Strand Lane 'Roman' baths

The interior of the Strand Lane 'Roman' baths

Roman baths in London? The baths at 5 Strand Lane in London have been reported since the 1830s as a Roman survival. But they're actually the remaining portion of a cistern built in 1612 to feed a fountain in the gardens of the old Somerset House, then a royal palace. Find out more about this London curiosity, owned by the National Trust and administered by Westminster City Council.

After a long period of neglect and decay, following the demolition of the fountain, they were brought back into use in the 1770s as a public cold plunge bath, attached to No 33 Surrey Street. The idea that they were Roman probably began some fifty years later as an advertising gimmick, and has aroused both enthusiasm and scepticism ever since. Even if they are not Roman, the fact that so many people have passionately wanted them to be is now as real a part of their history as their actual origins.

The history of the baths

A fountain for a queen

In 1609–1613 James I had the first version of the old Somerset House enlarged and refurbished for his queen, Anne of Denmark, including the building of a grotto-fountain by the French engineer, Salomon de Caus. Contemporary documents establish that the cistern supplying this fountain was ‘over the Strand Lane’ and was fed by pump from the grounds of Somerset House. Further evidence from the early 18thcentury places the by then derelict cistern-house level with what is now No 33 Surrey Street. The Strand Lane Bath is exactly where the cistern-house for the fountain was situated.  Expert dating of the brickwork of the bath to the range 1550–1650 makes it very probable that the ‘bath’ is in fact some part of the cistern structure. 

Becoming a bath

The redevelopment of the cistern into a cold bath seems to have been the work of a Mr James Smith, who moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid-1770s. By November 1776, he was advertising the opening of ‘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.’[‘The Daily Advertiser’, 2 November 1776]

Two years later he enlarged his offering by adding a second, freshly constructed bath next to the first, lined with marble and surrounded by a stone-flagged floor and tiled walls. This is the so-called ‘Essex Bath’ which still survives, minus its cladding, under the floor of the back-basement of the Norfolk Hotel. 

Smith himself died in 1782, but his baths, still attached to No. 33 Surrey Street, continued to operate for over a century. Their early history was colourful, largely thanks to the very mixed nature of the surrounding area. A newspaper report of 1777 has a would-be fare dodger, pursued by his angry cabbie, trying to hide in the bath, falling in, and having to be rescued from drowning. [‘The Public Advertiser’, 12 November 1777] 

Others, from 1797, tell of a gang of fraudsters, operating from another house in Surrey Street, escaping through the Bath when raided by the. [‘Lloyd’s Evening Post’, 22 February 1797; ‘The Oracle and Public Advertiser’, 14 July 1797] Most spectacularly of all, the MP and collector of ancient sculpture, William Weddell, died of a seizure in the bath on a hot day in the spring of 1792 [‘The Times’, 1 May 1792]

Becoming Roman

It seems that the bath had begun to lose its attractiveness to potential patrons, and it was this that was probably responsible for its conversion into a Roman relic. At any rate, it is in 1838, without any prior warning, that the establishment suddenly appears in a trade directory as the ‘Old Roman Spring Baths’, under the proprietorship of a Mr Charles Scott.[‘Robson’s London Directory … for 1838’, p. 314] 

Within barely more than a decade, the story of Roman origins had been taken up and publicised in two highly influential publications: vol. II of Charles Knight’s historical guidebook London (1842) and chs. 35 and 36 of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. 

From there (and particularly from Knight) it found its way into an enormous range of guidebooks, popular antiquarian writing, journals and newspapers, in such a way that, although sceptical voices were occasionally raised, it became the general orthodoxy for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century

Bathing continued in the newer of the two basins, but increasingly visitors came out of antiquarian curiosity, seeking out this supposed survivor of ancient Roman times in its romantically out-of-the way corner off the bustling Strand, with the extra attraction of being able to see where Copperfield and presumably his creator Dickens too had bathed. 

Victorian upgrades

In 1893 the whole complex was bought outright by one of its few remaining users, the New Oxford Street draper, Henry Glave. Glave then proceeded to sell off the newer, ‘Essex’ bath, along with the building over it to the proprietors of the Norfolk Hotel, then expanding backwards from Surrey Street to the Lane. 

At the same time, Glave refurbished the older basin for bathing by transferring the stone flooring, marble lining and wall tiles to it from its now decommissioned neighbour, along with some new partitioning, changing-stalls and decorative sculpture. The results almost completely concealed the old brickwork. At the same time, the doorway from the corridor to the bath was relocated to half-way down the corridor and replaced by the present hatchway.

Glave, followed by his son Nolan and his daughters Blanche and Florence, continued to run the establishment as a combination of a subscribers club and a visitor attraction for another several decades until in 1922, Blanche offered it for sale.

