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Monday, 18 March 2013

The Royal Waterloo Floating Baths

I was flicking through the online 1819's Ackermann's Repository of Fine Arts   - as you do - when I came upon this fascinating snippet so I had to read more to find out what I could.
Alas, there is nothing much else I could find to add to this! It has been 'recently built and completed with entirely new and substantial materials'  which as I believe this was in the June issue suggests it was completed over the spring and early summer of 1819.   Fortunately the text is nice and clear!   I like the idea of being able to make the depth of the bath greater or less - the latter for the more nervous bather no doubt, and for ladies who generally did not swim - which as a one-time swimming instructor I would have found very useful in the many, and often built to a compromise, baths in which I have taught.  The big bath is pretty small by the standard of most swimming pools, at 24' x 8' [about 7.5m x 2.5m] of course, and the private baths  at 10' x 8' little more than big puddles.  However the chance of private bathing might have overcome such paucity of room to swim properly, especially perhaps for ladies who did not wish the 'incommodious and indecorous practice of public exposure in the Thames'.
What I find fascinating is the description of the Thames as 'a noble river filled with the purest and most wholesome waters in the world' which isn't the way I tend to think of the Thames, and one is tempted to raise a cynical eyebrow and wonder if this is just so much advertising hype unsullied by laws against false advertising - until one recalls the poem 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' by William Wordsworth in 1802:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent , bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 
an earlier poem of his - 1790 - has this to say: 
Glide gently, thus forever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me.
Oh glide, fair stream! for ever so;
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
‘Till all our minds forever flow,
As thy deep waters now are flowing. 
This seems to suggest that far from false advertising, the waters of the Thames were as yet relatively unsullied, and had not reached the level of filth that needed to be addressed by Joseph Bazalgette's drains to deal with the 'Great Stink'  in the Victorian period.  The Regency however was a time when Sadler's Wells was still a village on the outskirts of the metropolis and had been a fashionable spa in its own right. 
So, would a lady think it worth investing £2/2/- for a yearly pass to one of the private baths?  as there are two, may one assume one was for men, and one for women and the plunge bath for mixed bathing?  in this short extract there is so much - and so little, more questions raised than answered.  However there are potential plot bunnies to be extracted here - a young lady bathing becomes confused and finds herself in the wrong 'commodiously fitted up' small dressing room and is compromised; or in the confusion of a large party in the plunge bath, someone is drowned, is it murder or accident?  the management are going to want to hush it up in any case!  just to suggest two thoughts....


  1. Sad that there is so little information available - there is none in Ackroyd's History of London that I can see, a fascinating snippet that slipped between the lines.

  2. I will, of course, be keeping my eyes open for any more on the subject!

  3. This is fabulous. I love the reference to the French. Tweeted.

  4. Many thanks, Ella, glad you enjoyed it!