The history of the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths

Professor Michael Trapp, Professor of Greek Literature & Thought, King’s College London Professor Michael Trapp Professor of Greek Literature & Thought, King’s College London
A view of the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths

The Strand Lane Baths, at 5 Strand Lane, London WC2R 2NA, have been reputed since the 1830s to be a Roman survival. They are in fact 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. Discover more about their history.

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 18th century 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. 

Looking in to the pool at the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
Looking in to the pool at the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
Looking in to the pool at the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths

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. 

A sign in the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
A sign in the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
A sign in the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths

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 it to 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.

Looking into the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
Looking into the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths
Looking into the Strand Lane 'Roman' Baths

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. A revised story, based on more recent research, can be found in the current Wikipedia article ‘Roman Baths, Strand Lane’.

It is hoped that ongoing digital work at King’s College London may in future make the bath and its history available to virtual visitors.