beg the question whether these boys were felt to need some financial assistance.
A young tenor singer who was starting to make a name for himself was singing in this concert too. Charles Incledon was only 22 years old and a former naval cadet whose voice had already been singled out. He was given a few seasons at the Theatre Royal in Bath and came to the attention of Rauzzini who gave him singing lessons.
He would go on to be contracted by Covent Garden and an unrivalled MacHeath in John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. He had the distinction of singing the first performance in English of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ in the presence of the composer in 1800. Mostly he was known for his singing of English ballads singing in a ‘lusty and manly manner’!
Here he sang a duet with Thomas, penned by his former singing teacher, William Jackson. Thomas also sang a solo by J C Bach ‘Come Colin, pride of rural swains’.
Clearly the weather could be inclement at this time of year and the public are offered the possibility of taking breakfast in the house and booking a table which is opposite the orchestra so they don’t catch cold. Pity the poor performers!
On August 12th of the same year, Thomas sang in a concert for the birthday of the Prince of Wales (later George IV). Although the advert is damaged, it is possible to see that there is a display of air balloons, and this alluded to the latest craze to sweep the country following a major event in 1784.
In that year, the Italian, Vincenzo Lunardi, had taken off from the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company in London and flown for 24 miles in a hydrogen filled balloon. He repeated this feat throughout 1785 and the craze for all things ballooning took hold.
August was quite busy for Thomas. On 26th he was involved with another concert at the Villa and then on 29th sang in a benefit concert for Charles Incleden (who according to the advert had given up some good work to fulfil his engagements in Bath).
Fireworks were an integral part of these outdoor concerts and competition to prove the ‘best’, biggest scale, most ‘brilliant’ displays is evident.
An advertised even form 1786, the only one we have for Thomas that year, shows the ballooning craze had not yet abated and it spilled over into fashion, with the creation of the Lunardi hat. Next time you watch a Jane Austen film, look out for the inclusion of these!
The book of Psalms composed by Thomas Shell