Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, April 21, 2008

"Taking the Waters," in Bath, England

Have you ever heard the term, “taking the waters?” It’s been around for hundreds of years, and I know I’ve seen it in several historical fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read.

You probably have seen people 'taking the waters,' in movies or on television. If you watch any old movies or even recent movies with Romans, you will see them sitting around a pool of steamy water. But what exactly is it?

Today I will focus on historical Bath, England, nestled in Somerset county, and its hot springs, as most of my own writing takes place in England.

The hot mineral waters in Bath are the only springs in England. Rain water from the Mendip Hills filters through an underground layer of limestone in the earth. Down, down it travels to about 14,000 feet, where by geological wonder it is then pushed back up through the earth along fissures and cracks in the limestone rock formations to the surface where it flows out into three springs, at a temperatures of abot 115 degrees. Around 250,000 gallons flow from the earths surface every day, which the bath houses are built over. The waters earthy tone and taste account for the minerals that dissolve from the rocks as the water passes through it.

The city of Bath was built by the Romans around 60 AD, when they built a bath house on the main spring. Archeologists have shown that the springs in Bath were used for thousands of years prior to the Romans. The springs were popular with the Celtic people who worshiped their Goddess Sulis, and attributed the healing waters to her powers. The Romans adopted these beliefs seeing much in Sulis as in their own Goddess Minerva, and named the town Aquae Sulis, building a shrine to the Goddess Sulis. The complex was continually expanded upon until it was complete some 30 years later. However by the 5th century when the Romans withdrew, the baths silted up and the complexes deteriorated.

It had been known, that these waters could be used to relieve illnesses & discomforts, including leprosy. At one point in time a specific bath house was reserved for lepers. For some it provided healing and even a cure for whatever ailment they were suffering from. People would bathe in or sip the water that could be tasted in the Pump Room.

Over the next thousand years the city would pass from hand to hand, the baths, churches, and town would fall into disrepair and be rebuilt again. In 1500 the Bishop of Bath decided it was time to repair the badly dilapidated church buildings and baths. By the time he finished it would only be a few years before King Henry VIII would pass the Dissolution of Monasteries Act, and the priory at Bath would be dissolved. The town would be neglected once again until Queen Elizabeth’s reign when the town was once again a hot spot for its springs. The baths were improved, enticing the nobles to travel to Bath to ‘take the waters.’ The town gained such status that in 1590, Queen Elizabeth, by Royal Charter granted it city status.

The city continued to attract attention and gain in popularity. Then along came Thomas Guidott, a chemistry and medical student. He moved to the town in 1668, and became fascinated with the waters, writing two different articles, “A discourse of Bathe and the waters there ” and “Some enquiries into the nature of the water.” With the two articles written letting the people of England know about the health properties of partaking in the baths, the town noticed a significant influx of visitors and began rebuilding and making improvements.

The Mineral Water Hospital opened its doors to patients in 1742. It’s treatments were free for seriously ill patients.

In 1750, James Heath invented the Bath Chair, which helped the sick and immobile to get to the waters of bath and partake in their healing powers. It was also around this time that father and son, John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, redesigned the bath houses, to be more Palladian than what they’d been in Elizabethan times.

The population continued to bloom and by 1790, the Bath guide hosted advertisements for 18 physicians, 13 surgeons, and 25 apothecaries. By 1801, the town had grown to over 40,000 making it one of the largest towns in all of England.

Of course in any town that is booming and promoting healing powers that are virtually a miracle, you will also attract charlatans and quacks that will boast miracle works of their own. Can you picture it? The suspicious looking man dressed in bright clothes standing on the back of his wagon, toting his miracle wares. Healing people as they volunteer to try his potions, and the crowd cheers…

During the Regency period, Bath was a great place to travel to. In addition to its fabulous spas, it had theaters, music, art, parks, tasty treats and of course anybody who was anybody would take a holiday there. Balls and parties abounded. However at this time, medical practitioners advised that bathing in sea water was even better than the hot springs. The aristocracy made their way, along with the Prince Regent, George, to the city of Brighton to bath in the sea. Although Bath lost some of its popularity to Brighton, there were many who still made their way over to the fabulous mineral springs.

