The old baths of London – The Roman Bath of the Strand
Situated beneath 5 Strand Lane is one of the city’s most enigmatic and perhaps little known relic, the so-called Roman Baths. Laying four feet six inches (1.4m) below the modern street level, the bath measures about 15 foot (4.72m) by 6 feet (1.91m), with a depth of just over four feet (1.37 m) deep. Its lining is built from bricks measuring 9 inches (22.9 cm) by 3 inches (7.6 cm) and is 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) thick.
John Pinkerton (1784) is the first author to describe the site, called it a:
“fine antique bath’ in the cellar of a house in Norfolk Street in the Strand formerly belonging to the Earl of Arundel whose house and vast gardens were adjacent”
The next notice was when MP William Weddell, a well-known antiquarian died of a sudden chill when bathing there in April 1792. Even Dickens (1849) used the bath as a location in David Copperfield having the titular character having cold plunge within and describes it as ‘at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand.’ A sign on the baths in the eighteenth century, put up by its then owner read:
“the celebrated Cold Plunging Bath (built by the Earl of Essex in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1588) is open all the year round. It is known to be the most pure and healthy bath in London ensuring every comfort and convenience to those availing themselves of this luxury. This bath, which is strongly recommended by the Medical Profession, is essentially supplied from the Spring, and discharges at the rate of ten tons per diem. Consequently, every bather has the advantage of a continual change of water. The old Roman spring water bath, nearly two thousand years old, can be viewed.”
Roman or more recent?
Despite this claim the actual origins of the origins of the bath are unclear. Although Roman London lay 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east and all the remains appear to suggest a Tudor origin at the earliest. They may have indeed been built for Arundel House, which was built by the Earl of Essex as a water cistern. When this house was lost in the 16th century, the area was built over by a row of houses and it was only rediscovered after a fire in 1774. A man called James Smith appeared to be responsible in converting the derelict cistern into a cold bath when he moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid 1770s. He soon started to advertise it as:
“the cold bath at No. 33, Surry-street, in the Strand … for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen, supplied with Water from a Spring, which continually runs through it.”
Two years later he constructed a second bath which was lined with marble. This the Essex Bath survives robbed of its cladding in the basement on the Norfolk Hotel but currently due to the building being empty is inaccessible.
A survey of the brickwork by Dr. Kevin Hayward of Pre-Construct Archaeology in May 2011 revealed that brickwork and tiles to date from 1450 to 1700. Further chemical analysis by Dr Stuart Black of University of Reading suggested a date between 1550 and 1650. Although, the date would support the cistern origin for Arundel House, Trapp (2010) believes that it may have been associated with the grotto fountain, said to represent Mount Parnassus or Helicon, in the privy garden of adjoining Somerset House. The area where it stood was being redeveloped in the 18th century. Trapp (2010) notes that Treasury Warrant book for April 1710 records a petition from Thomas Vernon, the then owner of this land nearby which records:
“for the grant of a little old shed in Strand Lane…being 14 feet square, formerly a water house to a grotto in Somerset House but now in ruinous condition and like to fall into the petitioner’s land.”
This is clearly the Roman Bath for its dimensions are identical and Vernon’s property Surrey Street property would have abutted the site. Interestingly a record of 1724 which records ‘Old Waterhouse’ (a decayed building of no use)’ suggests it was still standing and when it was demolished and became the bath today is unclear.
The source of water
It may seem so surprising in an area where so many wells have been capped, filled in and culverted into sewers, the water supply has been relatively constant bar when in the 1940s it was blocked with rubbish or during 1970s building work. However it has been unclear how where it comes from.in the mid 1800 it was bubbling from a hole in the floor but this was apparently patched over, then meaning by the early 1920s it entered by the north-east corner but since then it has been supplied via a settling tank at its east end.
