Some 1500 years after they were lost, this controversial architect revealed the Roman Baths to the world.
Bath in Time
Bath Central Library
Bath city Surveyor of Works & Architect 1862-1900
Charles Edward Davis, architect and antiquarian, became one of the most important, if controversial, figures in the changing face of the City of Bath in the Victorian era. His most prominent work is the Empire Hotel close to the Abbey and overlooking the river, but he was especially remembered for his work on the Roman Baths.
He was born in Widcombe, Bathwick, in 1827, the son of Charles Capel Davis & Lucy Haines.
By 1844, just 17, he was studying architecture under his uncle, Edward Davis, a prominent Bath architect who had been a pupil of Sir John Soane.
In 1862, at the age of 35, Charles himself won a competition for the design of the cemetery buildings on the Lower Bristol Road Bath. This helped him to secure him the vital post of Bath’s Surveyor of Works and City Architect, which he held for nearly 40 years.
He liked to be called Major Davis throughout his career as he had joined the Bath Volunteers, the Victorian equivalent of the Territorial Army, and went on to rise to the rank of major.
In 1858 at the age of 31, he married Selina Anne Howarth, who was born in India in 1838. Despite being married for 44 years they had no children.
They lived at 55 Great Pultney Street with two live-in servants and two visiting servants. Sometime between 1881 and the 1901 census, they moved to 18 Bathwick Hill and had 3 live-in servants.
Major Davis was to die in this house in 1902 at the age of 72. His wife, Lucy, died 8 years later in 1910 and was buried with him in Smallcombe.
Major Davis, as he happily chose to be known, was a solid pillar of the Victorian establishment in Bath, dominating the local architectural scene for much of the latter half of the nineteenth century, not only in his role as City Architect but also as a result of his thriving private practice.
He was prolific with buildings large and small all over Bath, including the Ladymead fountain in Walcot Street, Jolly’s Milsom Street shopfront (1879), the Police Station next to the Guildhall (now a restaurant), the Orange Grove next to the Abbey and, his last and largest building, the Empire Hotel overlooking the river, with its curious gables in three different styles and below it the magnificent Grand Parade colonnade at river level. He wrote many papers and lectured widely. Whether or not all his building projects were wholly successful is up for debate, but he certainly produced much of quality.
Major Davis and the Council
However, throughout his time as city architect, he experienced considerable commercial pressure from the Council and had a tricky path to tread. With his forthright personality he fell into conflict with a number of Bath institutions and with numerous prominent citizens. It is hard to find evidence of skillful mediation on his part, so disagreements grew rather than diminished as a result of his handling of these problems, although in his correspondence, however provoked, he remained proper, formal and courteous.
A root cause of problems was his appointment as Bath Surveyor of Works and City Architect while at the same time running of his own successful architectural practice. He expected, and it happened, that much civic architectural work would come his way! Many of his critics seized on this fact and declared a conflict of interests. Whether or not Davis recognized that they had a point, he never admitted it. He was a stubborn and resilient man. The appointment document for his central role in fulfilling Bath City’s architectural and, as it turned out, archeological duties was woolly and flawed, causing continual conflict with the Council and others.
A new Hotel
The first major disaster for Charles Davis was a proposed new hotel close to the thermal baths.
By 1860 Bath was in serious decline; visitor numbers were dwindling, hotels were closing and an air of hopelessness hung about the city. The city authorities decided that they should turn to the great natural asset that the city possessed, its thermal springs. The bathing arrangements were to be revived and new ‘Royal’ baths with a large modern hotel were to be built. Davis embraced this energetically and for a large portion of his career contributed to this cause.
The new hotel, to be called The Grand Pump Room Hotel, was located in Stall Street opposite the current entrance to the Roman Baths. However, the fact that Major Davis not only drew up the specifications and but also entered the competition with 10 other architects was the cause of much disquiet. In 1865 an influential magazine “The Builder” stated that “No architect should place himself in such a position”.
