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The Southernhay Bath House

A Georgian indulgence

Page added 20th June 2018

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More than 1700 years after Exeter's Roman baths were last in use, a small note appeared in a March 1821 copy of the Exeter Flying Post.

“We understand, some Gentlemen of this City have purchased a spot of ground, adjoining Dix’s Field, on Southernhay, for the purpose of erecting Public Baths, hot and cold; and which will be proceeded on forthwith.”

The idea was prompted when a series of natural springs were discovered by workmen digging a drain behind the newly constructed Barnfield Crescent. Alexander Jenkins wrote in his hiistory of the city:

In digging a drain behind these buildings the labourers discovered a bath, which was supplied with water from a neighbouring spring; this bath was of an angular shape, built with grey bricks, very hard burnt, and strongly cemented together; the steps which led down to it were of the same materials: no account could be obtained, or conjecture formed, by whom or at what time this bath was made; but from appearance it did not
seem to be of a very ancient date.

Who built the angular bath is unknown, although it could have been Roman. Jenkins went on to describe in the second edition of his book that a handsome and very commodious bath house had been erected.

The opening of the baths was proclaimed on the 3 December 1821, with a small advert in the Flying Post, along with a short editorial praising its Grecian style architecture, and elegant accommodation. It was designed by John T Lethbridge, one of the founder members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The building was based on the monument of Thrasyllus which stood in Athens, destroyed by Turkish forces in 1827.

The Neo-Classical facade was striking, although in common with many buildings of the era, it was largely stucco, which would prove problematic in the coming years. An engraving shows three porticos, supported by square, double columns. A statue of Poseidon, holding a trident was placed on the roof. The facility offered the Exeter gentry a range of amenities, including hot and cold baths, showers and medicated baths. The proximity of a natural spring, that had been discovered at Barnfield a few years earlier, was used to feed the baths. Sited in Southernhay, this was no wash house for the poor: this was a facility for the gentry of the city to meet, relax and gossip with their fellows, while women would have their own facilities to retain their modesty.

Subscriptions are down

The next time the baths were featured in the local papers was in January 1827, when there was a downturn in trade. An annual subscription of a guinea was introduced, and new members were offered 8 warm baths, and 4 warm salt baths a year. Without a hundred new subscriptions, the baths would have to close. The next month, a letter to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, stated that many doctors who had backed the opening of the baths six years earlier, were not subscribing, and thus, not supporting the baths. The pleas for custom must have made a difference for a few months later, the baths were repaired, and improved. This shortage of funds would become a pattern, over the next few years.

Henry Hooper, a local builder was instructed in April 1833 to auction the business. One sentence gives a clue to the reason: “and that there is yet left to Exon’s far famed City, an Individual sufficiently spirited to rescue it from the obloquy…” It needed rescuing to survive. It was offered with 48 years to run on its lease, for a rent of £18. It was apparent that a sale did not happen, for in January 1834, the proprietors called a meeting to consider selling or letting part of the premises, a desperate measure. Nothing seems to have happened, and the baths limped on until December 1836 when they were again offered for sale, “to an enterprising person… an excellent opportunity is presented of securing a respectable and certain means of livelihood, by a trifling outlay; and as an additional inducement to a Purchaser, the Ground adjoining is not to be overlooked.

A new owner

A saviour appeared when Mr E W Jackson, purchased the baths, and spent what must have been a considerable amount to modernise, and redecorate them. They reopened in June 1837, with lower charges as an inducement for the local gentry to subscribe, much as a modern gym would do today.

A long article in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, in May 1838, described the many improvements made to the baths. It started by describing how the medical profession promoted the ‘frequent practice of ablution’ to prevent disease. This was only a few years after cholera swept through the poor parts of the city. Jackson stated that as proprietor of the Exeter Public Baths, that he “...well deserved the support of the Gentry and indeed of all classes of citizens”. Under the previous owners the baths had been allowed to fall into disuse, and Jackson had used “taste and judgement” in the refurbishment of the exterior, while the interior made “these Baths equal, in every respect, to any similar establishment in the kingdom”.

The interior was elaborately decorated with a view of the Lakes of Cumberland and the end of the baths, included a real waterfall. The dressing rooms were decorated as a ‘pretty cottage’, and the various facilities were described in some detail.

“There is ample machinery and accommodation for Hot and Cold Baths, Warm and Cold Showers, Sea Water Bath, Douche or Partial Bath, Sulphurous or Medicated Bath so celebrated as a cure for rheumatic affections; and last, though not least, the large Plunge of Swimming Bath, is worthy of particular notice, inasmuch as it forms a very novel piece of river or lake scenery.”

Despite support from letters in the local newspapers, trade was disappointing. Mr Jackson informed the public that he was to call personally on the Gentry and Inhabitants, to persuade them to subscribe.

A testimonial from the landlord of the King’s Arms in Sidwell Street, appeared in the Western Times in 1839.

“Having for several years been a great sufferer from the excruciating diseases of gout and rheumatism, during which time every heard (sic) of means have been used for its ratification in vain—I am happy in pronouncing myself quite restored to perfect health by use of "Jacksons Medicated Baths" on Southernhay, Exeter…”

Jackson ran the baths until March 1849 when he sold them to Dr J T Twycross of Oxford. They were in need of repair, and the building would undergo a programme of improvement. When they reopened, Twycross claimed that bathing in his baths would cure scrofula (a form of TB), cancer and other chronic diseases, especially of the skin. Twycross was soon in rent areas, and the baths were offered to let or sale by the owner at the end of the year. In early 1850 the building was offered for commercial premises, or even as a residence—clearly, the viablity of the baths was at an end. A permanent tenant was not found, and the premises were used for a one off auction of pictures and sketches from nature by Mr Saywell in December 1850. All the time, the stucco structure was deteriating, and the building was fast becoming shabby.

Ironically, as the Exeter Baths finally closed, local philanthropists were making the first moves to build a bath and wash house for the poor of the Westquarter.

In 1868, the foundation stone was laid for the Southernhay Congregational Church on the site of the bath house, and this grand, Neo-Classical building disappeared from Southernhay, and was quickly forgotten,

Sources - Local newspaper reports from the British Newspaper Archive.

Southernhay Bath House The facade of the Public Bath House. Poseidon stands on the roof. Chichester Mews is to the right.Map The bath house was at the northern end of Chichester Mews, in Southernhay. Map from 1850.

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