Say the name Beau Nash and people automatically think of Bath and of his role as Master of Ceremonies in the spa city.

But Richard 'Beau' Nash was a Welshman through and through. He was born and educated in the principality and, although he turned his back on his native country after his teenage years, the urban sprawl of early industrial Wales must have impinged itself on his consciousness - he became determined that elegance, good taste and high fashion were the crucial elements of any civilised society.

Nash was born in Swansea on 18 October 1674. His father, also called Richard, came from Pembrokeshire and had since risen to become one of the partners in a Swansea glass works.

His mother also originated in the county of Pembrokeshire, having strong links with the Poyer family of that region. Indeed, one of her ancestors was John Poyer, the mayor of Pembroke, who had defied both Oliver Cromwell and the king during the Civil War.

After early education at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Carmarthen, Nash enrolled at Jesus College, Oxford, but his restless nature soon caused him to drop out. He tried the army but quickly decided that the discipline (not to mention the expense) of military life was not for him. He turned, instead, to the law.

In 1693 he was called to the Middle Bar in order to study his new chosen profession but was wayward in his attendance, preferring to spend his time in gambling and drinking.

One thing he did do at Middle Temple was organise a pageant for King William during a royal visit. This was in 1695 and the king was so impressed he even offered Nash a knighthood. Nash declined due to lack of appropriate finances, but it hardly mattered, his name was made.

Roman baths

Dropping out of his law studies he quickly gravitated towards the city of Bath, an old Roman centre where the mineral springs were said to have healing properties. The city had declined in importance over the years but now Richard Nash had great plans for the place.

He somehow got himself appointed as assistant to the master of ceremonies, Captain Webster, and when this man was killed in a duel Nash took over the main role and began to transform the city into the most fashionable place in England.

Presiding over the city from the house of his mistress Juliana Popjoy on Saw Close, Nash was soon awarded the nickname or appellation 'Beau'. Realising the value of a good image, right from the start he dressed for the part of a dandy.

Fashion at that time decreed that wigs should always be white. Turning this on its head, Nash insisted on wearing a black wig with a contrasting white hat, always set at a jaunty angle. He finished this off with brocaded waistcoats and gorgeously ruffled shirts. Before long, all over the city - indeed, all over England - men were trying to copy his style and listen to his advice on fashion. Women, too, turned to Beau Nash for advice on what to wear and how to behave.

Nash organised public balls of great magnificence, the like of which had never been seen before in Bath, and raised nearly £20,000 in order to improve the state of roads around the city. He met all new arrivals and made judgements about their social standing, deciding whether or not they might be suitable for admission to the select company of 500 or so individuals at the centre of Bath social life.

He matched ladies with dancing partners, regulated gambling - an amazing task for a man who was clearly addicted to the activity - and even brokered marriages. He kept a string of mistresses as well as Juliana, and took a significant role in breaking down the rigid class barriers of English social life. Nash encouraged the creation of new buildings in the city, including the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms, and even went so far as to draw up a list of rules of dress and behaviour.

Some of Nash's rules were eminently sensible. He insisted, for example, that when attending a ball ladies should appoint a time for their footmen to return to the Assembly Rooms to escort them home and so avoid disturbances for all parties. Others were clearly matters of fashion:

"Gentlemen should never appear in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps and should show breeding and respect."

In 1735 Beau Nash took on extra responsibility as Master of Ceremonies at Tunbridge Wells in Kent. He continued to preside at both Bath and Tunbridge Wells until his death on 3 February 1761, controlling the entertainments and ruling over the two most important spa towns in the country. It was said that if Bath was Nash's kingdom, then Tunbridge Wells was its colony.

In his later life Beau Nash was hampered by more stringent laws that had been imposed against gambling and, towards the end, he lived in virtual poverty. When he died the corporation of Bath funded an elaborate funeral but he was buried in a pauper's grave. His mistress, Juliana Popjoy, nursed him during the last years of his life and, after his death, was so distraught that she apparently spent her own final years in a hollowed out tree near Warminster.

Richard 'Beau' Nash was a gambler and womaniser, a dandy and something of a rake. But his influence was huge and effective - after the death of his predecessor, for example, he outlawed the wearing of swords in Bath. He certainly set the bar as far as fashion in 18th century Britain was concerned. Not a bad record for a boy from Swansea.

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