The remains of one of the UK’s earliest Victorian public washhouses uncovered by archaeologists in Bath has shed light on the solutions for improving the health of the country’s poor during and after the Cholera pandemic of the 1830s.

Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology investigating the Bath Quays area ahead of a flood prevention and regeneration scheme were initially intrigued by an 1852 map of the city, which detailed the location of a ‘Baths & Laundries’ building. Further research revealed the fascinating story behind the public washhouse, located in an area infamous for its crime, disease and poverty in the Victorian period, and its place in the wave of social reform sweeping the country in the mid-1800s.

“Before this point, being unwashed was often seen by the upper classes as a moral failing by the poor, disparagingly referred to as ‘the Great Unwashed’,” said Cai Mason, Wessex Archaeology Senior Archaeologist. “But in reality, it was very difficult for the poor at that time to clean themselves, due to a lack of access to water, fuel, time and space. Nowadays we are lucky; we have taps that instantly give us water, and on average a person in the UK uses about 140L of water every day. Imagine having to carry that volume back to your cramped tenement house, which might contain as many as twenty or thirty people, have enough money to buy fuel to heat it, find some privacy and time to wash yourself and your clothes, and space to dry them out – all around long and arduous working hours at a likely very dirty factory or foundry.”

That all changed with the arrival of Cholera in 1831, which swept through a population with no natural immunity and was noted to spread quickly in poorer, more built-up areas. Cities including London, Liverpool, Bath and Bristol were particularly badly hit. Scientists at the time believed that it was spread by miasma – noxious air given off by dirt, excrement and rotting food.

In Liverpool, an enterprising woman named Kitty Wilkinson began offering her neighbours the use of her boiler to clean their clothes in boiling water and chloride of lime, which it was hoped would give some protection from the disease. Convinced of the importance of cleanliness in combatting disease, she began a campaign to provide public baths and washing facilities for the poor. This was before John Snow’s work to prove the existence of germs transmitted through contaminated water sources became accepted, but the washing solution was taken up by politicians and the first public washhouse was opened in Liverpool in 1841. During the 1840s, a national movement for more public cleaning facilities was sweeping the country as part of a wider campaign to improve public health, and in 1846 the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act was passed.

Examples of an 'inferior bath' (left) and a 'superior bath' (right) from engravings of St Pancras Baths and Washouse

Examples of an 'inferior bath' (left) and a 'superior bath' (right) from engravings of St Pancras Baths and Washouse, featured in The Illustrated London News, 3 January 1846 (© Mary Evans Picture Library)

“What’s significant is that these washhouses became a marker for change – moving towards more enlightened attitudes towards poverty brought about by the need to find a solution to the shocking disease spreading through the slums,” said Cai.

Lord Ashley – one of the leading social reformers of the time – had already co-founded the Baths and Laundry Society in Bath, and plans were completed for the new public washhouse by the time the Act was passed. The archaeological team discovered this washhouse in the heart of what was then known as the Avon Street district – a notorious area, constructed in the 1700s and demolished in the 1930s – synonymous with crime, disease and poverty. 

Wessex Archaeology excavations of the Bath House

Excavations revealed the foundations of a large building which had two phases – the first smaller phase completed in 1847 and then extended almost immediately to meet the needs of the 10,000-strong local population in poverty.

“The washhouse incorporated some sophisticated mechanics and machines; it was a real feat of engineering,” explained Cai. “It had a pump room, powered by three large Lancashire boilers to provide steam and hot water and fed by a reservoir on the roof of the building. There were 24 bath cubicles in total for both men and women, 41 laundry wash stations and an ironing room with drying machines including wringing machines and primitive tumble dryers. It must have been a real hive of noise, activity and chatter. Unfortunately, water was pumped directly from, and back into, the River Avon – along with raw sewage.”

By the end of the 19th century, the washhouse was connected to the mains water supply, but use dwindled as people moved to the growing suburbs and standards of living improved. It was demolished in 1930 through plans to regenerate the area.

Join our webinar Cholera, miasma and the cleansing of the ‘great unwashed’ on Friday 27 November at 1pm to find out more: