Spreading along trade and migration routes, a virulent pandemic disease swept westwards across Asia and Europe, stretching as far as the Americas and North Africa with devastating effect. When it reached British shores, the pathogen found an unprepared population that had no natural immunity to the disease – nor any clear understanding of how it spread or how best to treat it. By the time the outbreak receded, more than 50,000 had died in this country, with hundreds of thousands more lives lost worldwide. This situation might sound all too familiar, but in fact we are talking about a cholera pandemic that began in India and raged across much of the globe between 1826 and 1837.
When the disease reached Britain in 1831, the poorer areas of crowded cities like London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Bath were particularly severely affected. At this time, the transmission of disease was poorly understood and germ theory not even in its infancy; instead, it was believed that infection was caused by ‘miasma’, or bad air. Local authorities burned barrels of tar and vinegar in the streets in a vain effort to try to dispel harmful smells, but the real problem lay in cleanliness. Put simply, being clean was a privilege that only the wealthy could easily enjoy. The working poor – adults and children alike – laboured for long hours in dirty factories and foundries before returning to cramped tenements in which as many as 20-30 people lived. Many did not have the time, space, privacy, or energy to prioritise regular washing, and fewer still had easy access to clean water. Today, the average person in the UK uses 140 litres of water daily, which weighs about the same as two adults. This is easy enough to access when you can simply turn on a tap, but it would be a different matter if you had to carry this water home from a well, river, or public pump, as many of the 19th-century poor did – and these shared sources were frequently contaminated with refuse and sewage. Combine this unsanitary environment with critically crowded living conditions, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Far from sympathising with the plight of the poor, though, many of their wealthier contemporaries perceived dirtiness as a moral failing. Only a couple of generations earlier, John Wesley had preached that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, and it was in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford that the writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase ‘the Great Unwashed’. It was only with the evolution of a more progressive attitude to poverty, heralding the social reforms of the mid-19th century, that conditions began to improve. A key marker for this shift is the provision of public washing facilities, which were created as a direct response to outbreaks like the cholera pandemic described above – and recent investigations by Wessex Archaeology have uncovered just such a relic of this public health response in Bath.
Public health pioneers
In the 19th century, a notorious neighbourhood called Avon Street sprawled beside Bath’s riverside quays. This district was a byword for squalor, crime, and disease, and 10,000 of the city’s poorest inhabitants called it home, crammed into overcrowded dwellings squeezed among such insalubrious neighbours as factories, stables, breweries, and slaughterhouses. The slums were demolished in the 1930s, and in 2016-2017 the area was transformed once more, creating the Bath Quays development – it was ahead of the onset of the project’s flood-prevention and regeneration scheme that Wessex Archaeology’s excavations took place.
The fieldwork was combined with detailed documentary research (see CA 363 for more on the project’s wider findings), and during this latter aspect of their work Wessex examined a map from 1852 and another from 1885, which labelled the same location as ‘baths and wash houses’ and as ‘baths and laundry’: public washing facilities that had served the local population, for whom private bathrooms were an unimaginable luxury. These structures lay within the area scheduled for redevelopment. Trial trenches revealed the foundations survived largely intact, which offered Wessex a unique archaeological opportunity: the chance to explore one of the country’s earliest public wash houses, excavating the first well-preserved example to be scientifically investigated.
How did these facilities come to be? Long before the eminent physician John Snow conclusively linked dirty water to the transmission of disease in 1854 (by mapping clusters of cholera cases in Soho, London, that proved to centre on a sewage-polluted public water pump), there were determined grassroots efforts to combat contagion through cleanliness. A key figure in these campaigns was Kitty Wilkinson (1786-1860), not a wealthy philanthropist but an enterprising Irish migrant living in Liverpool who, though she spent much of her life in poverty, was a public health pioneer. When the cholera pandemic reached Liverpool in 1832, she offered her neighbours the use of her boiler to clean their clothes using chloride of lime. A firm believer in the importance of hygiene in preventing disease, she went on to campaign doggedly for the establishment of public baths for the poor, and in 1842 Liverpool’s first combined baths and wash house was opened (Kitty would later become its superintendent). Kitty’s continued efforts to support her local community were recognised both during her lifetime – she became popularly known as ‘the Saint of the Slums’ and was given a silver teapot by Queen Victoria – and after her death: her gravestone hails her as ‘the widow’s friend; the support of the orphan; the fearless and unwearied nurse of the sick; the originator of baths and wash houses for the poor’.
