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Guess who stayed in my room 150 years ago?

After enjoying a stay at the BEST WESTERN Abbey Hotel in Bath, I thought I’d do a little digging into its history.

The hotel was originally a row of connected houses. As far as I can tell, we had the front ground floor room of No. 3 North Parade, and shared a wall with No. 2. Who else has stayed in that room? Who were my neighbours in the 19th century? I fired up my computer and started reading the census returns.

On census night, No. 3 held three households, 10 people in all.

The first family must have made some long journeys over stormy seas. The grandmother was born in the Cape of Good Hope in 1789; her daughter in the Isle of Man in 1825; and her grand-daughter in the East Indies in either 1840 or 1857. They had charming Victorian-sounding names: Arabella, Elizabeth, and Letitia Cameron.

Then there’s the two Operatic Vocalists, Charles Lyall and Alfred St. Allyn, who each had long careers including at Covent Garden. This note comes from a magazine called The Musical World, Vol. 50, 1872:

“ERRATUM: The term ‘lyric Canadian’ applied in our last to Mr Charles Lyall, should have been ‘lyric comedian’.”

Pity. Being Canadian, I was hoping for a bit of national glory.

Amid the 13 boarders at No. 2, cared for by Mrs. Johanna Moore and her five servants, there is the sort of detail that raises more questions than it answers.

Raphael Nunez (that’s how it’s spelled in the census), age 43, the Consul of Colombia, was there with his wife.

Assuming there was only one Rafael Nunez who was the Consul of Colombia in the early 1870s, this would be the same man who went on to become the four-time President of Colombia, wrote the words to the Colombian national anthem, shaped the constitution, established the national bank, and much more.  The airport in Cartagena is named after him.

But, as remarkable as Mr. Nunez was, my attention is on the lady.

Nunez had two wives, both Colombian-born, Dolores and Soledad. Dolores was still living in 1877 when Rafael and Soledad were married in a civil ceremony by long-distance proxy. Rafael had divorced Dolores in 1871 or 1872, but as the church didn’t recognize divorce, Rafael and Soledad’s marriage was something of a scandal.

Some writers say that Soledad had a big impact on her husband and on Colombian history, influencing the constitution, relations with the Vatican, and the negotiations for the Panama Canal. Clearly she was very important.

The wife boarding at No. 2 North Parade with Rafael Nunez in 1871 was not Dolores and not Soledad. Her name was Cala, she was 35 years old, and she was born in Barcelona, Spain.

It’s a mystery for the scholars.

By Jill Browne

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