Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse

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Tucked away in the basement of the most unprepossessing 1960s office block at 101 Lower Thames Street are the remains of a Roman house and baths dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD. The Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse site is only open to the public a couple of times a year – I took the opportunity to visit last weekend as part of the Museum of London’s Festival of Archaeology.

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These remains were uncovered in 1848 during the construction of the Coal Exchange on the site. Our guide shared a lovely story of the Victorians who discovered it building a spiral staircase (now long gone) down to access the ruins, which strikes me as a particularly lovely piece of Victoriana…The site was to become the first designated protected heritage site in London, forming part of the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1882.

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In fact, we are lucky to have it at all. As our guide also explained, the Saxons were more than a little fond of ‘recycling’ old Roman materials. Luckily, those making up the Billingsgate Bathhouse site were saved in part because the area was later covered by a wash of black dirt (some of which can still be seen today on the northern part of the site, pictured above), and also partly by the otherwise destructive force of the Great Fire of 1666, which saw the site further buried under debris pushed down from the hill above.

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The baths themselves were thought to be attached to hotel or inn – or possibly a private residence, though no mosaics (usually a sign of an elite residence) have been found to date. These buildings would have faced directly on to the Thames itself. While the ruins today – which feature part of the bathhouse and part of the East Wing of the Roman house – are indeed quite crumbly, parts of the flues for underfloor heating of the house (seen above), and segments of the bathhouse, in particular the hot room (seen below), are clearly evident.

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Interestingly, I learnt that a much larger public bathhouse – the Huggin Hill Bath House – still remains preserved, but unaccessible, in a shallow basement on nearby Upper Thames Street. It is possible that future redevelopment of that site might allow for public access. Similarly, it is also possible that the 1967 building directly above the Billingsgate Bathhouse site may be demolished, allowing for a better display of these remains, which are currently punctuated by 1960s concrete columns.

In the meantime, the Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse will be open to the public again for the Open House weekend, on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

You may also like to check out David Fletcher’s amazing 3D model of the site – which you can see online here, along with plenty more photos of the site.

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Kilmorey Mausoleum

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I think I may have found a mausoleum that tops even Richard Burton’s in its uniqueness: the Kilmorey Mausoleum in Twickenham’s St Margarets. This £30,000 tomb – a fortune when built in 1854 – was a memorial for the mistress of the 2nd Earl of Kilmorey, Priscilla Hoste, who just also happened to be his ward. Today, the tomb lies in a small garden, no longer connected to the house to which it was originally attached, and on rare occasions you can visit and inspect the contents – including the coffins – for yourself.

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Originally erected in Brompton Cemetery, the Egyptian-style tomb – which thanks to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was very on-trend at the time – was actually re-located twice as the Earl moved around various properties in London. The Earl never allowed either of his two wives to be buried in the tomb, and finally joined his lover in 1880 at the grand age of 92.

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Its final site here was attached to nearby Gordon House, where a tunnel was built under the road to connect the mausoleum to the house. The Earl was said to use this tunnel is his later years, when he would get his servants to wheel him through it – wrapped in a shroud, lying in his coffin – to his tomb, in what some believe was a bizarre practice ritual for his own funeral.

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The mausoleum’s design is impressive – created by Henry Edward Kendall Jr in the Egyptian Revival style, it features cast bronze doors and pink Scottish granite. It is covered with Egyptian motifs, including the the winged sun disc of the god Ra. The skylight stars in the ceiling of the mausoleum allow the sun to project these stars across the coffins at certain times of the day. A large white marble relief carved by Lawrence MacDonald hangs  on one wall, showing Priscilla on her death bed with the Earl at her feet and their son Charles at her side.

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The coffins of the Earl and Priscilla are still very much present on either side of the mausoleum – son Charles refused to take up his allocated shelf. It seems amazing that you can actually enter this small space and stand right next to them. Unlike the rest of the mausoleum, the coffins are very much in Victorian funerary style, with both covered in red velvet. This has very much faded over time, but I was surprised to learn that they had been preserved in a near-perfect state until 1987, when a storm resulted in water damage.

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The Kilmorey Mausoleum is only able to be visited on special open days; it is next open as part of the Open House Weekend on Sunday 22nd September 2013. Openings, events and location details are listed on their website.

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