Cheapside and Huggin Hill Roman Bath Houses

Claudia Vanzo, Volunteer, Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

Archaeological evidence has shown that the two Roman bath buildings found on sites in Cheapside and Huggin Hill were likely to have been built during the late first century, their size indicating that they were public buildings. Both baths were built near the west end of the city as it stood during the second century A.D. They seem to have been extensively modified during the second half of the second century AD and demolished shortly before the end of that century. The demolition of the baths during the late second century is perhaps explained by the reorganisation of the city with the building of the defence wall.

The Huggin Hill and Cheapside baths were two very different types of building. Huggin Hill was a very large and complex establishment prominently located on a terraced hillside overlooking the Thames whilst Cheapside was a small and simple building located on flat ground hidden behind existing buildings and setback from the main street. This would indicate that the status of the two buildings must have been distinctly different. Huggin Hill baths with its size and complexity shows that it was a major municipal bath building whilst Cheapside bath, by contrast, with its small size might have been the bath house for the army at Cripplegate fort. The suggestion that the Cheapside bath was a military bath is based not only on its distinct similarity to other known examples, but also to the absence of evidence of any alternative candidate in London.

The map below shows the location of the Huggin Hill and Cheapside baths, as well as other key Roman sites within the City of London.


The Huggin Hill Baths, Upper Thames Street

The Roman public bath building was identified in 1964. It was situated on either side of the lower end of Huggin Hill in the west of the City. The baths were clearly located on a spring line as it was the small private bath house at Billingsgate in the east of the City.

The dating evidence indicates that that there were at least two phases of construction; the original construction of the bath house dates from the late first century, and the addition of a second suite of baths occurred during the early second century A.D.  The excavated layout indicates that the baths, when viewed from the river, must have had a haphazard appearance with the roofs, both tiled and presumably vaulted being arranged in no apparent order. The reason for this casual layout is probably due to the need to accommodate the baths on the terraced hillside, and to the fact that the building was built in different phases.

Huggin Hill was a double public bath with a series of separate bath rooms as seen at Leicester and Wroxeter. Thus, with its size, enormous by provincial standards, its prominent position and its separate large bathing rooms for men and women the complex must have been a prestige building. This is further corroborated by the location of the Huggin Hill baths as they were located on the waterfront in a district where there is some evidence of other 'public' constructions such as temples, suggesting that it was an area used for public gatherings and possibly entertainment.

Among the fragments of building debris in the dumped deposits, tessellated floors thought to derive from the baths following its abandonment have been found. This would indicate a lavish injection of finance in public building. With so much expense lavished on the building, it is difficult to understand why the Huggin Hill baths were systematically demolished as early as the second half of the second century and the hillside was restored to its former sloping profile. The destruction of the baths was clearly not undertaken for the purpose of replacing it with another public building, since the fragmentary traces of later Roman stone buildings on the site show no re-use of building materials from the baths.

Recent excavations on the site of the Huggin Hill bathhouse
Image courtesy Dr Jane Sidell

The Cheapside Baths

The site lies on the north side of Cheapside, between Milk Street to the west, Honey Lane to the east, and Russia Row to the north and was excavated during 1955-56 by Ivor Noel Hume for the then Guildhall Museum.

The bath building was situated close to one of the Walbrook tributaries to the east,perhaps the water table was sufficiently close to the natural land surface in Roman times for the builders of the bath building to be able to use the natural water supply.

The building as a whole was very solid. The walls had foundations of flint and mortar with the walls above the foundations of about 0.6m thick.

The site lays close to the decumanus maximus, the main east-west street of the city, which used to link Londinium with western Britain. Evidence of some industrial activity during the late first century has been excavated in the area, and it could be argued that it was to serve this that the Cheapside baths may originally have been built. There is no evidence of the date of construction of the baths, but it is unlikely to have been before the Flavian period as it was at that time that Londinium was granted the right to elect a town council and to administer its own affairs, this would have included the right to the construction of public baths. The complex underwent a rebuilding phase,perhaps to include a laconicum (a hot dry room) and to be adapted for military use connected with the nearby Cripplegate fort. This military connection is not altogether certain, however, for it is not easy to understand why it was built beside the main street of Roman London, and at a distance from the fort. Alternatively, the bath might have been associated with an inn or mansion, which lay between the bath building and the main Roman street beneath Cheapside. The date of the destruction of the baths is uncertain, although the existing evidence points to a date not earlier than the end of the second century, when the fort defences were included in the Roman town defences and the fort itself may have been abandoned. It is unfortunate that the bath building was totally destroyed by mechanical excavators in 1956  

Marsden,P. 1976: 'Two Roman public baths in London', Trans. London Middlesex Arch. Soc.27, 1-70