Jane Austen's books Northanger Abbey and Persuasians, both take part in Bath. Austen herself spent much of her life there, however she wasn't too fond of it.

Now that you know a little bit of history of Bath, lets move onto propriety. What would they wear? Were men and women in the baths together? Any scandals?

In some cases actually bathing in the springs, had segregated time slots for men, women and children. At other times, they would bathe together. The idea of bath houses, and romantic interludes stirs the mind. Were there any instances such as this, or is it purely fantasy? I would think that lovers would surely sneak into the bath houses at night when no one was about, strip themselves of their clothing and submerge naked in each others arms. Was anyone ever caught?

There was a famous scandal of Sir Richard Worsley, the Governor of the Isle fo Wight…Apparently while his wife bathed nude in a bathhouse, he lifted his friend, Captain Maurice Bisset upon his shoulders to see his wife naked. How does the saying go? “What’s yours is mine…” Sir Richard Worsley and his wife Lady Worsley ended up getting a divorce later on, and it was found that he had in essence prostituted his wife to many men, however she didn’t seem to mind too much… At the time her husband helped his friend peek at her, she laughed it off. Her lovers have been numbered around 27…

Prior to the 18th century, most bathers were nude when entering the water. Men and women didn’t bathe at the same time, and it wasn’t considered so much leisure and fun as it was for health purposes. But around the middle of the 18th century things started to change a little. Taking the waters was seen as exciting, since the original Roman Baths had been discovered and built upon. Men and women still bathed separately for the most part in the Regency era. Women would wear long wool, cotton or linen gowns of red, green or blue, never white. (Same reason now why women don’t wear white bathing suits, unless they are HEAVILY padded…) The gowns weren’t flattering or frilly. The men began to wear calecons, which originated in France around 1830. They were short trunks, that tied at the waist. However these trunks became very unpopular as they had a habit of falling down…oops!!!

By 1870 the men began to wear a one piece suit, that was short sleeved with short legs. Also around this time another bathing suit was introduced, this time it was two pieces. It also had a short sleeved tunic, but it belted at the waist and had long trousers instead of shorts. This special suit was designed for both men and women. Variations popped up, giving way to special designs. One for women even included a one piece suit with an overskirt. Stockings and shoes were worn with the outfit, as well as hats and caps.

By the Victorian era, mixed bathing was becoming more and more popular, and family’s could swim together. To some, having both men and women bathing may have been a huge scandal, considered improper and perhaps those enjoying a nice steamy bath with the opposite sex would here a “tsk tsk” from passersby.

It has been pointed out however, that despite people wearing all these clothes to bathe, some still preferred to bath nude…I’m sure there was more than one nekkid body being spied upon…telescopes were popular back then too!

So there you have it! Feel like taking a dip?

Sources: Wikipedia, The City of Bath, The Darcy Saga, The Isle of Wight History Center

Would you swim naked in a public bath house?

58% Yes
41% No


Susan Macatee said...

Great blog!
I visited Bath years ago at the ripoe age of 20 and have a photo of my hand in the water.

Love the story of the men's swim trunks falling down.

Eliza Knight said...

I'd love to see that picture Susan! When I get myself over there, Bath is a place I definitely want to visit. That is a funny story isn't it?

Amanda Elyot said...

I adore Bath and try to visit whenever I can. One of my historical novels, BY A LADY, takes place primarily in Bath and back in September, 2006, I did a costumed reading from the book at the Jane Austen festival. I've also written nonfiction articles about Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson, each of whom lived in or visited Bath, for the Jane Austen Centre's monthly magazine, JANE AUSTEN'S REGENCY WORLD.

Eliza Knight said...