The twentieth century

The bath was bought for £500, by the Rector of St Clement Danes, the Rev. William Pennington Bickford, who, along with his allies, the journalist and historical writer Edward Foord and the graphic artist Fortunino Matania, was the last of the great believers in its Roman origins. Aiming to get back to the ‘real’ Roman fabric, he had all the Glave décor apart from the tiling stripped off. He dreamed of restoring itto its original magnificence, ironically, by once again covering it in marble and stucco, this time of the ‘right’ kind. 

Pennington Bickford’s ambition was for the Bath to become one of London’s most attractive historic monuments, and to bring both cultural cachet and much needed funds to St Clement Danes and its parish. Edward Foord, for his part, produced a series of pamphlets and newspaper articles arguing confidently for the Bath’s Roman credentials and offering speculative reconstructions of its history, layout and workings

Pennington Bickford’s plans came to nothing for want of funds, and when he and his wife died in 1941, they bequeathed it to the patron of St Clement Danes, Lord Exeter, along with what they hoped would be the means of securing its preservation as a historic monument. 
Complications over Mrs Pennington Bickford’s will and the disruptions of the war years, meant that it was only in late 1944 that discussions began between Westminster Council, the Ministry of Works, the London County Council (LCC) and the National Trust about taking the now derelict bath into public or charitable ownership.

The National Trust agreed to take it on, London County Council agreed to see to the maintenance, and the money for purchase was provided by another of the bath’s fans, the timber magnate Montague L. Meyer. The National Trust formally took possession of the bath in November 1947, and after the necessary repairs and redecoration, opened them to the public in June 1951.

As part of this process, the LCC Architect’s Office undertook an investigation into the bath’s origins, under the supervision of F.J. Collins of its Historic Buildings Section. Collins took evidence from a range of sources, including a surviving daughter of the last proprietor before Henry Glave, the now elderly Edward Foord, and a penetrating analysis of the Roman story compiled in 1906 by an anonymous predecessor at the LCC.

The conclusion of the investigation was that the bath was almost certainly not Roman, but was worth preservation as a historical curiosity all the same. These conclusions were written up for the new information leaflet for the Bath published by the LCC to coincide with its opening to the public in 1951, and are still to be seen on the information board outside the bath in Strand Lane. 

In more recent years, there has been some restoration of the interior decoration, and  the Cultural Institute at Kings College London has worked on a project to explore how digital interpretation could open up the bath to virtual visitors.

Drawing of Roman Bath in the Strand 1841 by John Wykeham Archer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of Roman Bath in the Strand 1841

The layout of the baths

The bath building consists of the bath chamber and a longer and narrower entrance corridor running alongside it, with steps up to a door out into Strand Lane. The bath chamber is covered by a full brick and/or stone vault, it contains the bath and a settling tank built in the 1920s at the eastern end.

Access from corridor to bath chamber is via a doorway level with the midpoint of the bath; there is also a hatch just inside the entrance from Strand Lane. The bath is made of shallow wide Tudor bricks, with sides and a floor of the same materials, broken and patched towards the western end; the edges have been patched with frogged bricks from later than 1750. The brick-/stone-work of the walls and vaults hasn’t been officially dated, but most probably belongs to the 18th century.

There are clear signs that these surviving elements were once part of a larger complex, there are blocked doorways at the ends of both the bath chamber and the entrance corridor, and a third in the south wall of the corridor, just inside the entrance from Strand Lane. 
Traces of older decorative schemes remain in the blue and white ‘Dutch’ tiles on the corridor wall and the door and hatch surrounds, and in the stone and marble slabs now resting on and around the settling tank; also in the damaged wall-plaque, identifying the bath as ‘nearly 2000 years old’ and a relic of the days of ‘Titus or Vespasian.’

The source of the water coming into the Bath has never been properly established, and may have varied over time. [Strand Lane Bath, Statutory Planning File, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4441/01/0109.] In the mid-19th century it bubbled up through a hole in the floor, where patching to the brickwork can still be seen. In the early 1920s it entered at the north-east corner, but could also be seen seeping through the adjacent sides of the bath. Since the mid-1920s it has entered via the settling tank at the east end. The supply has been interrupted several times in the twentieth century, for instance in the 1940s when the bath was derelict and blocked by rubbish, and again in the 1970s thanks to building work on Surrey Street. 

Viewing the bath today

The management of the bath today is administered by Westminster Council.
If you’d like to view the bath today, viewing can be arranged by appointment through Westminster Council.  Please note, viewings are only available from Monday to Friday, and require at least one weeks advance notice.  

Viewing times in the summer are April - September , 12.00 noon -4.00pm, and in the winter are October to March, 12.00 noon to 3.00pm.

To arrange your viewing, please email dcreese@westminster.gov.uk or call Monday to Friday on 0207 641 5264.

The baths are also sometimes open as part of Open House weekend or the Somerset House Old Palaces tour.

Address: 5 Strand Lane, London WC2R 2NA