On examination, Davis’s designs were granted first prize with a premium of £200; clearly his designs were worthy. Second place was granted to Wilson and Willcox with £100 being allotted to their scheme. A problem then arose because it was established that Davis’s design was more expensive than his rivals’ and in any event the two most favored schemes exceeded the budget. The Council handled the situation badly and were roundly criticized. The end result was that the outcome of the competition was reversed and Wilson and Willcox were granted the £200 and went on to design the hotel. Their design, a mixture of sixteenth century Palladian and grand nineteenth century French baroque did not look as bizarre as it sounds and produced a much loved building that was regrettably demolished in 1959. For much of its 94-year life it was to be one of the top hotels in Bath, keeping up to its name The Grand Pump Room Hotel.
It declined due to poor treatment by The Admiralty in their Second World War occupation and, ironically, as a result of competition from Davis’s own Empire Hotel which, after its completion in 1901, had more modern facilities and more attractive views.
The unpleasant situation with the Council and others continued, so that by 1865, only three years after his appointment, Davis already had significant enemies. Wilson and Willcox, as well as designing the new hotel, were appointed to create the new Royal Baths. As a result Davis was excluded from the whole scheme.
Typical of the man, he bounced back. Among other projects, he developed a scheme to build a great Winter Garden on the recreation ground with all the amenities associated with such a high Victorian project - but it was rejected.
Ironically, 20 years later, the Council decided to involve him in significant alterations and enlargements to the baths - and this was to be the remarkable work for which he is mainly remembered.
Excavation of the Roman Baths
The 1880s were in many ways a high point of Davis’ career for it was in this decade that he excavated and exposed the great Roman bathing establishment.
In preparation for the new works on the spa baths in 1885, Major Davis went on a continental tour visiting 9 different spa towns, including Wiesbaden,
Baden Baden, Aix Les Bains and Vichy. He became one of the best informed designers of spas in Great Britain at the time, not only ensuring all the best and latest ideas were employed on the spa rejuvenation in Bath but also was consulted by other English corporations owning natural baths such as Harrogate and Droitwich.
Despite his best efforts, the baths project was once again the source of endless conflict for Davis, with claim, counter claim, innuendo and downright abuse, the whole sad story conducted publically. In 1886 part of the new works collapsed and a workman was killed. At the inquest the verdict, perhaps unjustifiably, went against the City Architect, which was manna from heaven for Davis’ enemies.
New paragraphs, mostly taken from Cunliffe:
However, the chain of events leading to the uncovering of the original bathing establishment began with the discovery of the Roman main drain in 1865 by James Thomas Irvine, a remarkable man and an important figure in antiquarian studies in Bath. He introduced Davis to the known Roman stonework and together they surveyed and pumped water out of the King’s (?) bath which was clearly leaking hot water. By 1871 Irvine had moved on but Davis lifted a corner of the lead base. What he discovered was the north-west corner of the Great Bath: the square hole which he made in the lead sheeting of the bottom can still be seen today when the bath is drained.
Davis and his workmen continued tunneling beneath the Pump Room, along walls, through blocked holes and rubble, propping up the buildings above with Roman stones. He wrote:
“After much labour and many weeks of pumping, we cleared away many tons of rubbish consisting of block stones, hypocaust tiles, earth, sand, bones etc, and proved that this ‘well’ enclosed an irregular area. ”
This bland statement belies the enormity of the task accomplished. Davis had removed the King's Bath floor and had totally excavated the upper part of the original Roman reservoir. More to the point he fully understood what he was exposing.
“This wall is the Roman enclosure for the hot springs built to enclose the various sources of the springs. And in my opinion was the first work they did in Bath, and sometime before the grand system of the Baths was commenced. This wall is excellently jointed and is cased with lead averaging in weight 30 lbs to the square foot.”
In the two years which the project took, 1878-9, Charles Davis had succeeded in stopping all the major leakages from the spring, preventing contamination, and establishing a control of the waters greatly in advance of anything that had been done since Roman times. He had also whetted the appetite of the antiquarian world with his lectures to the Society of Antiquaries and with a fascinating array of finds from the excavation.
