Taking the plunge

Bath's thermal waters are the whole reason for the city's existence.

Thomas Rowlandson's view of the Hot Bath.When contamination pulled the plug on the spa in 1978, it was as though the heart of Bath had stopped beating. Now restoration of the spa is in sight, but should all the old traditions be revived?

A pool-side spectator of the past might feel that some are best consigned to history. Roman bathers brought troubles of all types to Sulis Minerva, goddess of the waters. If a modern Bathonian had his wallet or jacket stolen at the sports centre, he would probably notify the police, but in Roman Bath the habit was to appeal to Sulis for restitution. The prayer was inscribed on a sheet of lead, which was tossed into the Sacred Spring. Docimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes, runs one. Other 'Bath curses' are even more bloodthirsty.

The Romans regarded public baths as essential to civilised living: every town had them. The affluent spent hours there chatting with friends as they were oiled, scraped and pummelled. But the spa town of Aquae Sulis grew up around its baths. The sophisticated facilities included swimming baths, cold plunges and saunas.

View of the King's Bath c.1600The baths of the Middle Ages were primitive by comparison. You can see the medieval King's Bath today, sandwiched between the Pump Room and the Roman Baths. Like the Cross and Hot Baths, it was open to the sky and had arched seats around it for bathers to shelter in. There were no changing rooms. Bathers just discarded their clothes and plunged in naked. The Romans did not bother with bathing costume either, but their baths were under cover and mixed bathing was banned by the Emperor Hadrian. The open nudity that was the rule at Bath earned a severe rebuke from Bishop Bekynton in 1449. When bathers through modesty and shame try to cover their privy parts the citizens of Bath not only barbarously and shamelessly strip them...and reveal them to the gaze of bystanders but also exact a heavy fine. The intention may have been to limit the spread of fleas and lice, but the bishop was not sympathetic. He ordered that drawers for men and smocks for women should be obligatory in future.

There was no way to drain the baths and clean them out, as Dr William Turner pointed out in 1562. The good doctor was incensed that the rich lavished money on cock-fighting, tennis, parties and plays, but would not spare a groat to up-date these beneficent baths. In his view, Bath, given better facilities, could rival the great Continental spas and profit the whole nation.

His words were heeded. The baths were enlarged and improved; drainage was added, along with changing areas called slips, with steps down into the water. The young physician Henry Savile was drawn to the thriving Elizabethan spa and produced a marvellous map of Bath around 1600. He described the role of the bath guides, whose office is to conduct the lame or weake people, & others, during their residence in the Baths and to furnish them with linnen briches. The weomen guides have vayles or such like necessary attires for weomen strangers, if they be not better provided of themselves.

The guides no doubt gave good service as a rule - their income came largely from tips - but there were occasional embarrassments. In 1634 the widow Broade had to be dismissed, according to the Council Minutes, because she miscarried herself through drinking and so caused the Maior to have several checks from the Lord Chiefe Justice.

By 1700 the Cross Bath was favoured by the beau monde and 'more famed for pleasure than for Engraving of the Cross Bath in 1739 by John Fayram (Bath Reference Library)cures'. The whole sybaritic experience of bathing there comes alive in the diaries and travel writings of the time. Bathers donned modest canvas bathing costumes in their own lodgings and were then ferried direct from their bedchambers to the slips in special sedan chairs. Going down the steps into the bath, the bather would be met by a bath guide and led to sit in one of the stone seats, up to the neck in water. Rings in the wall helped the bather to keep his or her balance in the current from the springs. The ladies had japanned bowls tied to their arms by ribbons, which acted as a kind of floating handbag to hold their handkerchiefs, perfumes and nosegays.

One of the galleries housed musicians, frequently hired to serenade admired ladies as they bathed. Another was for spectators, who please their roving fancies with this lady's face, another's eyes, a third's heavy breasts and profound air. The sexes were supposed to be segregated and a bath sergeant patrolled to keep order, but nothing could prevent all the Wanton Dalliances imaginable.

Already in the 17th century special treatments were available, particularly hydromassage, effected simply by a bath guide pumping spa water over the afflicted part. Naturally the Victorians, with their fascination for gadgetry, felt that they could do a great deal better than that. Think of all the ways you could apply water to human flesh and you will probably fall short of Victorian ingenuity. What contraptions for spraying, douching and steaming! Let us hope the new spa is less alarming.

First published in Bath City Life Autumn 1993.

Further reading

Jean Manco, 'The Cross Bath', Bath History vol. 2 (1988)