Jaunt to the Roman Baths at Billingsgate, London

Caldarium of the Roman Baths at Billingsgate, London
Caldarium of the Roman Baths at Billingsgate

Jaunt to the Roman Baths at Billingsgate, London.

My cousin, Dave, and I set out on another jaunt to London to see the remains of the Roman Baths in Billingsgate, London. No, not the old fish market but just opposite, in the cellar of the building at 101, Lower Thames Street, EC3R 6DL. We’d discovered the site on a previous jaunt (check out about more secret Roman remains here on a previous post) but the site at Billingsgate hadn’t been open, so when we got home, we checked it out online and purchased our tickets. Unfortunately it’s only open on Saturdays but if you’re interested on an hour-long visit and you’re free on that day, you can get tickets here .

When Dave and I arrived, we were greeted by our City Guide who told us a little about the history of the Roman invasion of Britain and then led us down the stairs to the basement. That’s the only access, so if you’re planning on visiting, you need to be fit enough to negotiate steps. The site was discovered in 1848, but actually dates to the late second century and it wasn’t until 1968-9 that the ruins were fully excavated.

Model of the baths

The baths were privately owned and were associated with a U-shaped or perhaps L-shaped house which was large enough to accommodate twenty people. It is thought that perhaps it was a hotel or possibly a brothel, since it was situated quite close to the riverside were there would be lots of sailors. The bath house consisted of an entrance chamber with access on the right, to the warm room, or tepidarium, and on the left, to a hot room or caldarium. The large room in the photo of the model is the cold room or frigidarium which is thought to have had a cold plunge pool. Heat in the baths was provided by underfloor heating and the piles of tiles which are still evident show how the floor was supported, leaving a cavity underneath called a hypocaust. The air in the hypocaust was heated by a furnace which was kept stoked by slaves.

A Bather's Accessories
A Bather’s Accessories (Not original)

On entering the bath house, guests would go into the tepidarium and a slave would use oil from a bottle such as the one shown above (top left) to rub into the skin. The curved instrument in front of it is a strigil which would be used to scrape the oil and dirt from the skin. The wooden sandals would have been worn to enter the caldarium which might reach temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius. The small items near the strigil in the photo were an implement to clean between teeth, another to clean inside the ears and tweezers to pluck out hairs. Once finished in the caldarium, guests would pass into the larger and much colder frigidarium and possibly cool off in the plunge pool.

Having been built about 200 CE, the buildings were abandoned soon after 400 CE when the Roman Empire collapsed. A hoard of nearly 300 Roman coins were discovered hidden in a wall, the latest date of any of the coins was 388 CE. The owner never recovered the cache possibly because its value decreased as the Roman economy died.

Gradually, the roofs collapsed, the walls crumbled and the ruins became overgrown and buried under soil washed down from the hillside. In about 450 CE, when Londinium may have been a deserted Roman city, someone, possibly a Saxon woman entered the ruins and dropped a decorated bronze brooch which slipped between some roof tiles in the frigidarium and was lost. This is the earliest evidence of the arrival of the ‘English’ who would rule until the coming of the Vikings and Normans five centuries later.

If you’d like to see some of my other photos of the site, you can see them here on Flickr.

Dave and I then set out to find another bit of Roman remains but the site was closed. More of that next time…

Comments are closed.