Amanda, that is amazing! I bet you had a lot of fun doing the reading. Do you have pictures of your visits? I would love to see them.

taximezzo said...

Hi there, just found your blog, it's great! Mind if I add yours as a link?
I've got one too about my 18th century band but it's in its infancy. http://ladygeorgianna.wordpress.com/ if you wanna have a look!
Abi x

connie said...

Great blog.

I visited Bath a few years ago. It is just a nice train ride from London that anyone can do on their own. You walk up a few blocks to the baths.

while visiting the pump room I tasted the waters. Yuck. Tasted like water from rusty pipes.

I got a chuckle with your blog when I pictured the men with trunks that sometimes "accidently" fell down. I'm sure that's their story and they are sticking to it.


Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Abi! I'd love to link up with you. Your music sounds fabulous! Love the pics!

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Connie,

Thanks for commenting! I've heard the water a pretty strong taste...did you notice any healing powers?

Nicole North said...

Very informative and entertaining blog post, Eliza!! Thanks for sharing your info. I would also love to visit Bath, or perhaps watch those men's trunks accidentally fall down. LOL

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very entertaining post Eliza. I first visited Bath in college and have been back several times since. It's a beautiful city which has retained much of its charm from the Regency period. I haven't taken the waters, but I have had a glass, and I agree it is pretty nasty from all the sulfur. Elizabeth Armistead, who I'm in the process of writing about, often took the waters there for her rheumatism.

Eliza Knight said...

Nicole, thanks! Yes I would like to see that too :)

Thanks Elizabeht! That's what I keep hearing, that once you've been there you fall in love with the town and keep going back. I'll have to check out your next post!

Amanda Elyot said...

Eliza, I have tons of photos ...but for some reason I can't seem to find the ones I took; I have the ones my husband took, though -- a zillion of them in my Regency costume strolling all over Bath, including knocking on the doors of 12 Great Pultney Street where Emma and Sir William stayed just before they were married, in September 1791, and the house at 2 Pierrepont St., where Nelson lived. I can email you a couple of photos, off-blog.

Eliza Knight said...

Amanda that would be amazing! Yes please email them to me :)


Brit Blaise said...

How have I lived without this blog?

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Brit!!! I'm so glad you like it!

Shannon Robinson said...

Great post Eliza! Very informative and humorour too - I hope to someday be able to visit Bath. It sounds like a fascinating place to see!
Thanks for sharing!

Delilah Marvelle said...

Makes me want to pack my carpetbag and head out!!! Absolutely loved reading this! As always. Sigh. It was one of many places in England I was unable to visit. Spent all of my time in London...

Lidian said...

Hi Eliza, Thanks for visiting my blog - I'd be glad to link youad have you link me!

I enjoyed your great post on Bath and look forward to reading more of your posts, past and future. Tony Robinson, in his book/series "The Worst Jobs In History" says that on of the worst Regency-era jobs was being a Bath Attendant in Bath...it sounded like a rather mucky job from what he wrote.

I went to Bath about 13 years ago and really liked it, it is a lovely place though it was a bit crowded as it was summer...

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Shannon!

Thanks Delilah! I bet you had a blast in London though, meeting all those sexy Lords!

Thanks Laura! I've seen his series, and some of those jobs are just dreadful, like the guys who have to clean out the muck, etc... from the garderrobe tunnel...

Unknown said...

I visited Bath this past November and couldn't resisted the urge to stick my hand in the water. I also enjoyed a glass of Bath water in the pump room before having high tea. Bath is such a great city.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for your comment Georgie! So did you notice any healing affects from the water?

Julia Templeton said...


I just love your blog. It's so informative.

I visited Bath back in 02'. What a beautiful city, and the roman bath tour is SO interesting. I highly recommend visiting the city!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Julia! I have not heard one bad thing about the city, in fact quite the opposite. I will definitely have to visit there!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Michaels said...

This is an awesome site with lots of info! :)