Princess Amelia’s Bath-House

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)

For the first time, the layout and structure of the buildings known as Princess Amelia’s Bath-House have been thoroughly investigated by archaeological excavation. The early phases of the restoration work (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund) are nearly finished when the scaffolding is removed, the building will look stunning. The archaeology has been carried out by CmGs, working alongside the architects and builders, and this is a simple description of their findings, taken from their technical report and a lecture given to this Society in March 2001 by Andrew Harris who was responsible for the work.

The Bath-House does not appear on the 1777 Parish Map of Ealing, but by the 1780s another map shows a number of ornamental buildings. The scale is not large enough to make it possible to identify the Bath-House, but it is likely from other evidence that it was there by that time. It looks as though it can truly be identified with Princess Amelia who was at Gunnersbury from 1761 until her death in 1786.

There seem to be three elements to what was essentially a garden folly. The earliest part consists of a grotto decorated with shells, glass, flint and mineral fragments, with a deep bathing pool. There is a chamber to the east and both structures were built mainly of a pinkish red 18lhcentury brick. The wall between these two rooms, however, is built of an earlier soft reddish brick, which was also found in the foundations of the same wall continuing to the south of the Bath-House. The same brick can be seen in walls elsewhere in the Park as well, including the back of the Orangery, and it looks as though the garden wall of the 1660s house was used as a spine against which the Bath-House was constructed. Beside the chamber is the third element, an unenclosed basin, perhaps of slate, which was built against the northern wall.

Gunnersbury Park was divided into building plots for sale separately in 1799 and the two mansions we see today were built to replace the 1660s mansion. Structural evidence suggests that some alterations to the Bath-House were carried out between about 1804 and 1838. When the Small Mansion was sold in 1828 the sale particulars include a description of ‘an ornamental dairy in gothic style with a cold bath’, which is probably the same structure. Beneath the present floor level of the chamber was a tank and a sump, providing the drainage system which suggests that this room was the dairy. It is possible that this was Princess Amelia’s dairy, although the new owner had a number of buildings in gothic style added to his grounds but no detailed record of works on the Bath-House survives from this time, however.

The Rothschilds, who already owned the Large Mansion (now the museum), acquired the Small Mansion and its grounds, including the Bath-House, in 1862 and reunited the estate. By the time the first large scale Ordnance Survey map of the area was published in 1865 most of the present structure was in place. The basin to the north had been enclosed in high brick walls, making a small walled garden. The exterior of these walls, plus that of the bath, had been covered in a cement rendering and gothicised with pinnacles and mouldings. It is difficult to know whether the gothicisation dates from the Rothschild period or earlier.

Though no written record has been found of work here by the Rothschilds, there is evidence of a refurbishment in the 1870s or ’80s in the form of glazed wall tiles, decorated in the Japanese style which was fashionable at the time. They have fine blue bamboo leaves on a white background and they are edged with blue-glazed mouldings which resemble bamboo canes. By this time, the small walled garden had been turned into something much more complex, though once again it is hard to date the changes which could have been carried out under the previous owner. With a small cascade tumbling from a lead pipe at the northern end and disappearing under the floor of the chamber, it had a rough cave-like appearance created with quartz crystals and alabaster fragments, flints, brick slag (possibly a by-product of the Brentford clay industries of the time), an ammonite, and cement stalactites built around metal structures. A projecting vault, which had completely collapsed, added atmosphere to this ‘cave’ or secluded hermitage!

It looks as though these were originally garden rooms where Amelia and her wealthy lady friends could play and later where the Rothschilds indulged their passion for gardening. Dating the creation of the little enclosed garden to the north is the most difficult conundrum to resolve.

Given the extensive publicity given to the garden work of the Rothschilds in contemporary horticultural journals, it is surprising that there seems to be no reference to this most unusual little garden. If it predates the Rothschilds it may have been an amateurish attempt to emulate the style of the plunge bath with the stalactites and rustic appearance, but with added planting of alpines or ferns.

The other puzzle relates to the water supply for this site. It is still not clear how sufficient water was fed to the bath, though its drain has been found. Perhaps a princess had so many servants that a supply could always be bought in manually. Similarly, dairying, even by gentlewomen, requires lots of water. A few fragments of lead pipe have been found but more work is needed to understand the complex water systems in the Park.

By the time of the 1960s Ordnance Survey map the whole Bath-House was in ruins; since then, the archaeologists believe that the grotto garden was filled in with rubbish from other parts of the park and young vandals had pushed in loose pinnacles from the semi-derelict structure. The restoration has given the structure a new roof, restored walls and made the chamber room useable.

At the time of writing there have been some delays in applying the new rendering because of the excessively wet weather of the winter of 2000/2001. When completed a user has to be found for these premises who will guarantee the safety of the structure by occupying the building, but who will also enjoy opening it to visitors at appropriate times.

The next phase of restoration, once funding is secured, will include work on the shell grotto, and a scheme has to be worked out to restore the wet, ferny grotto on the north side.

Val Bott

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