Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

By City of London Corporation

This site is one of the best preserved in-situ Roman bathhouses accessible to the public in Britain.

Watercolour of Roman remains under the Coal Exchange (1848) by Frederick William FairholtOriginal Source: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

Beneath the curious cobbled pathways of the City of London lies a rich Roman history surviving 2,000 years of building, fires and bombings.

Discovered in 1848, Lower Thames Street is home to one of Roman London’s most fascinating remains and the only Roman private residence found in London.

Illustration of the Roman City and fort (1996) by Peter FrosteOriginal Source: https://www.mola.org.uk/

Londinium

Riding high after the visit of the Emperor Hadrian, Londinium in the 2nd century was a bustling trade port filled with merchants and a growing populace. Produce from across the Empire converged on the capital, providing a gateway to the rest of Britannia.

Watercolour interpretation of Billingsgate House and Baths around AD 250 (2020) by Judith DobieCity of London Corporation

The house was built around AD 150 with the bathhouse added about 100 years later.

The house was inhabited until the early 5th century AD but by the end of its life, it had fallen into complete disrepair.

Around AD 450 a woman dropped a brooch in the ruins. This brooch is Germanic in style, suggesting the woman might have been an early Anglo-Saxon settler, possibly living to the west of Londinium but exploring the crumbling old Roman city.

Wealthy citizens built luxurious homes from which to enjoy this thriving city and the house here at Billingsgate was one such private residence, enjoying river views.

Winged buildings, such as the one found here at Billingsgate, were fairly common in late Roman Britain. The house was either an L-shaped or U-shaped dwelling, with a courtyard or garden at its centre.

Watercolour of Roman remains under the Coal Exchange (1848) by Frederick William FairholtOriginal Source: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

1848 Excavations

Remains of Roman hypocaust (1848) by A.J. StothardOriginal Source: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

In the mid-19th century, builders working on what would become the Coal Exchange unearthed part of the warm (tepidarium) and cold rooms (frigidarium) of the bathhouse.

The Discovery of Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (1848) by Frederick William Fairholt and Illustrated London NewsOriginal Source: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

Such was the stir caused by the discovery of this site that it was preserved beneath the Coal Exchange and what they found captured the imagination of Victorian London:

“A discovery of the greatest interest to the London antiquary was made on Wednesday week”
The Illustrated London News, Feb 5 1848

Coal Exchange, Lower Thames Street, City of London (1959) by unknownOriginal Source: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

1967 Excavations

In 1967 the Victorian Coal Exchange and its surrounding buildings were demolished to widen Lower Thames Street. 

Billingsgate Bathhouse Dig (1967) by Peter MarsdenCity of London Corporation

The City of London Excavation Group, led by City Archaeologist Peter Marsden, discovered more of the bathhouse and part of the east wing of the house. The north range and the rest of the east wing were excavated in 1969-70.

“…for the first time in more than a century of archaeological investigation in London it has been possible to positively identify a Roman house.”
Peter Marsden

The last excavations were carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, Ancient Monuments Division, in 1975, and the walls were capped with cement mortar, thought at that time to be a suitable conservation measure. This was removed during the last stage of works on the site from 1987-1990 by the Museum of London’s Department of Urban Archaeology (now MoLA).

Billingsgate Roman Baths (1969-06-02) by British MovietoneOriginal Source: http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/a9f5ba5452f249c1903d91a2818e106d

Plan of Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (2014) by UCLCity of London Corporation

Inside Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

Now you know a little about the history of Londinium and the site on Lower Thames Street, take a closer look at the remains.

You are now looking at the underfloor heating system for the suite of rooms in the east wing. A single internal corridor gave access to these heated living rooms that originally may have had mosaic floors. Excavations on the other side of the bathhouse have uncovered a parallel drainage ditch and first century wooden piles reinforcing the river bank. There may have been a west wing on top of this, but there is insufficient evidence to prove this beyond doubt.

This is the frigidarium, the coldest room in the bathhouse.

Bathers would enter from the main house and hang their clothing in this room before acclimatising to the heat in the tepidarium and then proceeding into the caldarium. The bather’s final stop on his or her tour through the bathhouse would be back in the frigidarium where pores that were opened and thoroughly cleaned were closed with a dousing from the cold water tank on the south wall of the frigidarium.

The tepidarium was the warm room of the bathhouse, where bathers would acclimatise before entering the caldarium.

There is evidence suggesting that Romans were depilated in the tepidarium. Depilation consisted of having your body hairs plucked out, as hairless bodies were fashionable during much of the Roman Empire. One man who lived above the baths complained of the

“hair-plucker with his penetrating shrill voice - for purposes of advertisement - continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell”
- Seneca, Epistle 56.2

The walls of the frigidarium are very thick and built side-by-side with the heated rooms. There is a theory that the frigidarium was from an earlier building that was converted into a bathhouse as the walls of the heated rooms have not been made fast with the frigidarium, there is a gap between them. This suggests that the cold room was a pre-existing building.

You are now looking out over the hot room (caldarium) of the bathhouse.

At 50°C the caldarium was the hottest room in the bathhouse. Bathers would be massaged with various perfumed oils that were carried in glass flasks, after which the excess oil and dirt were scraped off with a metal instrument called a strigil.

Surprisingly, these baths used little water, apart from a possible water tank to wash yourself down with at the end of your stay.

The small stacks of bricks, called pilae, are evidence of a Roman system of underfloor heating; the floor of the house and bathhouse would have been supported on top of this heated space, called a hypocaust (‘a furnace that heats from below’).

The underfloor airspace between the pilae would have been heated by a furnace (praefurnium) that was usually in a room next to an outside wall of the building. The hot air and combustion gases circulated under the floor and were drawn up into the walls through hollow rectangular flue tiles called tubuli. Similar flue tiles below the floor connected the hypocausts in different rooms around the house. Rooms that needed to be the hottest were usually closer to the furnace. The furnace is the small arch in the far wall of the caldarium. The hypocaust system in this complex of buildings had both wall and floor heating.

Sitting in a bathhouse (2020) by Judith DobieCity of London Corporation

Can you imagine yourself relaxing here after a hard days work?

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Billingsgate Roman House and Baths is owned and managed by the City of London Corporation.

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