1856, most of our information about Turkish baths came from books written by
travellers returning from Turkey, the Maghreb, or other areas where Islamic
culture was, or had been, predominant.
as Patrick Connor has written, a visit to the baths was, in many 19th century
travel books, a literary set-piece which
often took on ‘a self-conscious,
both the anonymous author of Strictures on the personal cleanliness of the
English and, a few years later, David Urquhart, were, in my view, quite
different from others who wrote of the bath.
because their agenda was different.
these two authors, the Turkish bath was not a curious custom, related by them
merely to interest and entertain their readers—it
was a model, to be admired and, most important, to be copied in order to raise
British ideas of personal cleanliness to contemporary Turkish standards—a
novel concept for a nation of empire builders, busily introducing Christianity
and the benefits of British rule to the poor foreigner.
a time, then, when the majority of Victorians had no indoor running water, let
alone any experience of taking what we think of as an ordinary bath, these two
writers argued that a network of public Turkish baths should be built at public
the two, only David Urquhart achieved even a modicum of success—though, as we
shall later see, he did not do it alone.
In the mid 1830s, Urquhart
spent time as First Secretary to Viscount Ponsonby, the British Ambassdor at
Constantinople—known today, of course, as Istanbul.
Urquhart’s knowledge of, and support for, the Turks made him an enemy of
Palmerston. His support for direct trade with Circassia (implying that it should
become independent) almost dragged Britain into a war with its Russian rulers in
what became known as the Vixen episode, and quickly led to his departure
from the diplomatic service.
while still in Turkey, he frequented public hot-air baths, hammams, in which,
for the first time, he found relief from the intense neuralgic pain from which
he sufffered throughout his life.
1850, he described his visits to Moorish and Turkish baths in a quirky travel
book, The Pillars of Hercules, travel book (it must be said) in which the
author did not eschew flowery language, nor balk at lengthy descriptions.
his two chapters on the bath were written not to entertain, but to proselytize.
At public meetings, he would quote from them at length, always emphasizing the
cleanliness of the Turkish people and the uncleanliness of the British.
fact, the so-called Turkish bath which Urquhart had found, was but a modern
version of the centuries-old hot-air bath of the Romans—which Islam had
adopted, and adapted, from the baths of the Eastern Roman Empire.
in the Islamic hammam, decorative fountains and washing facilities were often
added within the hot air chambers themselves. This makes for a humid, sometimes
steamy, atmosphere and reduces the temperature which can be achieved when the
heated air remains dry.
it was not until he started working with the Irish doctor and hydropathist,
Richard Barter, that Urquhart realised how much the humidity and steam of the hammam
had altered the character of the original Roman baths.
Barter owned the highly successful St Anne’s Hill Hydropathic Establishment,
near Blarney in Co.Cork.
primarily an advocate of the Preissnitz cold-water cure, Barter had also
experimented with the vapour bath, noting that his patients enjoyed it rather
more than the rigours of the cold wet-sheet pack.
In 1856 he came across Urquhart's
book. He later said,7
On reading…Mr Urquhart's
of Hercules, I was electrified; and resolved, if possible, to add that
institution to my Establishment.
discerning the therapeutic advantages of the hot-air bath, he invited Urquhart
to St Anne’s offering him workmen, the money, and the materials necessary to build such a
stayed at St Anne’s for several months.
Together, the two
enthusiasts experimented with different ways of building a bath which could
produce and maintain the high temperatures which were needed, and several
attempts were abandoned in the process.
The committees and the Free Press