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Bathing in London from MediŠval to Georgian times
Posted on Jun 07, 2002 - 03:34 PM by Anthony Waldstock

From wholesome, sweet waters to dead cats and turnip tops tumbling down the flood, the wells and rivers of London were long a focus of relaxation, entertainment,amusement and revulsion. With the Restoration came the exotic Bagnio for sweating and cupping and later the swimming pool where you could also fish for carp and tench - if you paid your subscription of course!Then came the luxury of an indoor swimming pool where Waiters attend daily to teach or assist Gentlemen in the said Swimming Bath.

Public bathing has long been a feature of London Life. The first reference is found in William Fitz Stephen's 12th century A Description of London.He says:
"There are also round about London in the suburbs most excellent wells, whose waters are sweet, wholesome and clear and whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright. Among these Holywell, Clerkenwell and Saint Clement's Well are most famous and are visited by thicker throngs and greater multitudes of students from the schools and of the young men of the City, who go out on summer evenings to take the air".
By the end of the 16th century, when Stow wrote his Survey of London there were a variety of wells and ponds on the outskirts of the city which were visited by the general public or specific groups. Those mentioned by Fitz Stephen are still in existence but there have been some changes and some others had come into use:
"The first, to wit, Holy well is much decayed and marred by filthiness purposely hid there, for the heightening of the ground for garden plots. The fountain called St Clement's well, north from the parish church of St Clement's and near unto an inn of Chancerie called Clement's Inn, is fair curbed square with hard stone, kept clean for common use and is always full. The third is called Clarkes' well, or clerkenwell, and is curbed about square with hard stone, not far from the west end of Clerkenwell Church, but close without the wall that incloseth it. The said church took the name of the well and the well took the name of the parish clerks in London, who of old time were accustomed there yearly to assemble and to play some large history of Holy Scripture.

Of the smaller wells were may near unto Clarkes' well, namely Skinners' well, so called for that the Skinners of London held there certain plays yearly, played of Holy Scripture etc. In place whereof wrestlings have of later years been kept, and is inpart continued at Bartholomew tide. Then there was Fagges well, near unto Smithfield by the Charterhouse, now lately damned up, Godewell, Loder's well and Radwell, alldecayed, and so filled up that their places are hardly now discerned. Somewhat north of Holy well is one other well curbed square with stone, and is called Dame Annis the clear, and not far from it, but somewhat west, is also one other clear water called Perillous Pond, because divers youths, by swimming therein, have been drowned."

After the Restoration in 1660 many luxuries and enjoyments which had been banned by the Puritans burst into new life on the London scene - the theatre being one important example. In what one might call the frenzy of hedonism that characterised this new breath of freedom there were many imports. One of these was the Turkish bath known in London as a Bagnio. The first one was opened by Turkish Merchants in December 1679 in a court off Newgate Street now Bath Street. Strype described it as:

"a neat-contrived building, after the Turkish mode, seated in a large handsome yard, and at the upper end of Pincock Lane, which is indifferent well-built, and inhabited. This Bagnio is much resorted unto for sweating, being found very good for aches, etc., and approved of by our physicians."

And Edward Hatton described it in 1708:
"Here is one very spacious room with a cupola roof, besides other lesser; the walls are neatly set with Dutch tile. The charge of the house for sweating, rubbing, shaving, cupping, and bathing is four shillings each person. There are nine servants who attend."

There were two days a week which were reserved for women, the temperature of the bath was eighteen degrees and, to prove the healthiness of the place, Hatton mentions that one of the servants had been in attendance four days a week for twenty-eight years. The building was demolished in 1876 to make way for the extension of the General Post Office. The next Bagnio to open was n Long Acre, Covent Garden. Known as the Duke's Bagnio, it was located on the south side next to Conduit Court. A customer of the day details that in this Bagnio was:

"a large hall where the porter stands to receive the money. Hence we pass through an entry into another room, where hangs a pair of scales to weight such as, out of curiosity, would know how much they lose in weight while they are in the Bagnio. The building was a stately edifice, of an oval figure, in length 45 feet and breadth 35'. On Women's Days there are all imaginable conveniences of privacy, and not a man to be seen, but all the servants are of the female sex."
The Turkish Bath became something of a craze. Another was opened in 1683 in the south-east corner of the Covent Garden Piazza. This one was called a "hummums" (from the Turkish hammam. The hummums did not offer just the usual sweating and bathing facilities - customers could also purchase overnight lodgings as well.

