By Tim Lambert
There is a legend that Bath was founded in 860 BC when Prince Bladud, father of King Lear, caught leprosy. He was banned from the court and was forced to look after pigs. The pigs also had a skin disease but after they wallowed in hot mud they were cured. Prince Bladud followed their example and was also cured. Later he became king and founded the city of Bath.
In reality it is not known exactly when the health-giving qualities of Bath springs were first noticed. They were certainly known to the Romans who built a temple there around 50 AD. The temple was dedicated to Sul, a Celtic god, and Minerva the Roman goddess of healing. (The Romans hoped to please everybody by dedicating it to both gods). They also built public baths which were supplied by the hot springs.
In the 60s and 70s AD, a town grew up on the site of Bath. It was called Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sul. In the late 2nd century a ditch was dug around Roman Bath and an earth rampart was erected. It probably had a wooden palisade on top. In the 3rd century, it was replaced by a stone wall.
In the 4th century, Roman civilization began to decline. The population of Roman towns decreased and trade shrank. The last Roman soldiers left England in 407 AD. What happened to Bath afterward is not known for certain. Some people probably continued to live within the Roman walls and Bath was probably still a market for the local area. However, the old, grand Roman buildings fell into disrepair and were replaced by simple wooden huts.
After the Romans left the Saxons invaded Eastern England. In 577 AD they won a battle at Dyrham. They then captured Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester. The Saxons took over the settlements and life went on.
In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns across his kingdoms called burghs (from which we derive our word borough). If the Danes attacked all the local men could gather in the nearest burgh to fight them. Bath was one such burgh. By the 10th century, it had a mint. So by that time, Bath must have been a flourishing, although small, community. In 973 Edgar, the first king of all England was crowned in Bath.
Bath in the Middle Ages
In 1088 a rebellion occurred. The rebels sacked Bath and burned the monastery but the town soon recovered. The local Bishop moved his seat to Bath and in the early 12th century a great abbey was created which dominated Medieval Bath. The present building dates from the very end of the Medieval period. Oliver King was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1495 to 1503. In 1499 he dreamed of angels ascending and descending ladders to Heaven. He heard a voice telling ‘a king’ to restore the church. The Bishop took the dream to mean he should rebuild the abbey.
During the Middle Ages, the church also ran 2 almshouses in Bath, St John the Baptists, and St Catherines. There was also a leper hostel outside the town walls. During the Middle Ages people still came to Bath to bathe in the hot springs hoping it would cure them of their ailments.
In 1189 Bath was given its first charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The main industry in Medieval Bath was the manufacture of woolen cloth. The wool was spun. It was then fulled, that is it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by a watermill pounded the wool. The wool was then stretched on tenterhooks to dry. It was then dyed.
Bath in the 16th century and 17th century
Henry VIII closed Bath Abbey in 1539. Most of its buildings were then demolished. During the 16th and 17th century the wool trade in Bath slowly declined. Increasingly Bath came to rely on sick people coming to bathe in the springs, hoping for a cure. It received a boost in the early 17th century when Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, came hoping to be cured of dropsy.
In 1590 Queen Elizabeth gave Bath a new charter. From then on Bath had a mayor and aldermen. There were some improvements in the little town. Bellots almshouses were built in 1609. In 1615 a ‘scavenger’ was appointed to clean the streets of Bath. In 1633 thatched roofs were banned because of the risk of fire. However, like all 17th-century towns, Bath suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1604, 1625, 1636, and 1643.
In 1642 came civil war between the king and parliament. In 1643 Bath was occupied by parliamentary troops. In July 1643 they fought a battle against the royalists north of the town. The royalists were victorious. The parliamentary army withdrew from the area and the royalists occupied Bath. However, by 1645 the king was losing the civil war. In July 1645 the royalist commander in Bath surrendered to parliament.
In the late 17th century Bath continued to be a quiet market town. It largely depended on its springs. From 1661 Bath water was bottled and sold.
Bath in the 18th century
In the 18th century, Bath became a much more genteel and fashionable place. It boomed in size. This was largely due to the efforts of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash 1674-1762 who was made Master of Ceremonies. Many fine buildings were erected in Bath in the 18th century. A Pump Room was built in 1706 (although the present one was built in 1795).
Architect John Wood the Elder 1704-1754 built Queen Square in 1728-1739. He built The Circus in 1754-60. His son John Wood the Younger was born in 1727. He built Royal Crescent in 1767-1774. He also built Assembly Rooms in 1769-71. The Octagon was built in 1767 and Margaret Chapel was built in 1773. Pulteney Bridge was built in 1774. It was named after William Pulteney the first Earl of Bath and it was designed by Robert Adam.
From 1718 attempts were made to pave and properly clean the streets of Bath and to light them with oil lamps. A general hospital was built in Bath in 1742 and the first bank in Bath opened in 1768. Sydney Gardens opened in 1795. During the Summer Georgian Bath was full of rich visitors. They played cards, went to balls and horse racing, went walking and horse riding.
However, the high life was only for a small minority. There were a great many poor people in Bath, as there were in every town. Despite the fine architecture, there was also plenty of squalor and overcrowding in Bath.
In the late 18th century the great astronomer William Herschel lived in Bath.
Bath in the 19th century
In 1801 Bath had a population of 33,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. However, during the 19th century Bath lost its importance. It doubled in size but the new industrial towns grew at a much faster rate. Bath remained a market town, popular with tourists and shoppers.
Theatre Royal was built in 1805. The Kennet and Avon canal opened in 1810. Royal Victoria Park was laid out in 1830 and Parade Bridge was built in 1835. Bath was linked to Bristol by rail in 1840 and to London by rail in 1841.
Like all cities in the 19th century, Bath was a dirty and unsanitary place and it suffered an outbreak of cholera in 1849.
However, conditions improved later in the 19th century. From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Bath. Also in 1880, the old Roman baths were rediscovered. The first electric streetlights in Bath were switched on in 1890. Henrietta Park opened in 1897.
Bath in the 20th century
By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Bath had grown to over 65,000.
From 1904 electric trams ran in the streets of Bath but in 1939 they were replaced by buses.
The first council houses in Bath were built in 1907. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s (many of them to replace slums) and more still after 1945.
Bath was bombed during the Second World War. A raid in April 1942 killed 21 people and damaged or destroyed 1,500 buildings.
The American Museum opened in 1961. The Fashion Museum was founded in 1963. Bath University was founded in 1964. The Southgate Centre was built in 1972. The Museum of Bath At Work opened in 1978 and the Postal Museum was founded in 1979. The Herschel Museum of Astronomy opened in 1981. The National Centre of Photography was founded in 1981. Bath Museum of English Naive Art opened in 1987.
Also in 1987 Bath was declared a World Heritage Site. The Podium Shopping Centre opened in 1989. The Building of Bath Museum opened in 1992. Then in 1997, a Farmers Market opened in Bath.
Bath in the 21st century
Today Bath continues to thrive on tourism. In 2006 a new spa opened in Bath. Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein opened in 2021. In 2023 the population of Bath was 109,000.