Picture this; it’s London 1777, when a London cabbie is ready to drop off his fare and take payment near the capital’s iconic Strand. Unbeknownst to the driver, the passenger had other ideas, and decided that paying for the journey was a big no no.
Fleeing from the taxi, it was suggested in a newspaper report dated 12 November 1777, that the fare dodger ran to hide in the Strand Roman baths after the angry cabbie gave chase.
According to the report, the bilker fell into one of the baths, needing to be saved from drowning.
According to the National Trust, the Strand Lane Bath is exactly where the cistern-house for the fountain was situated. Expert dating of the brickwork of the bath to the range 1550–1650 makes it very probable that the ‘bath’ is in fact some part of the cistern structure.
The redevelopment of the cistern into a cold bath seems to have been the work of a Mr James Smith, who moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid-1770s. By November 1776, he was advertising the opening of the cold bath at No. 33, Surrey-street, in the Strand … for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen, supplied with Water from a Spring, which continually runs through it.
Two years later he enlarged his offering by adding a second, freshly constructed bath next to the first, lined with marble and surrounded by a stone-flagged floor and tiled walls. This is the so-called ‘Essex Bath’ which still survives, minus its cladding, under the floor of the back-basement of what was once, the Norfolk Hotel.
So next time you may be picking up or dropping off by Essex Street, Strand, just picture that cabbie chasing down his fare dodger who nearly lost his life after falling into one of London’s most ancient locations.