The History Forum – Archive

Series 1: MAKING A SPLASH: A History of Bathing from Ancient Rome to the Victorians

Since Antiquity water has been viewed, with good reason, as having unique healing properties. Whether taken internally, by means of immersion—both warm and cold—or through taking steam and enjoying a good sweat, water has played a huge part through the centuries as a relaxant and a therapy. This series of lectures will look at the ways in which people in the West have taken to the water in search of miraculous cures for every ailment under the sun … or sometimes simply for sensuous pleasure.

Hydrotherapy: Three Weeks in Wet Sheets

From steam heat to cold blasts. When a journalist going by the nickname ‘The Moist One’ visited Malvern Hydro in 1851 he was told that he had been ‘committing a slow but deliberate suicide by good dinners’. Reluctantly he agreed to be wrapped in wet sheets for … ‘three weeks’. This talk looks at where the hydrotherapy craze came from and why in 1842 two doctors, James Wilson and James Manby Gully, decided to set up competing practices in Great Malvern, a beautiful spa town set in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire. Your eyes will water discovering what the Victorians—including Charles Darwin—suffered in the name of healing.

Pleasures of the Water Cure

A Lot of Hot Air: How the English Fell in Love With Sweating

People have been letting off steam, or rather perspiring, in hot confined spaces for thousands of years. The English came late to all of this steam heat, but thanks to eccentric Scottish diplomat and politician, David Urquhart, the Turkish Bath gained popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. The introduction was not without controversy since many in Britain believed baths to be either decadent or barbaric, and early mishaps with the heating systems—one of which killed Urquhart’s infant son—were sensationally reported in the press. But the population soon showed enthusiasm for a good sweat, and by the end of the nineteenth century an estimated 600 Turkish baths were opened across Britain. Local councils built Turkish baths for the poor, they were added to lunatic asylums, hospitals, in workhouses, ocean liners, Hydros, and even purpose built for animals.

Bain de vapeur

From Spaw to Spa: The Making of Bath

The Romans enjoyed the hot waters of Aquae Sulis hundreds of years before Bath became the elegant city we know today. This talk will look at how Bath was dramatically transformed in the eighteenth century from a rustic, rundown city to a capital of leisure and entertainment, hence becoming the blue-print for all other English spas. Our starting point is in 1704 when a 30-year-old chancer, gambler and opportunist called Richard ‘Beau’ Nash arrives in town.

Comforts of Bath: The Ball

‘What Ever Did the Romans Do For Us?’: Bathing for Health and Pleasure

The historian Suetonius claimed that the best time to ask Emperor Vespasian for a favour was right after his bath—because the Romans knew that bathing relaxed both mind and body, awakened the senses, and improved the mood. How seriously the Romans took bathing can be seen in the astonishing remains of monumental thermae such as the Baths of Caracacalla in Rome. One of the largest architectural complexes of the ancient world, it was completed in 220 AD was the most extensive and luxurious of all the Roman baths. An army of slaves, attendants, trainers, doctors, masseurs, guards and engineers kept this city of water going whilst underground the furnaces and boilers were stoked, a laundry operated and a mill ground flour for bread to serve the thousands of visitors. Even urine from the latrines was recycled and used in wool processing on the premises. Join Melanie as she introduces you to the exotic world of bathing Roman style.

The Baths at Caracalla