A lifelong and bitter enemy of Davis’ appeared during his work on the Roman baths in the form of Richard Mann, a local builder employed by Davis during the discovery and consolidation work. Initially the two men got on well, but Mann communicated the results of the remarkable work to the academic world, in direct conflict with Davis’s own role as he saw it. This rivalry resulted in Mann’s dismissal from the project, a slight which he never forgave. Mann teamed up with a local clergyman the Revd. F.A.H.Vinon, curate of St John’s the Baptist, Bathwick, to launch continual assaults on Davis’s work and reputation over a long period. Davis did not get everything right during his excavations of the baths, for example was involved in the destruction of the old Queens bath, constructed in 1597, which was removed in 1886.
Davis also became involved, as part of the new works, in supporting a Council plan to substantially increase the planned new bathing facilities in a way that would have interfered with some of the Roman structures, especially the Circular Bath. Here he was guilty of a major error of judgment and drew to himself a tirade of criticism and abuse. After a round of surveys, reports and vicious anonymous pamphlets, the Council committee invited the well-known London architect, Alfred Waterhouse RA, to provide them with a professional opinion, which was surprisingly positive:
“For the general way in which your Architect has arranged for the exhibition of the Roman remains in the basement, while not sacrificing his space for bathing purposes, I have nothing but praise. Almost everything of interest he is leaving uncovered, or at any rate accessible.”
Davis was exonerated and the Council eagerly passed a resolution of confidence in their architect. Although highly personal anonymous attacks continued, probably by the vicar, another also anonymous correspondent in the local press wrote:
“The existence of the great Roman Bath has been transferred from the region of conjecture to the region of fact. We owe this entirely to the enthusiasm and unwearied zeal of Major Davis, and no fair mind can deny him the credit of being the practical discoverer of the great Roman Bath. More credit than this he has never claimed; less than this only the churlish and envious will grudge him.”
On the other hand, another instance where Davis work remains controversial was in the destruction of the old Queens bath, constructed in 1597, which was removed in 1886. Considering the way in which sixteenth century buildings are valued today, such a demolition would not have been sanctioned; another way would have been found to solve the problem.
His work on the baths has since been vindicated by prominent 20th century archeologists, including Sir Barry Cunliffe CBE Emeritus Professor of European Archeology. Whilst a number of his opponents came out badly, with personal pride and arrogance blighting their cause, Davis by contrast showed himself capable of steering a middle course, carefully balancing his role as the city architect and his academic responsibilities as an antiquarian.
By the late 1880s Davis had become tired of the arguments and tumult surrounding the baths and had rather lost interest in them – but it was not over yet.
The Affair of the Envelope
The next major conflict was the Affair of the pump Room Competition; this sad saga begins in 1892, when Major Davis was 65 years old. The City Council wanted to develop the site immediately to the east of the Pump Room as a new concert hall and roof over the Roman baths at the same time. The idea was eminently sensible and had it been followed in detail the Roman baths might have been even more intelligible to a visitor than they are today. Again Davis’ enemies came to the fore and, rather than Davis being instructed to proceed with the project, it was decided to go out to open competition. The proposals were to be submitted anonymously, with an accompanying envelope revealing from whom the scheme came. The winning scheme was that submitted by Major Davis but when the identifying envelope was submitted there was nothing in it – Major Davis in his rush to get his designs in on time had forgotten to put his details in the envelope! His enemies insisted that Davis’ designs be discarded, which in the end did happen though the reason was given that they were too expensive. This was a big blow to Davis because it denied him the chance to complete his life’s work on the Pump Room and Baths. The project ended up with J.M.Brydon whose work on the Guildhall extensions are indeed creditable, but the adoption of his designs meant that the Roman baths remain unroofed to this day and his concert room proved to be acoustically the worst hall in Bath.
