Left over from greedy property developers of the 19th century
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
A hundred and forty years separate this former Victorian terrace of four cottages from the imposing presence of the Spring Wharf development. All the old houses that once stood close to it are gone, either destroyed in the Bath Blitz or pulled down decades ago. It is the last remnant of a neighbourhood that was here before.
Once known as numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 Soundwell Cottages, these dwellings were constructed in 1879 near the edge of the River Avon in Twerton. They were houses for the poor: homes for labourers and their families who could only afford to rent places less than fit for habitation.
The terrace was built just yards from the riverbank and only a short height above the river itself. As a result, the homes were exposed to considerable dampness with water flowing into the basements. It must have been sheer hell when the river overflowed its banks.
In 1883 a severe outbreak of typhoid fever swept through these cottages along with the nearby Roseberry Cottages and houses at Roseberry Place. The disease was traced to foul water in the wells (the residents lacked piped drinking water). The Bath Chronicle, 6th December 1883, reported that the poor quality of the wells here was the worst that had ever been brought before the council, the water in some of them being nothing more than diluted sewage. The council set about installing a standpipe to provide the occupants with clean water. The same newspaper reported Alderman Bartrum's observation that:
It was the mere greed of men who sacrificed everything for the love of money, and cared nothing for the poor beings who were bound to live in poverty, that caused such houses to be built in such unhealthy spots.
A little boy drowned
The absence of any fence or rail where the back gardens joined the frayed riverbank was always likely to cause a tragedy, especially considering that children once lived in this row. In July 1880 an eight-year-old boy, sent by his mother to get coal, fell into the river while walking along the bank. His father saw the poor lad's body being dragged out of the river the same day (Bath Chronicle, 5th August 1880). Records show that Henry John Duckett who "drowned in the River Avon" is buried in the cemetery of St Michael's Church, Twerton.
Perhaps it was the bad setting of the cottages that eventually led to them being converted into warehouse or workshop space. Today the site is occupied by a charity furniture project called The Woodworks Project.
How would this terrace of cottages compare with the overshadowing Spring Wharf development? Both were built at a time of obvious housing needs. A series of landslides at Hedgemead in the 1870s and 1880s were among the factors that forced a lot of Bath residents to look for new homes, hence the demand for housing at places such as Soundwell Cottages. And in 2019, the plans for Spring Wharf were approved with the observation that it helped tackle the significant housing shortage in the city.
The expensive riverside apartments at Spring Wharf are a world apart from the substandard cottages constructed by the Victorian developers. Spring Wharf also makes provision for lower incomes by including the requisite percentage of 'affordable' flats. There's nothing in it that could strictly be called social housing though. Its 171 modern apartments with no social housing overlook the remains of the cottages built by 19th-century developers to exploit the poor.