The Roman Baths of Bath: A tale of two architects, a heated competition and a fascinating restoration

In the late 19th century, the eponymous hot baths of this city were recast in their modern form. Clive Aslet describes this fascinating transformation. Photographs by Paul Highnam.

In 1871, the city architect of Bath, Maj Charles Edward Davis, was worried about a leak from the King’s Bath. Next to the Pump Room, this was the largest of the four public baths in the city and visitors had been soaking themselves in its hot, malodorous waters since the early Middle Ages. With semicircular recesses in which they could rest and overlooked by a statue of Bath’s mythical founder, King Bladud, it formed part of a magnificently eclectic architectural ensemble; a drawing of 1675 shows a fanciful pavilion in the centre and a strapwork balcony on which spectators could lean to survey the men and women below – bathing was then mixed and naked.

Victorian Bath was more demure, but failing. Although it continued to advertise the curative properties of its waters – good for rheumatism, gout, palsy and general debility – the Georgian heyday was long over. Seaside resorts had captured the summer market and Bath’s winter season was eclipsed by that of newcomers, such as Harrogate. The escape of water from the King’s Bath, lowering its level, symbolised a wider decline.

To investigate the leak, Davis used powerful pumps to remove a mixture of mud, Roman tiles and old building materials to a depth of 20ft. This revealed the bottom of a Roman bath, lined with lead. Work had to stop when the owner of the 18th-century Duke of Kingston’s Bath nearby objected to the loss of water, but Davis returned to the task later in the decade, when the Bath Corporation obtained the rights to the water.

A builder was employed to tunnel along an ancient drain, 6ft below ground. Partially collapsed, the drain was little more than a yard in height; there was no light and steam from the hot spring got ever more intense as the tunnellers worked their way along it. Eventually, they found that they were progressing in parallel to a large Roman wall.

Davis drained the King’s Bath, dug through its bottom and found that it was directly above the source of the hot spring, still gushing into the lead-lined reservoir into which Romans had thrown precious offerings to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

By modern standards, Davis’s methods were high-handed. He had no compunction in destroying much of the King’s Bath, which now represents an interesting phase of the site’s development. It is also just as well that he did not know of the many coins and finds that lay amid the silt and rubble at the bottom of the reservoir; they were left undisturbed until the systematic excavation by Barry Cunliffe in 1979–80.

Nevertheless, the city we know today owes the recovery of its most famous landmark to Davis. Although he was personally unsuccessful in his attempt to shape the way it looks, he paved the way for a more distinguished architect, John McKean Brydon. Bath is not as closely associated with Brydon as it is with John Wood (Elder and Younger), Thomas Baldwin or even the restorer of the Abbey, Sir George Gilbert Scott, yet he did as much as anyone to shape the heart of the city.

The Baths were not the only thing that drew the Romans to Aquae Sulis: it was the point at which the Fosse Way crossed the Avon and they built a fort here. But it was unlike all other settlements. The sacred steaming waters that poured, orange with their burden of minerals, from a fissure in the rock came from the only hot spring in Britain. How welcome they must have been to men and women used to warmer climes.

The Roman Baths, Bath, Somerset

By the end of the 1st century ad, the first phase of a large bathing complex had been built, the main part of which was a pool, big enough to swim in. It was first covered by a pitched roof and later by a prodigious vault. Next to the baths was a temple to Sulis Minerva, the native deity Sulis having been fused with the Romans’ own Minerva.

The podium of the temple had been identified by Scott’s archaeologically minded clerk of works James Irvine, when an old inn that had stood on Stall Street was demolished in the late 1860s. Otherwise, the baths and temple, which lay far beneath the level of the 19th-century streets, had disappeared.

One may wonder how such a total eclipse of these large buildings could have occurred. The answer partly lies in two destructive events. The Battle of Dyrham was fought a few miles away in 577: the surviving Romano-Britons who had held Bath were driven west and it was seized by the West Saxons.

In 1088, Bath suffered again when it was burnt by Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances in a rebellion against King William Rufus. When the antiquary John Leland visited Bath after the Dissolution, he found that statues and funerary monuments were among the ‘divers notable antiquitees’ that medieval builders had used as stones for the town wall. The magnificent buildings from which these carvings had come had to wait another four centuries before Davis dug out the drain.

Davis was not an easy man. Born in 1827, he was the son of an architect, Edward Davis, who had trained with Soane. Having married in 1858, he began to make a name for himself, winning a competition for a cemetery.This led to his appointment as city architect and surveyor in 1863 – the year he designed an escritoire that was to be Bath’s wedding present for the Princess of Wales.

Relations with his employers were often strained, however. They objected to his month-long holidays and absences with the Worcestershire militia (from which he derived the rank he invariably used). Tradesmen and neighbours in Pulteney Street, where he lived, were regularly bitten by the Scotch deerhounds he bred. In Exposed, a recent account of Davis’s activities in Bath, Doc Watson describes how Davis sent an offending dog out of the county, rather than submitting to a court order to have it put down.

As regards the excavation, his zeal was accompanied by an almost comic lack of finesse in his dealings with the city council.

