Victorian Turkish Baths

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline
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2. The bath in general

Not all illustrations poked fun at the bathers. Mr Punch's visit to a Turkish bath in 1861 was recorded by a so far unidentified artist in a relatively straightforward manner.

Punch goes to the Turkish bath

Anxious to preserve our figure,
we take a Turkish bath!

And when, five years later, George Du Maurier drew At the Turkish bath for Punch, such establishments were already becoming popular and were to be found in an increasing number of towns and cities around the country. But the caricature was still considered amusing enough to be included in a series of humorous postcards published by Evelyn Wrench at the turn of the century.

Come as you are.

At the Turkish bath

Smith (abstractedly). "I say, Brown, come and Dine with us to-day, to meet Robinson and his Sisters. No fuss or Ceremony, you know! Come just as you are!!!".

Du Maurier's point is made by linking the here-now with the there-later; to him, at least, the Turkish bath was no longer itself considered unusual or in any way ridiculous. Indeed, in 1877 the sandwich-board man advertising a Turkish bath was considered familiar enough to be included in a page of sketches illustrating street life in London which appeared in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.

Street life - Detail

Detail from
Street Life in London

Often the caricatured sandwich-board man was specifically modelled on those employed by the Savoy Turkish Baths, who also featured in the long-lasting series of London Life photographic postcards. Bert Thomas used the Savoy board in this postcard cartoon, originally published in London Opinion, depicting a hoped-for, but parentally frustrated, temporary release from the rigours of his life at an English public school.

London Life postcard Cartoon postcard

Thomas used the same model for his 1909 Punch cartoon, The man and the moment, suggesting that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to advertise the bath.

The man and the moment

'The inappropriate' features also in this cartoon from the 1862 Punch Almanac, attributed to Charles Keene, suggesting that it is the carrier of the sandwich-board who is not, perhaps, an appropriate recommendation for what is being advertised.

Chimney sweep customer

One of David Urquhart's hopes was that the Turkish bath would help to enable the different classes to mix. This was not to be. Even early Foreign Affairs Committee baths such as the one in Leeds Road, Bradford, found they needed to have two classes of bath to enable them to lower the price for their poorer bathers.

Class differences persisted (as they still do), and the caption to  Thomas's postcard of the top-hatted schoolboy would have been almost meaningless to those unfamiliar with life at public schools. Cartoons could also reflect other aspects of the class divide.


Drunkenness, for example, was seen as a loser of productivity in the new 19th-century factories. This led to temperance and abstinence movements aimed at the working class. But some Victorians believed there was a need to treat the non-labouring classes with more understanding. The Quaker, John Abel, saw a session at the Turkish bath as the solution, writing,

Notwithstanding the numbers that have been rescued by Total Abstinence Societies, there is a large class unreached by them amongst the higher orders, who are addicted to intemperance. The remedy proposed offers to them a means of escape which does not hurt their self-esteem—a boon which those who have tried it, speak of it in terms of affectionate remembrance.4

Class differences were also shown, unconsciously perhaps, in Gunning King's cartoon of bathers relaxing after the bath.

'Did you take your doctor's opinion…?'

First Bather, "Did you take your doctor's opinion before having a Turkish Bath?"
Second Bather, "My Dear Fellow! Take the opinion of a man who told me to my face that tobacco was injurious?"

Readers of Punch would have seen nothing out of the ordinary in bathers consulting their doctor on such matters, though most of those whom John Abel would think of as the 'lower orders' would be unable to afford a doctor even for the most serious illnesses.

Even if the classes didn't exactly mix, they did attend at least some of the same sporting events. Weight can be a problem for participants in certain sports, perhaps the most obvious being boxers and jockeys, where a weight limit is decreed, or where the advantage lies with lightness. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, at least, Turkish baths were often given to horses and jockeys alike—the former as a form of training, and the latter to reduce the weight carried by the horse.

J D Armour's cartoon for Punch on 8 June 1921—though the original was not, as here, hand-coloured for display—tells us that sportsmen were still using the Turkish bath, in order to temporarily lose weight for specific events, well into the twentieth century.

Racing cartoon from Punch

First Stable Lad (discussing jockey) 'Looks a bit tucked up this morning, don't he?'
Second ditto 'So would you if you'd breakfasted on a Turkish bath and dined last night off the smell of someone else's dinner.'

Of course boxers and jockeys know only too well that such weight loss is only temporary, though not everyone following in their footsteps has a similar understanding of this harsh reality.


This page first posted 13 November 2018


Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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