Londinium Lite

In-depth analysis

Public baths

Model of Roman public baths
The public baths at Huggin Hill, Upper Thames Street

According to Tacitus, the governor Agricola encouraged the Britons to adopt the pleasures of civilisation, including the daily bath. The building of public baths may have been part of this policy. The mechanics of the bathing process demanded specific buildings, architecture and technology and Roman London had several baths.

Two public baths were constructed in the late 1st century in Upper Thames Street and Cheapside. Although the Thames Street baths were among the largest in Britain, they were smaller than other continental examples.

Roman bath-houses were like modern Turkish baths, with a series of hot, warm and cold rooms where bathers went to exercise, get clean and socialise.  

Excavating Huggin Hill baths
Excavating the baths at Huggin Hill

The baths in Upper Thames Street (GM240 and DMT88) were first built about AD75-80 on a grander scale on the river bank overlooking the Thames, making good use of a plentiful water supply.

The baths were served by large cisterns, which were terraced into the hillside allowing water to be collected from source below the gravel. Long lengths of clay water-pipes were found during excavations. Recent work has shown that, prior to building, the ground was carefully prepared, consolidated by oak piling and a thick concrete platform.

The building was enlarged in the early 2nd century which may have been connected with Hadrian’s visit in AD122. The baths had been abandoned and the building deliberately demolished by AD200. It is not known why it was deliberately demolished but it was not due to structural problems. Clay and timber buildings replaced the baths and remained in use until about AD300. 

Cheapside baths, Alan Sorrell
The baths in Cheapside were smaller and may have been a commercial establishment

The smaller public baths in Cheapside (GM37) were excavated in 1955/56. The Cheapside baths were smaller and similar in scale to military bath-houses and may have been a commercial bath-house perhaps for a particular sector of society. The army, for example, were based in the nearby fort.

Built in the late 1st century, the baths were extensively modified in the early 2nd century with a new furnace, floors and a hypocaust added to some rooms. The complex had been demolished by the end of the 2nd century.

Archaeologists excavated a water cistern that may have served the baths and more recent excavations, due north at 30 Gresham Street (GHT00 and see Londinium's water supply), have found two additional cisterns and a well that may also have provided water to the baths on Cheapside. Two wooden boxes from a water-lifting machine were found in the cistern at Cheapside but it was not until the Gresham Street discoveries that these boxes were identified as being from a water-lifting machine.

Winchester Palace wall painting
Section of a fine painting from Winchester Palace - the curved top denotes the vaulted ceiling of the bath-house

Another bath-house has been excavated from the Winchester Palace site (WP83) in Southwark. Attached to a high-status official building, it may have been primarily used by high ranking military officers.

An expensively-produced wall painting with costly pigments had been installed fitting into a curved vaulted roof which had small pieces of gold leaf inserted to glimmer and catch the light. The baths had drainage and underfloor heating.

Other possible sites for early baths are possible from Lime Street (GM97) and perhaps at Cannon Street Station. Later Roman bath-houses have been excavated at Pudding Lane (PDN81), Billingsgate (GM111) and Poultry (ONE94). All are moderate in size and are thought to belong to either private houses or small-scale commercial premises.

There must have been other smaller public baths in London for the working classes and those who did not have access to a private bath attached to their home, but they have not been found.

For details about what can be seen of the House and baths at Billingsgate, see Londinium Today. 

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