should it interest us?
has never been a major study of the Victorian Turkish bath.
times, writers such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
(in the eighteenth century)
and Richard Robert Madden
and William Makepeace
(in the first half of the nineteenth) have described visits to a hammam,
sometimes quite amusingly.
today there are a number of excellent works
which deal with Islamic hammams in the Maghreb and Middle East, the Finnish sauna, the Japanese bath,
and the baths of the ancient Greek and Roman world.
Yet the history of the Victorian Turkish bath remains almost
totally neglected. I do not know why this should be so, for it is a
fascinating history, and one which impinges on many aspects of Victorian
life, sometimes quite unexpectedly.
The Victorian 'Turkish Bath Movement'—for undoubtedly it was a
movement—grew from a seed planted in a single (and singular) travel
book, and was nurtured in the pages of a serious and somewhat
humourless political newspaper, The Sheffield free press. We can,
therefore, clearly trace its progress from the first experimental bath
constructed at St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment in Ireland in 1856; follow it
across the Irish Sea to the industrial towns in the north of England, and
the population centres of Scotland; and simultaneously southwards,
through the midlands, until it finally arrives in London four years
later in 1860.
sometime Member of Parliament for Stafford, was a Turcophile and a
Russophobe. In the 1850s he gathered around himself more than a hundred
small groups of working-men—early pressure groups—who called
themselves Foreign Affairs Committees. They actively promulgated
Urquhart's views on foreign policy by holding public meetings, writing
to the press, and petitioning their Members of Parliament. It was
these same working-men who converted their fellows (and often their
wives also) to the use of the Turkish bath, and who themselves opened
many of the first Turkish baths to be built outside Ireland.
Over six hundred Turkish baths have so far been identified in the
British Isles alone. These include baths run by individuals and those by
companies; baths in asylums and hospitals; baths in hotels and hydros; baths in private houses and members' clubs; and even baths
for those travelling in ocean liners, and baths for animals. Yet today, barely a score remain, and of this
still diminishing number, less than half were actually built during Queen
important, therefore, and a matter of some urgency, to document the
history of the Victorian Turkish bath. A few of those who owned or
managed them, and some of those who bathed (and continue to bathe) in
them, are still alive. Unless public awareness of these wonderful
buildings is raised, we may find that the bulldozers have razed the last few
magnificent examples which yet remain
there is much to interest the historian in this unique pioneering
movement which initiated the building of so many Turkish baths, not just
in the British Isles, but in Victorian cities across their Queen's empire.
Urquhart, nor his gifted wife Harriet, have received their due from
historians. Yet both were extremely interesting people, as were many
others who owned, worked in, or merely bathed in, 'the bath'.
And the Victorian Turkish
bath adds to our knowledge of many aspects of Victorian life: the
working-men who might have been campaigning for the vote but who
selflessly concerned themselves with their country's foreign policy; the
mixing of the different classes of society; contemporary sanitary
conditions and people's attitudes to cleanliness; the esoteric ritual
of the Turkish bath; the early provision of bathing facilities for
women; the architecture, furnishings, and decoration of the buildings;
the development of heaters able to raise air to the requisite
temperature; the attitudes of the medical 'profession' to what many saw
as the quackery of the Turkish bath; the use of the bath in Victorian
hospitals and asylums; the rise of the limited liability company and the
founding of the Rochdale Pioneers' co-operative bath.
The list of topics is
infinitely long and varied—a website such as this, seems to be the most
appropriate means of introducing the subject to a wider range of
people than might be attracted by a more traditional book. This is our