Rare 18th-century cold bath discovered below historic Bath building

The remains of what was a cold bath have been discovered below the 18th century Bath Assembly Rooms. Specialists believe it could be the only of its kind located in a historic assembly room.

Cold baths were a popular form of ‘taking the waters’ for health purposes during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was found in the basement below the Bath Assembly Rooms, which was once a popular place of entertainment, conversation, dancing and gambling, following archaeological excavations.

Bath was well-known for its hot mineral water and became a popular spot for bathing. In the 18th century, medical practitioners also recommended cold bathing for men and women as beneficial for various physical and mental ailments, including gout.

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It was advised to take regular plunges into the cold water before warming up quickly afterwards. There was then a surge in cold baths in private houses and estates along with public facilities in Bath and other towns.

However, the location of the one at the Bath Assembly Rooms suggests it would have been more exclusive. It was likely used by those wanting a more private cold bath experience.

The Bath Assembly Rooms, now cared for by the National Trust, were built between 1769-1771 by John Wood. He was heavily influenced by medical theories at the time.

The building consisted of many rooms, including for the cold bath, billiards, coffee, gambling and spaces for balls and concerts. It was considered a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all leisure, health and entertainment needs.

The cold bath is located between two dressing rooms. The excavation to find it, which was overseen by Wessex Archaeology, involved removing a later floor that had been installed over the Cold Bath and removing tons of rubble to reveal the historic steps down into it.

It is likely that someone wanting to access the bath would have entered from the street using a staircase in the north-eastern corner of the Assembly Rooms. The building was bombed during the Second World War and the cold bath was damaged.

Tatjana LeBoff, National Trust Project Curator explained: “There are many elements of this discovery that are still a mystery. The Cold Bath at the Assembly Rooms is highly unusual. It is a rare, if not unique, surviving example, and possibly it was the only one ever built in an assembly room.”

She continued: “Whilst our records tell us about a variety of people who were employed at the Bath Assembly Rooms in the 1770s, none of the records mention anyone being employed to attend the Cold Bath. Nor are there records of bath sheets being hired or bought or any laundry service for them, so perhaps the bather would have brought their own towels and servant to help with bathing and dressing.

“It is unlikely men and women of status would have used the Cold Bath together so there could have been different days or times when they were available to each. We are still researching records, letters, diaries and other documents to see what more we can find out that will help us piece it all together.”

Bruce Eaton, Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “Although historical records indicated that there was a cold bath buried beneath the Bath Assembly Rooms, we had no idea what preservation of the bath would be like. The building suffered damage at the hands of the Luftwaffe and the rooms were remodelled in the late 20th century but, after carefully excavating tonnes of concrete and rubble, we saw the original structure emerge in its entirety.

“It’s tremendous to be able to piece together this rare archaeological evidence of an 18th-century cold bath with social historical accounts from the time – a fantastic result for the National Trust and visitors to the Bath Assembly Rooms.”

Tours of the Bath Assembly Rooms including the newly excavated Cold Bath will take place on October 14, 15, 21 and 22. For more information, click here.

Somerset Live – Bath News