Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

The Roman baths at Billingsgate (a ward of the City of London on the north bank of the Thames) was discovered in 1848 during construction of the London Coal Exchange and preserved in the basement of the building.

By City of London Corporation

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

When the Coal Exchange was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for a wider road, further excavations of the Roman remains were carried out and the accompanying house discovered. The remains of the house and its bathhouse were preserved in the basement of the new building. 

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

Join this Expedition to explore the site and learn what it meant to take a bath in Roman Britain.

Roman House: East Wing

Londinium was founded by the Romans in around AD50 and grew into a busy port and important city. Built between AD 100–AD 200, this is the only Roman house accessible to the public in London today. The house was made from stone and tile.

It overlooked the waterfront and probably belonged to a wealthy individual. This is the east wing of the L- or U-shaped building, which had a courtyard or garden at its centre, and a good view of the river.

Road to the Docks

The house was positioned on a road leading to the docks. During excavations, a drainage ditch was found running alongside the house’s outer wall, roughly in line with the modern viewing platform.

Underfloor Heating System

The Romans were clever engineers and developed a form of central heating. A network of underfloor channels funnelled heat from a wood-burning furnace, warming the rooms above.

Extension

Over time the house was extended towards the river, which may indicate a changed purpose—perhaps the house became a guesthouse, or small hotel.

Stratigraphy

The layers of waste, demolition and reconstruction that form over time are called stratigraphy. These layers enable archaeologists to date sites and understand their use over time. These layers built up over the site after it was abandoned.

Bathhouse

This private bathhouse was built in the inner courtyard of the house in the 3rd century AD. Like the extension to the house itself, the addition of the baths might indicate a changed use in the site from private home to guesthouse. Bathing was an important part of Roman life. 

A whole afternoon might be given over to a course of massage, steaming, cleaning and soaking. Bathing was usually a social affair where people engaged in business, politics, and meeting friends.

River Views

This is the outside space of the house. This spot once afforded views across the River Thames. Over time, land reclamation led to further building, including a 6-metre-high defensive wall, which blocked the river view.

Furnace Flue

Nestled beside the wall of the bathhouse is the furnace flue. The furnace was outside in the courtyard and the hot air travelled in through the flue. A slave would have stoked the furnace for hours before the bath was ready to use.

Conservation

Because the site is so close to the River Thames, archaeologists constantly track the level of the ground water to protect and preserve the excavated ruins. As the river is tidal, the water level is constantly changing.

Bathing

Here we can see the overall cruciform shape of the bathhouse. Directly before us is the large rectangular frigidarium, or cold room.

Beyond that, enclosed in curved walls, are the smaller heated rooms: the tepidarium, or warm room, on the left, and the caldarium, or hot room, on the right. These are the basic elements of bathhouses found throughout the Roman Empire.

Large bathhouses had pools for swimming and soaking. This bathhouse had a basin with water for dousing.

Frigidarium

This is the frigidarium, the coldest room in the bathhouse. This room was probably part of an older building that was converted into the bathhouse over time. Bathers entered this room from the main house and undressed before moving on.

Tepidarium

Bathers’ next stop was the tepidarium. Here, they would get used to the heat while being massaged with oil. Applying olive oil to the skin was part of the cleansing process.

Caldarium

Right next to the furnace, the caldarium was the hottest room in the bathhouse. Here bathers threw water on the hot floor to create steam, which encouraged sweating. They used a tool called a strigil to scrape the sweat, dirt and oil from their skin.

Back to the Frigidarium

Finally, bathers returned to the frigidarium where pores that had been opened and thoroughly cleaned were closed with a dousing of cold water from the basin beneath the walkway.

How It Worked

The bathhouse relied on an ingenuous technology called a hypocaust, a system of central heating. In this bathhouse, heat from a furnace on the outside wall circulated through passages beneath the raised floor and up through flues in the walls. 

The Romans used hypocaust systems not only in bathhouses, but also in homes of the wealthy, especially in colder regions of the empire such as Germany and Britain. This technology died out with the empire itself.

Pilae

Can you see the columns of tiles? These columns are called pilae, and they supported the floor tiles on top of them. Warm air moved through the passages between the pilae, heating the floor above and thus the room.

Flues

Flues made from rectangular tile pipes channelled heat up through the walls. The warm walls raised the temperature in the room, and the use of wall flues helped circulation of hot air in the hypocaust system as a whole.

Conservation 1

Notice the two different colours of sand. The lighter tan colour indicates outside space, while the darker brown shows inside space. The sand is ‘sacrificial’—it helps protect the remains by soaking up water and keeping it away from the structure.

Conservation 2

Archaeologists carefully placed these wooden walkways on the sand to protect the site while conservation work is carried out. When the work is done, the boards are meticulously put away and the sand is cleaned.

What Would It Have Been Like?

We don’t know who lived in the house, but, from comparison with other Roman baths, archaeologists can draw some tentative conclusions. 

Several facts suggest that the house was built for a wealthy person: it’s made of imported stone, ceramic bricks and tiles; it had underfloor heating; and it was located near the river with fine views. Later, it may have become a guesthouse with private baths.

The relatively small baths were probably not meant to be used by large numbers of people.

Floor Level

These large terracotta tiles on top of the pilae stacks would have been covered with a layer of concrete, and the concrete would have been covered with another layer of tiles. The Romans were masters in the use of concrete.

Seat

Big enough for two people to sit in at once, this built-in bench is where bathers sat in the tepidarium. This must have been a comfortable spot to chat and exchange gossip.

Cold Water Basin

This is another view of the frigidarium, the last stop for bathers. They returned to the frigidarium hot from the caldarium and splashed themselves with cold water from this basin.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps