Roman(s) bathing - the Strand Lane bath

Submitted by Michael Trapp on Fri, 2010-11-12 17:30

Entering Strand Lane from the Strand, 1886Entering Strand Lane from the Strand, 1886

The idea that a real Roman bath - as used by Vespasian's legions, even if not by Caesar's - was still in use in Strand Lane, just a few steps down off the Strand, probably started as an advertising ploy in the 1830s.  Before that, from at least 1776 onwards, the establishment was advertised as just a cold bath, sometimes attached to Number 33 Surrey Street, sometimes an address in its own right.  But it's a powerfully seductive idea and it isn't surprising that it has lasted as well as it has - helped especially by an early puff from Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, but before that by a prominent place in Vol. II of Charles Knight's London (1842).

Here's how J.W. Archer depicted the bath for Knight, with an engraving from a watercolour he made in 1841:

The Roman Bath by J.W. ArcherThe Roman Bath by J.W. Archer

Here's how it was made to look more authentically 'Roman' in the 1890s:

A bather in the Roman bathA bather in the Roman bathMullins Roman bathMullins Roman bath












The notice to the right of the gentleman in the bathing costume still survives, even though the rest of the decoration was stripped away in the 1920s, because by then it didn't seem Roman enough:

Bath noticeBath notice


And here is how the 1920s 'restorers' - the Rev. William Pennington-Bickford (Rector of St Clement Danes), Edward Foord and Fortunino Matania - dreamed that the bath would look when they had finished with it:

The bath by MataniaThe bath by Matania


The Bickford-Foord-Matania plan, built on the conviction that the bath belonged to a suburban villa that they were also going to excavate and restore, was crazy and soon foundered for lack of funds.  But we need to do something to rescue the bath from its present state of dowdy semi-neglect.  Even if it never was Roman, we'll lose something if we don't cherish all the dreams of Rome that have attached themselves to it.  And what it really is - the last Central London survivor if the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fashion for cold bathing - is exciting enough in itself. 


Bath vestibule todayBath vestibule today


The seductions of Rome

Submitted by Hope Wolf on Tue, 2010-11-16 15:08.

This is fascinating - thank you so much for posting the story on the site. I love the pictures, especially of how the bath was made to look more Roman (although the Victorian looking chair in one of the photographs makes it almost surreal looking!). I'd love to learn more about why the idea of a Roman bath was so 'seductive'. Did the connection with Rome aggrandise the bath? Certainly it is interesting how the Strand has often been linked to culturally sophisticated parts of the continent - the Adelphi, the part that fronted the Thames, was redesigned with Venice in mind. Linking with the Roman baths in Bath, I wonder whether the Strand example was thought to have healing powers. I read recently that it was thought to share its source with a holy well.

I wonder if there's a way of turning the site from relic into a working bath? It would certainly be lovely to be able to go the Strand for some cold bathing. Perhaps, as in David Copperfield's example, it would clear the mind a little:

'There was an old Roman bath in those days at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand – it may be there still – in which I have had many a cold plunge. Dressing myself as quietly as I could, and leaving Pegotty to look after my aunt, I tumbled head foremost into it, and then went for a walk to Hampstead. I had a hope that this brisk treatment might freshen my wits a little; and I think it did them good, for I soon came to the conclusion that the first step I ought to take was to try if my articles could be cancelled and the premium recovered.'

Seductive baths

Submitted by Michael Trapp on Wed, 2010-11-17 17:37.

Different factors at different times, I suspect, but a lot to do in the first instance with London not otherwise having any obvious and showy Roman ruins - above all, nothing at all like a complete functioning building - to show for itself.  So when popularizing writing about London's past gets into its stride in the second quarter of the nineteenth century - Knight's London is a key work here - the Strand Lane bath adds some sorely needed colour and tangibility to what ought to be a great stage in the London story - all the more if London is starting to think of itself as Rome's successor as an Imperial city.  Once the bath gets into the story, it stays there, passed on from one volume to the next.  Knight himself recycled the Archer engraving in his subsequent Old England:

Roman London, from Old England (ed. 2, 1864)Roman London, from Old England (ed. 2, 1864)

Then on top of this, because the bath is tucked away and relatively hard to find, and especially when it ceases to be so prominently advertised, there's the 'not many people know this' factor - just think, there's something really old, just a few steps down from the modern bustle of the Strand.  Strand Lane itself by the 1890s is a cherishably quaint throwback, and the bath, if really Roman, is its furthest thrown-back bit.

As for reinstating it as a working bath ... Well, in fact from at least the 1840s (so already by Dickens's time) it was used as a reservoir and a source of drinking water, but the actual bathing took place in a second bath next to it on the south (river) side, into which the water was channelled.  This second bath - romanticized as the "Essex Bath" (Queen Elizabeth bathed here) - was on the ground floor of a small block which used to stand where the back end of Norfolk Building (the former Norfolk Hotel) now marches on Strand Lane.  It was covered over when the Norfolk Hotel expanded in the 1890s, but not completely destroyed in the process - some of it is still there underneath the flooring of a couple of rooms in the King's Geography Department.

Nineteenth-century sources do indeed say that the bath's water comes from a holy well, though they can't agree which one, or on the course of the water between the well and the bath. But there certainly are underground streams, and in a strong sense they must be why the bath is there at all: if you don't build reservoirs to catch and control them, you are both wasting a valuable resource and risking damage to your foundations.  The as yet unanswered question is whether this was done in Strand Lane to collect water for general purposes (either for a Surrey Street mansion, or for the old Talbot Inn on the Strand), or right from the start for bathing.

Something really ought to be done about the bath in any case, to rescue it from the Cinderella state in which it has languished since the early twentieth century. From all points of view except the financial, King's is ideally placed to take a lead in this, as it owns both the Old Watch House beside the bath (with which the Rector of St Clement Danes once planned to connect it), and 33 Surrey Street, with which it is architecturally continuous (knock through the wall at the end of the bath lobby, which was only bricked up in the 1890s, and you are in the back space of No. 33).  

Just think, if the bath were reconnected with 33 Surrey Street, and a pedestrian way re-established across the Playground, then with the Somerset House East Wing redevelopment, it would be possible to walk from eighteenth-century grandeur to the west, through King's, across Strand Lane, to eighteenth-century domesticity to the east, with the bath and 33 Surrey Street. Is anyone up for seeing if King's, the National Trust and Westminster Council could be coaxed into playing along?

This Work, Roman(s) bathing - the Strand Lane bath, by Michael Trapp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.