Little slices of London's history

Coldbath Square: bath-related streets and Roman graffiti on National Bubble Bath Day

It’s a bit late to say ‘Happy New Year’, but welcome to 2019 in the world of London street names. Today, bath-related streets, but first please indulge me as I provide a bit of back story to this blog. The aim of starting a blog was to help me focus my mind on getting all my street name notes and draft text into shape so that I could try and have it all published as a book.

The other day my husband pointed out gently but firmly that while I was a natural-born blogger (subtext: I like to witter), the blog had been going for some years now and the book itself has been in the making for decades rather than years. Wasn’t it time, he asked, that I did what my mother would inelegantly phrase as ‘piss or get off the pot’? I also have an old friend who keeps asking me (his own way of gentle nagging) to let him know when it’s published so he can buy a copy. Yes, you, you know who you are, if you’re reading this.

That means trying to draw a line under all the new street names and bits of information I keep coming across and trying to crystallise what I already have. So, for my most loyal readers, and you also know who you are, there may be a fair amount of repetition as I start to distill my blog ramblings and clean up text of streets that have been covered more than once in this blog.

On that note, let’s look at some bath-related streets as I have seen various references to National Bubble Bath Day.

We can start with the most obvious, in terms of name, which is Coldbath Square. (Pete, if you are reading this, I know you are bound to have been there.) The name comes from a local spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses.

There was, evidently, no good reason for supposing that, despite the name, the water was any colder than that of any other spring or well, such as the nearby Clerkenwell. In any case, the bath was famous with Londoners and remained open until 1870.

A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham), had a pub in Coldbath Fields, called the Apple Tree, but the area was, however, far more notorious for its prison. 

The Coldbath Fields Prison was built in 1794 with 280 cells for individual confinement; soon there were nearly a thousand prisoners. It was built on swampy ground and the over-crowding and unhealthy air were responsible for prisoners dying off at an alarming rate. There was a great deal of rioting and the troops were often called in to try and install calm. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the prison in his poem ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.

Stew Lane takes its name from the ‘stews’, or brothels, which crowded along the banks of the Thames from the 12th to the 17th century. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

A less colourful explanation for the name is that it was from a bath house for those in need of a hot bath.

Water Lane, to the east, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. 

Cheapside, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter, was once known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap, and was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. It was also the location of the main baths of Roman London, built in the first or second century. Two individuals of this time left their mark: a child evidently ran across the tiles of the baths when they were still soft, leaving the mark of footprints.

My very favourite bath reference in all of my collected street names and their stories is   another tile that bears an early example of graffiti: “Austalis has been running off on his own for the past fortnight.”

If anyone reading this knows any more I would be exceedingly grateful for any further light that can be shed on Austalis or what or who he was running to or from.


4 responses to “Coldbath Square: bath-related streets and Roman graffiti on National Bubble Bath Day”

  1. I may not have actually walked along Coldbath Square, (as I can’t remember any reason for doing so) but I certainly know where it is, close to Mount Pleasant Royal Mail office, off Rosebery Avenue. 🙂
    Of course, a ‘Tap’ was a common name for a pub back in the day, hence so many modern pub names ending in ‘Tap’. But that’s a tenuous bath-time link.
    Good luck with the book. I am waiting to buy my copy!
    (I will be 67 in March, so don’t leave it too long…)
    Best wishes, and a very Happy New Year.
    Pete. x

    1. I like the ‘tap’ bath link, very nicely tenuous. I remember the first time I walked along Mount Pleasant (a long time ago) and thought ‘what a misnomer’. I’m sure it’s much nicer now. Thanks for the encouragement, Pete. All the best, Elizabeth

  2. Minor correction – but excavations have found five roman bath houses in the London area (more probably remain to be discovered) – the ones in Cheapside were relatively small, and perhaps reserved for use by the Roman Army. The main baths (at least in the early years of Roman London) were the ones found in the Huggin Hill excavations – they were really rather impressive. Two smaller baths (probably private ones) have been found in Pudding Lane and the nearby Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (hopefully open t the public again this year. The other big set of baths (official building – perhaps used by the Roman Governor) were in Southwark – under what is now the remains of Winchester Palace.

    Cheers, Dave.

    1. Thanks so much, Dave. That’s all very helpful. I have seen elsewhere that Newgate Street is where the baths (and that tile) was so I need to go back and check my sources on all that. Cheers, Elizabeth.

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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