Improvements made to Hestercombe, a grand old house in Somerset, at the end of the 19th century were many and varied – glasshouses, a church, a model dairy and a splendid cricket pitch, but one addition was a little more intimate and surprisingly modern.
EWB “Teddy” Portman, the wealthy owner of the house, gifted his wife, Constance, what the modern custodians of Hestercombe claim may be the first “Jacuzzi” bath for a domestic home, possibly as a Valentine’s present.
The eight-tap spray bath is to be shown off as part of an exhibition at the estate that highlights some of the house’s more unusual artefacts.
Portman ordered the installation of the bath in the 1890s and cost him about £45, the equivalent of more than £5,000 now. The bathroom overlooks the formal gardens, which were redesigned by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll and, for added cosiness, has an open fire.
A spokesperson for the house said the bath was unusual and well preserved. “It is an eight-tap spray bath we believe was one of the first Jacuzzi baths installed into a British home by George Jennings Ltd, who was also the inventor of the first public flush toilets. We are confident it is the best preserved bath of its kind in the UK, possibly even farther afield.
“Teddy Portman bought the bath for his wife and it was installed in the 1890s – a Valentine’s gift perhaps. We think we’re so advanced and different today, but these objects show that us humans haven’t changed all that much really.”
The improvements made to the house and estate made a stir in the area, with the Somerset County Gazette reporting that “no fewer than 150 men” were working on the project.
Hestercombe archivist Kim Legate said the bath was designed by the London firm founded by the sanitary engineer and plumber, George Jennings (1810-82). Settings include “wave”, “plunge” and “spray”.
After the deaths of the Portmans, the house was used as a fire service headquarters and got a mention in the Western Daily Press in 1972, at which point the bath still worked. “No one, not even Mr. Johnson [chief fire officer], uses the bath nowadays,” the paper reported. “But it is still in perfect working order. This was proved quite recently by a visiting television reporter who got a soaking when he tried it out.”
The bath will be displayed in the heritage exhibition, Things That Pass a Thousand Times: Unearthing Hestercombe’s Collections, which will also feature one of Jekyll’s trowels, from 12 March-15 May.