From Swindon to Swindon

Mary Beard

  • Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us by Ferdinand Mount
    Simon and Schuster, 438 pp, £20.00, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84737 798 2

In February 1863, the newly founded Roman Bath Company opened its first premises in Jesus Lane, Cambridge. Behind an impressively classical façade, designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, was a labyrinth of hot and cold rooms, and swimming pools, vaguely reflecting the layout and practice of an ancient Roman bath. Local worthies had invested considerable sums of money in the venture, in return for free entry. Others were to be admitted for a hefty fee: two shillings and sixpence (more than a day’s wages for an agricultural labourer) bought only the most basic, no-frills public bathing; the ‘large douche’ and the ‘running Sitz-bath’, the 19th-century version of a Jacuzzi, were to be enjoyed only for an extra shilling and sixpence. If you wanted a private session, you were charged three times as much.

It turned out to be a commercial disaster: the baths closed before the end of the year, with the company deep in debt and embroiled in litigation. Before long, Wyatt acquired the building, presumably in some kind of settlement for his fee, and it became the home of the Pitt Club (Cambridge’s equivalent of the Bullingdon). It is now a branch of Pizza Express: Wyatt’s marvellous façade survives intact, but the plunge pool (still with its columns and mirrors) has become the main dining-room.

Why it was such a failure is not clear. Over-enthusiasm combined with amateur financial planning were part of the problem (out of capital of less than £2000, they proposed to pay the managing director alone £350 a year). But Cambridge may in any case have been an unwise place in which to launch a venture of this kind. The locals, it’s been suggested, were never likely to be enticed away from bathing in the Cam (and certainly not if the alternative cost two and six). Ferdinand Mount, who discusses the 19th-century reinvention of Roman bathing in the first chapter of Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, takes a different view. He puts the failure down to the fact that most of the academics were still in holy orders: ‘They were the last people you would expect to be converted to the cause of self-pampering.’

Whatever the reason for their failure, the history of the Cambridge baths is a nice case of the ambivalence of the modern world’s engagement with the ancient. It shows the combination of enthusiasm and lack of interest, learned reconstruction and total miscomprehension that underpins most attempts at the revival of antiquity. In fact, there are clear signs that many people at the time found the project not only ill-advised but faintly ridiculous. In January 1864, the unfortunate Mr Swan, who had provided the furniture for the baths but had never been paid, went to court to recover some of his money. His lawyer explained that his client had supplied sofas and settees for the different rooms in the establishment. When he actually spoke the names of the rooms – Tepidarium, Calidarium and Frigidarium, as in an ancient Roman bath – the courtroom burst into laughter.

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