When considering Davis’ buildings it has to be remembered that he did not employ a definitive style. His style ranged widely, as illustrated in his Bath buildings, for example the Italianate, Queen Anne revival, Romanesque, Arts & Crafts, early French and Free Classic approaches to design. Davis was not unusual in his employment of varying styles, it being quite common amongst architects at that time. As can be seen in his final triumphal project.
The Final Major Project
(Orange Grove, The Empire Hotel and the Grand Parade.)
Major Davis had always nurtured three major ambitions:
To build a large city hotel.
To fulfill the requirement of his employer, Bath City Council, to form a road link along the river between Pulteney Bridge and Pierrepont Street.
To open up the view to the east, from the Abbey to the river, the recreation ground and beyond.
These all came to fruition in the late 1890s in the area of the Orange Grove, at the east end of Bath Abbey, which was not the open space that it is now.
The story goes back to 1572 when the Abbey Church and its “litten” or churchyard came into the hands of Bath Corporation. Other parts of the land were in private ownership. In 1705-8 a plain row of houses and shops was built along its south side, followed by a large block known as Harrison’s Lower Assembly Rooms, the first at home of BRLSI (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution). Then in 1718 a coffee house was built and enlarged. Then two magnificent private houses. The first was originally named “Iron Gates” but later “Nassau House”, after the Prince of Orange’s visit to Bath in 1734 when he stayed in the house, was built by 1728. * The second, ”Winchester House”, was equally grand with a large obelisk added. Also on the site were a brewhouse and pub, pig-stys, slaughterhouses, fishmongers, an ‘aerated water manufactory’, various market stalls and the old Monk’s Mill – which had conveniently burnt down.
Much of this was to be demolished if the Abbey was to be opened up to the river. Furthermore, with the rise of Milsom Street, Queen Square and the Circus area, Orange Grove had faded. Nassau House had become a dye works and the area gradually became the focus of plans to create a new urban space, badly needed by the city to encourage visitors and residents alike.
Orange Grove and Police Station
Davis set to work. He refaced the entire length of the houses on the south side of Orange Grove, updating the gables and fenestration and placing above each of the first floor windows attractive shell hoods, still a feature today.
Better still one of Davis’ earliest buildings was already there, one of his best, a tiny version of a sixteenth-century Italian palazzo, namely the little police station next to the Guildhall, which served as a police station for 101 years from 1865 to 1966. It is an accomplished building designed by Davis when he was 36. It is a restaurant now but that is to be welcomed because the building is alive and cared for, allowing free public access without the associated traumas of visiting it as a police station.
The Empire Hotel and Grand Parade Colonnade
Before examining the last project that Major Davis himself undertook, the Empire Hotel, one should consider the Parade Gardens colonnade which seem to hold it up. This was the Grand Parade, the long-desired roadway linking Pultney Bridge with the south of the city, with the roadway above and a walkway and restaurant at river level below. (See photos with waitress!) This pleasing colonnade with its Italianate balustrading and Tuscan columns can only be properly seen from the riverside walk to the River Avon or from Parade Gardens themselves. Although up to the 1930s the walkway had been the location of tea rooms with coloured glazed tiles to the walls, the Admiralty occupied the building in WWII and the colonnade was variously used as a rifle range and storage area with no public access. After closure for so many years, plans were announced in 2015 to reopen it, which would be welcomed by many.
Despite receiving constant changes of instructions from Bath City Council to achieve the City’s ambition to link Pulteney Bridge directly with Pierrepont Street, Major Davis kept on trying to achieve the goals set him by the City, never giving up until he had finally completed the link in 1901 - an example of his steadfast and determined dedication to his duty.
Alongside all this work, by 1899, he was finally able to start on the one major project he had always wanted, a new grand hotel for Bath. The Empire Hotel was completed in 1901. It incorporates various styles, predominantly Queen Anne revival but with other styles creeping in. The first floor balconies are drawn perhaps from the chateaux of Francois 1er at Blois or Chambord. There is a Jacobean corner tower, Dutch gables on the top floor and Arts and Crafts ornamental tile-hung gables alongside. Bizarrely, the roofline represents variously a cottage, a manor house and a castle.