Of course the Thames and its tributaries were obvious places for bathing and other water-based amusements. There are numerous examples of "mothers bathing their children" in rivers such as the Westbourne and Wandle etc. However, the experience cannot always have been a pleasant one. On the western edge of the city was the Fleet river. Its waters were used by the tanners and butchers for soaking hides and cleaning entrails and it was notorious from an early date for the unpleasant smells this activity generated. Effectively, it was an open sewer - an image wonderfully caught by Jonathan Swift:


"Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sail'd from, by their sight and smell ...
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown'd puppies, shaking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood."

But this, apparently, did not stop people from bathing in the Fleet. Alexander Pope, in his Dunciad, addressed these lines to the hardy souls who braved these waters south of Fleet Bridge:

"To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The King of Dykes ! Than whom no sluice of mud,
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
'Here strip, my children ! Here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And the most in love of dirt excel
Or dark dexterity of groping well."


The first indoor swimming pool was opened in London on 28th May 1742. The Daily Advertiser announced:

This day is opened, at the Bagnio in Lemon Street, Goodman's Fields:The Pleasure or Swimming Bath which is more than forty-three feet in length, it will be kept warm and fresh every Day and is convenient to swim or learn to swim in. There are Waiters attend daily to teach or assist Gentlemen in the said Swimming Bath if required. There is also a good Cold Bath.Subscribers may have the use of both for a Guinea.

The first designed open-air swimming pool was Peerless Pond which was converted from an existing pond at Old Street in 1743. It measured 170 feet by 108 feet and was equipped with an arcade and boxes for dressing, as well as a screen of trees to protect the bathers from the gaze of vulgar people. The Annual subscription was ú1 10s. For casual visitors the cost was a shilling a time. The proprietor was a William Kemp, a London jeweller. Beside the swimming pool he kept a large fish pond which he stocked with carp and tench. This open to subscribers for an annual fee of one guinea or to casual anglers for two shillings a time. In winter, the ponds were used for skating .
The original name of the pool had been Perilous Pond on account, according to Stow, of the number of youths who drowned in it whilst swimming. Pennant, writing in 1790, says that it has:

"been converted into the finest and most spacious bathing place now known; where persons may enjoy the manly and useful exercise with safety. Here is also an excellent covered bath with a large pond stocked with fish, a small library, a bowling green and every innocent and rational amusement; so that it is not without reason that the proprietor hath bestowed on it the present name."

Around 1805, the lease was acquired by Joseph Watts who drained the fish pond and constructed Baldwin Street on part of the site. William Hone visited the amenity in 1826 and found that very little had changed.

"Trees enough remain to shade the visitor from the heat of the sun on the brink. On a summer evening it is amusing to survey the conduct of the bathers; some boldly dive, others timorous stand and then descend step by step, unwilling and slow; choice swimmers attract attention by divings and somersets, and the whole sheet of water sometimes rings with merriment. Every fine Thursday and Saturday afternoon in the summer columns of bluecoat boys, more than a score in each, headed by their respective beadles, arrive and some half strip themselves ere they reach their destination. The rapid plunges they make into the Pool and their hilarity in the bath testify their enjoyment of the tepid fluid."
The pool was closed in 1850 and built over and is now occupied by the decidedly unglamorous St. Luke's estate where the trees are long since gone.




Note: Related Reading:
An Elegant Madness: High Society in Georgian London


 

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Bathing in London from MediŠval to Georgian times


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