Hints as to the glories that lay under the streets of Bath had been given during the 18th century. In 1727, work on a new sewer had unearthed the golden head of Minerva that was once part of the temple’s statue.

Twenty-eight years later, part of the old monastic buildings known as the Abbot’s House was pulled down, to make way for the Duke of Kingston’s Bath; as workmen dug the footing, they cut through a Saxon cemetery and reached a small bath at the eastern end of the Roman bathing complex.

This bath, which stood at right angles to the main pool, was recorded by the Irish politician and doctor Charles Lucas, who had used an absence from the country after a controversial election in Dublin to tour the spas of the Continent; his observation of what became known as Lucas’s Bath appeared in his Essay on Waters (1756). The artist William Hoare drew a perspective that is now in the British Museum.

Works of 1790, on Thomas Baldwin’s Pump Room, brought to light a Corinthian capital and about 70 further fragments, beautifully published by Samuel Lysons in Reliquae Britannico Romanae (1813).

Previous excavations could not, however, be taken further because of the flow of the spring. ‘The flood of hot water,’ wrote Davis for the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeo-logical Society (Transactions, 1883–84), ‘had no drain to carry it off.’

By reopening the Roman outfall drain, Davis enabled the great hall in the centre of the Baths to be uncovered. Measuring 111ft by 68ft 6in, he could describe it as having ‘been completely thrown open’. Parts of the original vault, made of hollow brick boxes, covered with concrete and heavily tiles, were found and preserved.

After a careful description of these and other finds, Davis concludes that the ‘Romans left behind them in Bath a Palace of Health and Luxury unequalled except in Italy’.

There then arose the issue of how to incorporate the ruins into the fabric of the city. They had to be celebrated and displayed – in a way that would give 19th-century Harrogate a black eye. The main bath, open to the sky, had once been roofed; it would be roofed again, and an extension to the Georgian Pump Room created for concerts, after the demolition of houses near the Abbey.

Davis was required to draw up the specifications for a competition, but he was enraged by the request. Although offered a fee, which he initially refused, he felt it was far below the dignity of a city architect, particularly one who had hoped to design the building himself. As it was, his position debarred him from so much as entering. The competition was launched in April 1893, after which 14 architects paid the required £2 to take part.

At the end of the year, the architect Alfred Waterhouse came down from London to judge the anonymous entries, each identified by a letter of the alphabet. He found in favour of K, with O as runner-up. However, as could happen in competitions, the council committee overturned the result: the winner was now O. But who was the architect?

The envelope with the winner’s name was opened at a packed public meeting of the full council. As near as Bath ever gets to pandemonium ensued when it was found to be empty.

A farcical explanation eventually emerged: Davis had collaborated with a down-at-heel practitioner from the Isle of Wight named Robert Broughton. Skilled as a draughtsman and perspectivist, Broughton needed money for his growing family. The scale and payment of the fee nearly caused the collaborators to fall out, but they succeeded in completing their entry, and met, late at night on the eve of the deadline, in an office borrowed from the stationmaster at Waterloo Station. They could not linger and, as they parted, Davis placed his business card in the fatal envelope. However, the card, as he realised afterwards, fell onto the floor. He saw it there; he assumed he had taken out two.

Davis’s effort was dismissed and K reinstated. K was found to be Brydon, a friend of French artist James Tissot, for whom he built a studio and a château. He later created the New Government Buildings at the junction of Whitehall and Parliament Square. As The Architectural Review described on his death in 1901, he had already designed a southern extension to Baldwin’s town hall as the first phase of the municipal buildings.

Georgian purists may regret that the delicate town hall should have been overpowered by these additions, but Bath’s needs had grown since the 18th century. As well as the town hall and sessions court provided by Baldwin, it needed a council chamber, more offices, a police court and a monument room (to the south), as well as an art gallery and library (to the north).

Brydon preserved what he could. Although he gave the town hall, now the centrepiece of the composition, a dome, he otherwise subdued his neo-Baroque instincts; the turrets that crown his wings were praised for their discretion by The Architectural Review. The curving elevation of the southern wing, with its sculptural frieze by George Lawson, is particularly successful.

There was not, in the end, enough money for Brydon to vault the Roman bath. It remains open. He did, however, create a colonnade, topped on three sides with a suite of statues by Lawson, representing Caesars and generals; the fourth side rises higher, with a wall of Diocletian windows of the type seen in the baths of Rome. Behind this wall lay a concert hall or Roman Promenade, of which one aisle was devoted to a museum. This will be familiar to visitors to the Baths – now more imaginatively displayed and intensively visited than could ever have been envisaged in the 1890s – as the reception hall where the ticket office is located.

Poor Davis had been humiliated. Some say he got his revenge by building the Empire Hotel, next to Brydon’s municipal building and described by Pevsner as a ‘monstrosity and an unbelievable piece of pompous architecture’. In the spirit of its architect, the building holds its own through sheer self-confidence. It is this, rather than any Georgian edifice, that forms the first major building seen by visitors to Bath as they walk into town from the railway station.