London’s Roman baths are quite well documented and said to date from the 2nd Century, however they are not really such historic remains often touted. They are more of a folly though they are indeed historic being built during the 17th Century.
London does have some real Roman baths such as that found at Billingsgate. The ones in question are almost right by the Strand and absolutely nowhere near any credible Roman settlements in the city. Nevertheless they’re still known as the ‘Roman baths’ to this day even though they are actually the remains of a water cistern built in 1612.
Present day view of the Roman baths building with the historic house overlooking the site
It was Victorian entrepreneurs who sussed a mint could be made out of claiming the ‘baths’ were Roman and a number of booklets were produced to impress this so called fact upon visitors. Its this white lie that ultimately enabled the retention and preservation of this historic feature.
There is a lengthy write up about the baths including a comprehensive history at Wikipedia.
One of the books I purchased earlier this year was about the ‘Roman baths.’ Its also by Edward Foord however its somewhat of a different look compared to that depicted on the Wiki page.
Upon reading the book it is quite clear the author, Edward Foord, claims these ‘Roman baths’ were altered during Elizabethean times. Historians says these ‘baths’ are most definitely from the 17th Century. Foord says the baths are Roman because in 1893 Henry Glave uncovered remains of the Roman tiling. Interestingly on page five of the booklet he gives descriptions of the Roman tiles in question and says they were similar to others found at Verulam. I’m not really sure whether he was a knowing participant in what was essentially a scam, or whether he was genuinely trying to portray what he thought was the truth, based on ‘evidence’ he may have seen or what others claimed.
Pages one and two of the book
As the blurb at the rear of the booklet shows, the baths were fed by natural springs. Actually its not certain what the source of water is. It has emanated at different times in different places so its not actually a spring contrary to the claims but probably water that finds its way in somehow.
One thing is known about these so-called baths. They didn’t slowly become Roman baths upon the gradual discovery of tiles, bricks or other artifacts, but were suddenly one day touted as Roman baths. This is 1838 when the place is advertised as such. Others then followed suit, including Charles Dickens himself who mentioned the Roman baths in his 1849 book David Copperfield. Most likely those who subsequently took up the ‘Roman baths’ cause were quite unaware they were victims of a contrived attempt to attract more visitors.
The old entrance to the baths in Surrey Street, now locked permanently
In the days when the baths were open daily except Sundays the access point was in Surrey Street, just off the Stand. This gateway led to a passageway leading to the Surrey Steps, which led down to Strand Lane. The baths were off to the right.
Old view looking from the bottom of the Surrey Steps towards the baths
Although the official ‘Roman baths’ passageway via the Surrey Steps is no longer in use, one can access the property by way of Strand Lane. This apparently private thoroughfare is without a doubt open to the public during working hours Mondays to Fridays.
What looks like a private road is in fact open Monday-Fridays! The baths are at the far end
Its possible to walk up here to the very far end to view the baths themselves. A gate is left open to allow anyone to reach the large windows and peer into the gloom of the basement behind to see the bath in question. There’s even a light switch allowing illumination of the chamber itself for a better look.
The window overlooking the baths with the light switch evident
Its not that good a view through the window however because there is another window inside and this substantially blocks attempts at getting a good view of the baths, unless one kneels or crouches down to get a better view. Ultimately the best way to see this water feature is to actually go inside. In lieu of not having pictures of the inside, here are some views showing the baths in older days.
Postcard that clearly tells us it was thought the baths were from the 2nd Century
I’m not really sure of the history here, however it seems when the baths were in public use the sides were tiled and the surfaces smoothed, and a heater provided, then all the adornments were removed to make it more like an authentic water feature or cistern.
The ‘Roman’ baths. Source Gutenberg Project
Anyone wanting to actually visit the ‘baths’ in question would do best to email the City of Westminster: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone the following number: 02076412000 (this is given at the baths entrance) or the number given by the National Trust: 02076415264, and book a guide who will gladly show one the inside of the building and the historic water pool. It is understood two weeks notice must be given.
The ‘Roman Baths’ are in Strand Lane, just off the Victoria Embankment, almost adjacent to Temple tube station.