There are but a few remnants of Roman London underneath the office blocks and skyscrapers, most of them have been long since built over or destroyed, but a handful have managed to survive through to the modern day, and the Roman House and Baths in Billingsgate is one of them. A private house with its own bathhouse, its survival is unusual as despite having been found by the Victorians, who had little regard for such things, it was protected and preserved and is now open to the public on special guided tours.
The Romans arrived in England in 43AD and quickly conquered the south, establishing Londinium in what is now central London. They remained for about 350 years and in that time London became a densely populated and thriving capital city, filled with all of the buildings you would expect in a major Roman city. Most of it has vanished, log since built over, but some sections of the Roman wall and a few buildings have been found, such as the Mithraeum and amphitheatre, both of which are open to the public as free museums.
Billingsgate House is unusual as it is not open as a museum and still looks like an archaeological site. It has not been packaged into a museum format, there are no sound and light shows, no interpretation boards, multimedia screens or curated displays of finds in glass cases. Instead this is a raw and elemental dig site, hidden away underneath a very bland office building which can only be accessed by guided tour on certain days. The finds are packed away in cardboard boxes which line one wall, and a few visual aids sit on a table. The whole place has a very exclusive feel to it, you are not following in the footsteps of thousands of other tourists, this is very much off the beaten path, even though you are in central London.
The entrance is through some nondescript doors and you wait for your tour in a bare concrete room before descending down narrow utilitarian steps to the basement. There is a small mezzanine level and metal walkways which take you over the ruins and two London City guides talk you through the history and show you around.
This house is the only private house which has been found in London, and dates from around 190 AD. The house was originally built right by the Thames, which was far wider back then, and would probably have been U-shaped, although one wall has yet to be discovered. The bathhouse was built about 50 years after the house and was situated in its courtyard. It was a private bathhouse, not one of the usual public ones which the Romans are famous for, as they had a very social aspect to bathing. This one may have been built as a result of the nearby public baths closing down in about 200AD - this one is smaller and more functional, intended for use by the inhabitants of the house only.
There is a model on display to show you how it would have looked. The bath house had three rooms, two of which had underfloor heating using the well known hypocaust system. You would enter into the frigidarium or cold room before moving into the caldarium or steam room, and then tepidarium or warm room, both of which had underfloor heating. The remains of the furnace can still be seen and is where a slave would have been feeding it with wood to generate the heat. People would have gone round the rooms several times, in a process of steaming, covering themselves in oil which would then have been scraped off with a special tool to remove the dirt. People would wear clogs on their feet to protect them from the heated floor.
The whole system used in the construction was well thought out and you can see ventilation channels and gaps in the bricks and walls to avoid the buildup of smoke.
There are no mosaics in the bathhouse, showing it was probably more functional than decorative or for showing off wealth but you can still see the tesserae tiles which were used. There is no indication of who would have lived there but archaeologists think it would have been a prosperous person who may have worked at the basilica, which is now under Leadenhall Market
On display are a few tiles found which were found here, and common to building sites across time, a couple have paw prints in them and there is one with a badger's hoof imprint. The tiles were made in Hampstead Heath and the stone used to build the house was bought from nearby Kent. Not many artefacts were found in the house.
The Roman walls were built in 200AD and were extended to include a riverside wall around 280AD which would have removed the view for the occupants of the house. The site was in decline by the third century and it clearly went through a change of use, possibly being turned into a boarding house, hotel, or even a brothel. You can see where one of the heating channels was bricked up to make it smaller so it was less costly to run. Eventually, the house collapsed in on itself and nature took over, alder trees grew amongst the ruins and the site was forgotten.
The Romans left around 450 A.D. and the area inside the Roman walls remained unoccupied until the 880s. The Saxons had built Lundenwic, which is to the west of the Roman city, and only when their city was under threat from the Vikings did King Alfred move everyone back into Roman London and rebuilt the Roman walls.
An Anglo-Saxon brooch was found at the site which dates from the late 400s, so people were exploring the undergrowth or perhaps blackberry picking over the ruins. There was also a metal coin hoard found in the hearth area which dated from 380AD.
The Victorians used the site to build a Coal Exchange, coal being one of the mainstays of the economy. James Bunning the architect found part of the ruins when it was being built and unusually for the time, preserved them. Visitors could apply for special permission to go down to see them, although no one really knew quite what they were. The Coal Exchange was a majestic imposing building which was opened with much fanfare in 1848 by the future Edward VII in his first public appearance.
In an act of architectural vandalism, the Coal Exchange was knocked down in the 1960s to widen Lower Thames Street, and some hideously bland office buildings were erected. During this process they found the rest of the house and bathhouse that you see today, preserving them in the basement.
A visit here gives a fascinating glimpse into the historical underbelly of London, with its setting in a basement making it all the more intriguing; unsanitised, uncurated and with a tour from two excellent guides really is the best way to see it.
How to visit the Roman House and Baths at Billingsgate
You can find tour dates on Eventbrite - follow City of London Guides.
Tours last just under an hour.
They do not run year round due to having to maintain strict heat and moisture levels.