The public mood was shifting: the 1840s saw a wider effort to improve the nation’s health, and in 1846 – the same year that Kitty had received her silver teapot – her ideals saw even greater realisation in the passing of the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act. Facilities like the Liverpool wash house began to spring up in other cities across the country – and here Bath was somewhat ahead of the curve. In 1845, a group of wealthy men (among them, the energetic social reformer Lord Ashley, who also campaigned for the rights of women in work and to reduce permitted hours for child labour) had founded a charity called the Baths and Laundry Society, and, by the time the Act passed the following year, they had already completed plans for the Milk Street Baths. This building combined facilities for people to wash themselves and their clothes, and was to be built in the Avon Street district, whose impoverished population had the greatest need. It is this structure that was represented on Wessex Archaeology’s maps, and whose remains the team has now excavated.
Trailblazing though they were, when the Milk Street Baths opened in 1847 they were a fairly small affair, with 14 laundry tubs and five baths fed by a single pump. Unsurprisingly, demand swiftly outstripped supply, and further fundraising followed in order to substantially extend the wash house. The expanded facilities, which opened in 1853, now boasted a twin bank of Lancaster boilers to provide hot water and steam (there were two so that the wash house could continue to operate when one was being cleaned or serviced). While the iron boiler cylinders are long gone, their bases and flues were exposed by Wessex Archaeology’s initial trial trenches, which came down on the remains of substantial brick structures topped with sandstone slabs that showed signs of intense burning. The boilers’ chimney was lost to 20th-century disturbance, but photographs of the wash house before it was demolished show that it was a towering construction some 23m high.
Offering all mod cons of the time, the larger wash house also had a separate laundry block housing 41 stations for washing clothes, as well as an ironing room equipped with wringing machines and an ingenious ‘drying cabinet’ through which hot air was blasted – all cutting-edge technology for the period, powered by steam engines. The outline of this building was still clearly visible during excavation, with both sides lined with drains through which water had been sluiced back into the river. Meanwhile, the building that had housed both baths and the laundry in the complex’s original design was now entirely dedicated to bathing facilities, with hot and cold running water, and private closets for changing. These were segregated by sex, with 16 spaces for men and eight for women. Use of the facilities was not free: 1d secured you access to a cubicle (whose rectangular footprints were still present among the excavated remains) and a towel, while for an extra penny you could have a more-ornate closet with a chair and a cushion, as well as a wash stand and a mirror.
Water for washing clothes and bodies alike was initially supplied from the river: this was drawn up using steam-powered pumps and stored in a reservoir on the roof where it could be used to feed the boilers. The remains of the pump room were easy for Wessex Archaeology to identify in the ground: their massive foundations speak of the mighty construction that was required to support the weight of the reservoir, and, while the pumping machinery was all gone, the sump that had contained it – described as the ‘pump room well’ in contemporary documents – survived intact. River water was none too clean, however, particularly during the summer months, and its use in a building intended to improve public hygiene was not ideal. Further innovations came to the rescue by the end of the 19th century, when the facilities were connected to the mains water supply.
End of an era
The Milk Street Baths proved extremely popular, and at their height the facilities would have been a hive of noise and activity – full of the sounds of rushing steam and water, of clanking machinery, and also of the chatter of people gathering within its walls. The baths were valued by the community not only because of their practical benefits, but because they offered a social space: a safe place to meet people outside work that was neither a pub nor a place or worship. Ultimately, however, use of the complex began to decline as the make-up of Avon Street changed. As the 19th century drew towards its close, industrial expansion saw many of the area’s houses demolished to make way for new factories, while there was also a movement (among those who could afford it) to up sticks from the increasingly crowded riverside district to set up home in the new suburbs that were developing on the city’s outskirts. As the local population declined, so too did the number of people using the wash house – by 1910, demand for its laundry facilities had halved. The spaces for personal hygiene remained relatively popular through the First World War, but by the 1920s their use was rapidly dwindling as well, as more households had private access to running water.
The final blow came in the 1930s, when the whole of Avon Street was demolished in an ambitious project to regenerate the area. The remaining tenements were swept away and new model flats built in their place, many of which had their own bathrooms. The baths were demolished at this time, and records from this period attest that the decision not to rebuild them for the new community was entirely deliberate. While the facilities had once represented progress and a more enlightened attitude to public health, they were now a reminder of a period that the local authorities wanted to leave behind. Associated with poverty, they were hardly in keeping with the aspirational new district being built beside the Avon, so all trace of the Milk Street Baths vanished beneath the new development. Despite the desires of the powers-that-be to make a clean break with the past, however, echoes of this episode have still survived for Wessex Archaeology to uncover: tangible traces of how communities responded to a public health emergency some 200 years ago, and of the dramatic social shifts that followed.
Cai Mason is a Senior Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology.
Further information Cai Mason, Bath Quays Waterside: the archaeology of industry, commerce and the lives of the poor in Bath’s lost quayside district, Wessex Archaeology, £15, ISBN 978-1911137160. See also www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/bath-quays-waterside.