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