It is probable that one of a number of lost holy wells fill it either St Clement’s Well or the Holy Well which gave Holywell street its name. Certainly the properties of the water being high in phosphate could suggest it was a medicinal spring
A remarkable survival
Despite not being as the 1838 advertising would say an ‘Old Roman Bath’ the bath’s survival is no more remarkable. In 1893, one of its users a New Oxford Street draper called Henry Glave bought the complex – he sold off the Essex bath and its building and focused on the older one refurbishing it by using the Essex Bath’s stone flooring, marble lining and wall tiles and creating changing-stalls and decorative sculpture. The family, the site being inherited by his daughters, ran the site until 1922 when it was offered for sale for £500. It was subsequently purchased by the Rector of St Clement Danes, the Reverend William Pennington Bickford. His ambition was for the bath to be restored to its Roman glory and be a major historical monument. He was supported by historian Edward Foord who wrote about its provenance. The plans never materialized and then when he died in 1941 it was bequeathed to St Clement Danes patron, Lord Exeter. Then through various complications it ended with it being taken over by the National Trust but controlled by Westminster Council who would organise the day to day maintenance. After some decorations it was opened once more to the public in June 1951.
On a recent Open London Day I was able to have a closer look again. The site is remarkable as being still full of water in a city with demands on water and a plus are the remarkable Dutch tiles. Of course no one is able to take a bath in it but it remains a curious relic of London’s cold bath system – the only one remaining of many in the city
The veneration of water in 12 objects…number three the Mikveh
One of the fundamental important aspects of humanity is the understanding of both the importance of water and its purity. In the Hebrew faith, the significance of water in having a ritual cleansing function has been distilled into the mikveh, Mikvah, Mikve or Mikva which literally translated means ‘collection of water’. Unlike many of the sites recorded on this blog, mikveh still have a central and pivotal role in all forms of the faith.
The Mikveh thus has a wide range of purifying functions. Firstly, to enter the Temple, the person needed to be purified, but the convert would also need such purification. Secondly, the body of a woman would become ‘purified’ by immersion after child birth and menstruation, Niddah, so that marital relations could be resumed. However, deeper research of the Torah suggest an even greater amount of uses:
• after Keri — normal emissions of semen, whether from sexual activity, or from nocturnal emission;
• after Zav/Zavah — abnormal discharges of bodily fluids;
• after Tzaraath — certain skin condition(s).
• by anyone who came into contact with someone suffering from Zav/Zavah,
• by Jewish priests when they are being consecrated
• by the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, after sending away the goat to Azazel, and by the man who leads away the goat
• by the Jewish priest who performed the Red Heifer ritual
• after contact with a corpse or grave, in addition to having the ashes of the Red Heifer ritual sprinkled upon them
• after eating meat not dispatched kosher
Consequently, with such a wide range of demands, Mikveh would be placed in domestic and public locations. Importantly, the water used for a Mikveh, natural spring water was preferred if clean and not affected by mineralisation, like chalybeate springs. Alternatively, water derived from rain, snow or ice is considered pure enough.
However, I am focusing on the discovery of one particular Mikveh which dates from the mid-13th century. A medieval Jewish community existed in England from 1066, when William the Conqueror invited the community to establish themselves in a ghetto until its expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. A report in the Guardian from October 25th 2001 reported that what is thought to be the oldest physical evidence of Jews in Europe and the only found in London was discovered. This was during a routine excavation of the gold bullion vault of the State Bank of India in development of office works. It was in the area called the Old Jewry in London, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street. So far no concrete evidence of Jewish life had ever been found in the area, supposedly because no difference could be seen in domestic buildings between Jews and gentiles. Howver, Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the Court of the Chief Rabbi, indentified it as a genuine mikveh.
