Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Southernhay Baths, Southernhay East

An extraordinary building, and a very short-lived one, the public bath house in Southernhay East was one of Exeter's earliest experiments in Greek Revival architecture. The story begins with the construction of the late-18th century townhouses of Barnfield Crescent, another Georgian housing scheme planned by Matthew Nosworthy in Southernhay. According to Alexander Jenkins, "in digging a drain behind these buildings, the labourers discovered a Bath". The remains of the bath were angular in shape and "built with grey bricks, very hard burnt, and strongly cemented together." Steps led down into the bath but apparently no-one, including Jenkins, had the slightest idea where it had come from for "it did not seem to be of a very ancient date". Roman is the obvious answer but I assume Jenkins discounted this possibility (a large Legionary bath house from the 1st century AD is buried outside the West front of the Cathedral).

The fact that the old bath at Barnfield was being fed from a natural spring suggested "to the architect" the possibility of creating a public bath house, the absence of which in the city had "been long complained of". Jenkins writes that the area was "abounding in fine springs" and "a handsome and very commodious [bath house] is now erected". The problem is that Jenkins' "now" is in 1806 and the Greek Revival bath house shown above wasn't built until the 1820s. Perhaps Nosworthy built a temporary structure that was later elaborated into something else. Who knows.

The Greek Revival Southernhay Baths were constructed between the corner of Dix's Field and the site where a year or so later William Hooper would construct the colonnaded expanse of Chichester Place. The bath's architect was John Lethbridge, one of the founder members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. For inspiration he took one of the most-quoted buildings from antiquity: the choragic monument of Thrasyllus which stood in Athens until its destruction by the Turks in 1827.

In 1789 a plan of the monument's facade above right appeared in volume two of 'Antiquities of Athens' and over the next 60 years the monument, both in its overall design and in its details, was referenced in buildings across Europe. For example, in the early 1800s William Wilkins used the Thrasyllus monument as a model for the side elevation of Northington Grange in Hampshire left.

Lethbridge's bath house consisted of three large entrance porticos, each supported at the corner with pairs of square columns. The entablature was a mixture of angular blocks with balsutrading creating in effect an Attic storey. On the frieze, at the corners of each portico, were classical wreathes. The wreathes, the square columns, the angular blocks of the entablature, all were lifted directly from the monument of Thrasyllus. Surmounting the central portico was an enormous statue of Poseidon, holding a trident and flanked by a sea horse, a suitably watery god to use on a bath house. The bath house opened to the public for the first time on 03 December 1821.

A guide to Exeter published in 1828 stated that the baths offered "cold, hot, plunge, shower, vapour and medicated baths" with an "elegant" interior. In 1828 at least the baths were open from 7am until 10pm during the summer and from 8am until 10pm in the winter but, "in cases of emergency, at any hour"?! However it seems as though the baths quickly ran into difficulties. In 1829 another guide included the following statement: "The public baths...exhibit a classical exterior, and are replete with every internal accommodation, but, unfortunately, the establishment has not met with that success which it so fully deserves".

By 1868 the bath house had proved to be a failure and the entire building was demolished. Robert Dymond, writing in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' in 1879, recollected that "the classical architecture design had some merit, but was being carried out in stucco, or rather plaster, which had become extremely shabby for some years before the removal of the structure." On the empty plot arose the Neo-Gothic, Noncomformist Southernhay Congregational Church, now the Southernhay United Reform Church.

The church was destroyed by bombs in 1942 and only the octagonal 180ft spire and tower survived. The rest of the church was rebuilt in 1956 right using brick, with a shallow copper pitched roof, and in a modernist style totally at odds with both the church it replaced and the late-Georgian terraces that survive nearby. Of the bath house from 1821 nothing remains at all.


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