This building has been variously described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as:
“…a monstrosity and an unbelievable piece of pompous architecture”
and by Mike Jenner in his “The Classical Buildings of Bath” as :
“…his largest building and his worst. The lumpen Arts and Crafts Jacobethan Empire hotel of 1902 is simply an enormous heap of ill-related architectural motifs”.
Dr. Michael Forsyth in his Pevsner Architectural Guide to Bath describes the building as:
“…an enormous and eccentric Queen Anne Revival building… It is the last monument to the Victorian city, and marks the end of an era, the brief flowering of the spa already over”.
Later Sir Barry Cunliffe wrote more softly:
“Davis is the only architect Bath has ever had who has appreciated the enormous potential of the city's river frontage… The Empire Hotel and its Parade must have been a source of great satisfaction to the old man - the culmination of his life's work in Bath. In many ways the brash egotism of the hotel is a reflection of its creator. It is the mature, expansive expression of a man who for so long had been constrained and thwarted by the small-minded and the jealous. Is it too fanciful to see in the hotel the Major's revenge? The building was completed early in 1901: within a year Davis was dead.”
The Empire was listed Grade 11 (?) in 1989. When the building came up for redevelopment in the late 1990s there was much debate as to the merits of its retention or demolition. It was a close run thing but it survived to become apartments with ground floor restaurants, so it is again a building with public access, its Admiralty controlling years over. It is undoubtedly out of scale with its surroundings and jars badly with Bath Abbey. It dominates much of central Bath with its looming presence. It is and will remain controversial, perhaps a fitting monument to its designer Major Charles Edward Davis.
In summary, Major Davis was an energetic, flamboyant, hardworking and perhaps a somewhat brash and over confident character. He always believed in his own judgment when challenged by others with what he saw as unfair or irrational arguments. Given his character, abilities and the circumstances that he found himself living and working in Bath, he inevitably experienced much conflict. Who knows how much he relished the fight – one thing is for certain, he never gave up.
The turbulent times in Major Davis life were always there after 1862; The “Bath Herald” commented in his obituary notice that his official life was “clouded with troubles with his committees and more than once things reached breaking point”. It is a sadness considering all that Major Davis contributed to Bath that after several attempts by his enemies to have him dismissed they finally partially succeeded at the end of his life. In early 1900 he was relieved of most of his duties, to remain only in charge of the baths and provision markets. He was granted a salary for his remaining work of £400 but this was essentially a pension.
Freemasonry, Art, Lit Soc etc
The squabbles and disagreements led to some disappointments in Major Davis’ professional life and the criticism, which was not always fair, reduced the contribution he could have made to the city, perhaps leading him to make some errors of judgment. For a man like Major Davis working within the confines of local government was always going to be irksome. Not suffering fools gladly, he did not enjoy the narrow-minded pettiness of Victorian Bath. But Davis was able to make good and lasting friends, despite creating envy, even hatred in others.
He also played an active part in the wider civic life of the city, becoming a prominent Freemason and a Freeman of the City. He was a founder of the Bath School of Art and went on to be its Honorary Secretary for 24 years. For 12 years he was Honorary Secretary of the Royal Literary Institution. He later became the Local Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries as a result of his work exposing and preserving the Roman Baths.
His only mild eccentricity was his breeding of deerhounds and he was seldom to be seen in public without a hound in tow. He did not always control his dogs properly, once resulting in an order to restrain them, which was not received by him “in quite the proper spirit”. Typical of the man, he eventually became President of the Deerhound Society.