It has been elucidated was that it was built for a local Medieval Jewish family called the Crespin family, however where it was a private site or part of a synagogue is not clear. The site made of well cut greensand stones consists of a semi circular basin around four feet across and four feet deep with a flight of stone steps leading down into it. The next oldest Mikveh site was found in the 1950s in Cologne, Germany and dates from 1170. Of course there may be many more Mikveh waiting to be discovered, another Mikveh may have been unearthed in the 1980s. It was described as “‘A rather strange tank-like structure was found about 100 yards from where this mikvah was found. It was identified at the time as possibly a strongroom, photographed, and cleared away,” It is said that years later, an archaeologist working in Israel looked at the photographs identified it as a Mikveh
The survival of this mikveh illustrates that water is important to all communities of the country and that water is important in ritual to all faiths. The Bevis Marks Synagogue paid to have the site removed and were to rebuild it in their grounds, but in the end it was set up in London’s prestigious Jewish Museum where it can be examined….a rare medieval relic.
Some lost wells and found wells of eastern central London
Finsbury’s Sadler’s Well is believed by some to have been a converted holy well. Indeed, Hood (1813) records that in A True and Exact Account of Sadler’s Well, 1684:
“the new Well at Islington is a certain Spring in the middle of a Garden, belonging to the Musick-house, built by Mr Sadler… the water whereof was, before the Reformation, very much famed for several extraordinary cures performed therby, and was therefore accounted sacred, and called Holy-Well… But, upon the Reformation, the Well was stopt up’, until some workmen uncovered it, and Sadler began to market it as a spa.”
Despite the likelihood of the site being a holy well it is more probable that the site had a back history created for the benefit of advertising the spa. In the recent refurbishment of the Opera House, the old Sadler’s well was not forgotten and now has been given a clear cover so that the well can be observed just right of the foyer up the stairs.
In Holborn, the Powis Well was discovered according to Foord (1910) before 1721 as it is mentioned in The Weekly Journal of 1721 January 17th::
“Tuesday morning last happened a very odd and deplorable accident; a man going to a little spring at the back of Lord Powis’s house, in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, to which there is a great resort on account of its being reported good in several impurities; stooping to wash his eyes, as ’tis supposed, he fell headlong in and was suffocated.”
Clearly named after the house it was found in the garden of, now the north-west end of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and as stated its water was said to be good for eyes. The well had a house of entertainment and walks associated with it. Foord (1910) notes an advertisement dated August 4, 1748 (the name of the newspaper does not appear) announces that :
“The Long Room at Powis Wells by Lamb’s Conduit will be opened for the Summer Season, with an assembly of Country Dancing. To begin on Monday next. Tickets to be had at the said Wells at two shilings each. The doors to be opened at four o’clock. There will be good Musick and good accommodations.”
Another advertisement (of 1754) is in these terms:
“Powis Wells by the Foundling Hospital. These waters are now in their full perfection. They are of a sweetening, diuritic, and gently purging quality, and are recommended by many eminent Physicians and Surgeons for the cure of breakings out, sore legs, inflammation of the eyes, and other scorbutic and leprous disorders, &c. Those who send for these waters are desired to take notice that the Bottles are sealed upon the cork with the words ‘Powis Wells Water.’”
The site is now lost, but is remembered in Powis Street. Three noted healing springs existed in the Clerkenwell parish, one of which gave the borough its name. The Clerks Well is the best preserved holy well in this area of London. The spring is so called because as Hone (1823) notes that the Miracle Plays were performed here by virtue of its suitability of its aspect,
“being a rapid slope from Clerkenwell Green down to the valley of the Fleet, forming a sort of natural amphitheatre, whence the spectators could see distinctly all that went on below them.”
Stow gives its position as:
“ not far from the west end of Clerkenwell Church, but close without the wall that incloseth it.”
