Victorian Londoners were a gullible lot, though they thought themselves highly sophisticated. When the owner of a little-known plunge pool suddenly began to promote it as dating from the first century ad, almost everyone was taken in.
Respected writers soon attested that it was “without doubt a veritable Roman structure,” with walls “formed of layers of brick, of that peculiar flat and neat-looking aspect which certainly seem to imply the impress of Roman hands.” And in 1878 Walter Thornbury wrote floridly of the bath as “one of the oldest structures in London, one of its few real and genuine remains which date from the era of the Roman occupation of England, and possibly even as far back as the reigns of Titus or Vespasian, if not of Julius Cæsar himself.”
To be fair, the brickwork does bear a Roman resemblance – and there was little evidence to contradict the story of its ancient origin – but historians are now sure that the bath dates from the early 17th century.
Some have suggested that it was constructed as a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, the home of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel. Or perhaps it was created as an ornamental accompaniment to the ‘Arundel marbles’ – the hundreds of Roman statues, busts, sarcophagi, altars and fragments with which the extravagant earl adorned the extensive grounds of his mansion. Thus, right from the start, it could have been intended to look like a Roman bath – so maybe those gullible Victorians could be excused.
However, Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward of King’s College have recently rejected the connection with Arundel House. Instead they propose that the bath was originally the feeder cistern for a grotto-fountain built in the gardens of the old Somerset House for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, in 1612.
Whatever purpose it first served, the ‘old water-house’ had been converted into a bathing facility by 1776. Soon after this an ancillary bath was added, which was subsequently claimed to have been “built by the Earl of Essex, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1588.”
Roman’ Bath, 5 Strand Lane, London WC2R 2NAAdmission by appointment only with Westminster council.
Call 020 7641 5264 during office hours or email email@example.com, giving a week’s notice. Visits are arranged for early afternoon on weekdays.
The bath is visible through a window from the pathway all year round, from 9am to dusk (the gate to the alley is locked outside these times). You can turn on the inside light using an external switch.Nearest station: Temple (Circle and District lines)