Roman? Turkish? Middle class?
'Classical porticos' and 'touches of eastern splendour':
the appearance of the Victorian Turkish bath

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

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Adapted from a paper given at the conference on
Victorian visions
held at Clare College, University of Cambridge
with The British Association of Victorian Studies
on Friday 1 October 2004

1. The Turkish bath as a procedure

This paper looks at a few examples of how today’s view of the Victorian Turkish bath is being changed so that it already differs from how it was seen by the Victorians; at how the largely unfulfilled visions of those who reintroduced it to the British Isles are nowhere to be seen; and at how a new view of this fast-vanishing Victorian institution is being constructed.

People see a variety of different images when the words Victorian Turkish baths are uttered. It seems important, therefore, to start by indicating what is meant—and what the Victorians meant—by the term Turkish bath.

The Victorian Turkish bath, then, is a type of bath in which bathers spend time in a series of rooms, usually two or three, each one hotter than the previous one, until they sweat profusely.

After a scrub and massage—together called shampooing they gently relax with a coffee in the cooling-room.

In the British Isles today, most so-called Turkish baths are actually vapour baths, or Russian steam rooms. But the distinguishing feature of the Victorian Turkish bath is that the hot rooms are heated by air which is DRY.

2000 years ago, the Romans, and later the Ottoman Turks, used an underfloor hypocaust which heated the air in each room to a level dependent on its distance from the furnace.

The hypocaust was also used in many early Victorian baths, while others used flues or pipes behind the walls, or a central radiator.

In a later development, a continuous stream of air was heated as it flowed around the furnace, before passing through each room in turn, cooling as it went.

This method of heating the rooms is still considered the most satisfactory because the freshly heated air continuously replaces air which has become stale and sweat-laden.

The Turkish baths which remain open in the British Isles all use one or other of these methods to ensure that the hot air is dry. So bathing in varying degrees of dry heat, followed by shampooing, and a final period of relaxation in a cooling-room, is what Victorian bathers understood by the phrase Turkish bath when used to describe a process, or set of procedures.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2020

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.

Plan of three hot rooms, Camberwell

Shampooing at York Hall

GWR Medical Fund Society cooling-room

Hypocaust in a Roman house

Hypocaust room at the West bath in the City of Bath

Erasmus Wilsaon's bath, Richmond

Central radiator at Alloa, Scotland

Constantine's Convoluted Stove

Flow of air through a Turkish bath

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