A weakness in his personality comes through when examining his limited antiquarian writings where he displayed an arrogance arising out of uncertainty. He gained little reputation as an archeologist. Thrown into the academic world by his discovery and excavation of the Roman Baths, he was out of his depth in an environment of highly qualified academics, but was not prepared to admit it. However his numerous conflicts over the Roman Baths excavations did not expose him in an altogether bad light; a number of his critics gained little admiration as a result of their unreasonable behavior, all of which Major Davis had to suffer. Notwithstanding this he continued to carry on with this work on the Baths in a mostly sensitive and capable way. During the 1972 excavations of the Roman Baths it was found that Major Davis’ care of the baths had been immaculate. His persistence at having so much carefully uncovered is deserving of much praise and thanks by subsequent generations. )
The Winter Gardens on the Rec
Davis never dropped the idea of building a grand new hotel in Bath; he developed a scheme to build a great Winter Garden and all the amenities associated with such a high Victorian project on the recreation ground but it failed. Typical of the man, he bounced back and by 1901 finally built his grand Bath hotel in the form of The Empire Hotel.
Lists of Works
Examples of Major Davis’ buildings and projects in and around Bath
Major Davis designed many different types of buildings in Bath and its surroundings, with some examples listed below.
Secular Works in Bath
Ladymead Fountain, Walcot Street 1860
Cemetery Buildings, Lower Bristol Road, Bath competition designs 1862
Technical Schools designed late 1860s
Shakespeare Memorial, Royal Victoria Park 1864
Police Station, Orange Grove 1865
Quiet Street, north side façade rebuilt 1871
Jolly’s Milsom Street shopfront 1879
Royal Victoria Park bandstand 1880
Cross Bath restoration 1880s
New Queen’s Bath 1886 -9
New Royal Bath extension 1880s
Pump Room modernization 1888
Orange Grove, south side re-facing and adding a tower at the east end 1897
Empire Hotel and Grand Parade 1899-1901
Crescent Fields estate layout and design of houses in Crescent Lane and Marlborough Lane
Old Bridge improvements
Institution Gardens improvements
Churches and Chapels
All Saints Dunkerton rebuilt 1858 -60
St Thomas a Becket Widcombe restoration 1860-61
Lyncombe and Widcombe cemetery chapel 1862
St Nicholas, Bathampton restoration of chancel 1865
St Matthew Widcombe reredos 1870
St John the Evangelist, Weston enlargement 1870
St Mary Magdalene, Longridge restoration 1872
St Peter’s Twerton 1879
St Saviours, Larkhall chancel 1882
Also restoration works at Newton St Loe, Freshford, Priston, Stanton Prior, Swainswick, Marston Bigott, Marshfield, Rode
Weston-Super-Mare cemetery 1855
Trowbridge Cemetery 1856
Market House Trowbridge 1861
Prof. Barry Cunliffe – Major Davis: Architect and Antiquarian – Bath History
vol. i, 1986
Neil Jackson – Nineteenth Century Bath: Architects and Architecture
Dr. Michael Forsyth – Bath: Pevsner Architectural Guides
Sir Banister Fletcher – A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method
Mike Jenner – The Classical Buildings of Bath
Continental Baths, as reported by the City Architect to the Hot Mineral Bath Committee, July 1885, Bath 1885 – pamphlet B613122 Bath City Library
Trevor Fawcett & Marta Inskip – The Making of Orange Grove
Sidney Lee – Davis, Charles Edward Dictionary of National Biography 1912 supplement 1
Wickipedia – Empire Hotel, Bath
Sheila Edwards – Charles Edward Davis F.SA.A 1827 – 1902
Bath Historic Environment Record – Archeological Evidence – The Grand Parade Colonnade and Vaults, Bath
Donald Insall Associates – The Empire Hotel, Bath: Alterations to Flat Roof and High Level Access Provision
List Entry Summary – Empire Hotel: List entry number 1394205
Historic England – Empire Hotel – List Entry Summary
Bath in Time – Major Charles Edward Davis 1827 – 1902
BBC – your Paintings – Major Charles Edward Davis 1827 – 1902
Philip Bendall – Charles Edward Davis
Mowbray A. Green – The Eighteenth Architecture of Bath
Walter Ison – the Georgian Buildings of Bath
Bath & North East Somerset Council – Ladymead Fountain, Walcot Street Bath
Buried in Smallcombe Cemetery, position C.TR. 18 on the right close to the main entrance adjacent to the path, 8 rows up. in