Agas’s (1558) pictorial plan of London shows that the water gushed from a spout at the south-west corner of St. Mary’s Nunnery, and falling into a trough, enclosed by a low wall as described by Stow. In 1673, James third Earl of Northampton donated the water and its land to the poor of St. James. However, this did not stop the Vestry leasing the spring to John Crosse a brewer, who enclosed the well and ran a conduit from it to Hockley in the Hole. The well had formerly iron- work and brass cocks, which are now cut off. The water spins through the old wall. I was there and tasted the water and found it excellently clear, sweet, and well tasted. The Clerks’ Well was still marked by a pump in 1858 in the south-east corner of Ray Street, the spring from which it was supplied being 4 feet eastwards. An iron tablet which was erected over the pump remains and it commemorates the Clerk’s performances and that ‘the water was greatly esteemed by the prior and brethren of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the Benedictine Nuns in the neighbourhood.’ By 1897, the well existed being covered by a massive brick arch, but under the floor of No. 18, Farringdon Road, formerly the parish watch-house. But by 1924, the exact location was unknown, but it was rediscovered on Farringdon Lane. The site was finally renovated in 1984, with a small exhibition.
Of the Skinner’s Well, another spring associated by Miracle or Mystery plays, this time done by the Skinners, it is noted in a Feet of Fines MS notes a Godewell described as between the Priory and the Holeburne ; apparently somewhat to the south. The name at least dates from 1327 as a Charter was granted to the Skinners then by they would have existed before then to be granted such a charter so the well may be older in its dedication.
Foord (1910) states that the Skinners’ Well had been lost by 1720 if not by Stow’s time but he was informed that it lay west of St. James Church Clerkenwell and was enclosed within certain houses there. He notes that:
“Dr. Rogers, who formerly lived in an house there, showed Mr. Edmund Howard, late churchwarden, marks in a wall in the close where, as he affirmed, the pipes lay, that it might be known after his death.”
Yet exact site of Skinners’ Well is not now known. Another site may be considered a holy well by virtue of association, Loders Well; was granted to the Nuns of Clerkenwell in year 1200 by a Muriel de Montigny who gave the ‘fons qui vocatur Lodderswell’ with a right-of-way thereto from the Priory. The site of the well has now been lost.
The final Clerkenwell site was the Coldbath spring was located near the Clerk’s wel, near river Fleet and Turnmill Brook. It was described as a mild chalybeate spring at first drunk and then by 1697 to be bathed in. Sutherland (1915) tells us that Walter Baynes noted it as the most noted and first bathing place in London. Water was good for scorbutic complaints, rheumatism, chronic disorders and help with the appetite. It consisted of a 103 foot by 60 foot bath and in its large garden was a four turret summer house. In 1815 the front of the building as removed but the bath remained until 1870. The neighbourhood was called Coldbath fields and now nothing is left to remember it
There are a number of well sites at Cripplegate; possibly some recall the same site. The most confirmed was at the back of St. Giles Church was the Crowder’s or Crowd’s Well which according to Childrey (1661) as tasting like new milk and was good for eyes. Near the site was a Jewish cemetery and it has been commented that a Crowell is close to a medieval Jewish cemetery in Oxford and a Crowder’s Terrace in Winchester near a medieval cemetery. This view is further supported by the presence of a Jacob’s Well north of the cemetery plot. It has been postulated that this well may have been a mikveh used on the site for ritual ablutions (cf Jacob’s Well Bristol, also near a Jewish cemetery). Until fairly recently a Pub, Crowd’s Well remembered it, but it too has gone. Monkwell Street commemorates the Monk Well. The site is possibly linked to a hermitage or Chantry chapel established in 1347 by Lady Mary de St. Pol, Countess of Pembroke. She granted the Cistercian Abbey of Garendon, Leicestershire, two tenements one in Fleet Street and the other in Sherbourne Lane. In return the Abbot and Convent were to maintain one monk in a hermitage near Cripplegate, to pray for the soul of Aymer de Valence, late Earl of Pembroke. Foord (1909) notes that a little west of Well Street and Monk well was a site called St. Giles’s Well. There is no evidence of this well having this name and so may have been a site by association with St. Giles’ church and a confusion with Monk well or Crowd’s well.
As this brief article shows, the restless urban progress of London has robbed us of many interesting sites, but like many great cities, some sites remain, preserved like flies trapped in aspic giving us a view of when London’s wells were a vital part of their society.