The Urquharts' Riverside bath:
‘a great boon to the neighbourhood’

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

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The naked child

There was widespread hostility towards David and Harriet Urquhart on the part of their neighbours after the sudden death, in the Turkish bath at their Riverside home, of their thirteen month old son William.

Yet barely two years later, attitudes had changed from suspicion to gratitude. In a paragraph on the Turkish baths at Riverside, the St Albans Times wrote:

We are happy to record the fact that Mr Urquhart, who resides at Rickmansworth, has, with his accustomed liberality, thrown his beautiful baths open for the use of the public, and that many are now taking advantage of his kindness. Amongst them are some invalids who are recovering their health and strength by the use of these baths, which must be a great boon to the neighbourhood.

Distressing though the death of their son had been—distress exacerbated by the rumour-mongering which surrounded the consequent inquest—the Urquharts seem never for one moment to have considered abandoning the use of the Turkish bath by their other children.

William had died on 4 February 1858; on 9 October, Harriet’s brother, Lord Carlingford, records a visit to the Urquharts in his diary:

Riverside. Little Day [the Urquharts’ son David] came to see me in the morning, stark naked, looking the queerest little fellow but nice, and invited me to the bath, where I had a long business, rubbed & scrubbed by Urquhart. Extraordinary fellow he is. I ventured in the middle of it to start the question whether Man is intended by Nature to go naked, and he grew furious, not with me personally but with civilised man represented by me for wearing clothes, & then justifying their folly...

At the inquest, pointed reference had been made to the baby’s being seen ‘naked on a cold verandah’ as if to imply that such lack of clothing proved parental neglect. In fact, though the Urquharts were not what we should nowadays call naturists, they did not believe that children should wear clothes when this was unnecessary. And in the course of a Turkish bath it would be quite normal—as it is when visiting a sauna—to alternate between hot and cold environments. In any event, the positioning of the Turkish bath ensured that their home was much warmer than was considered, elsewhere, to be the norm.

Erasmus Wilson, the foremost Victorian specialist in diseases of the skin (who also, incidentally, defrayed the costs of transporting Cleopatra’s Needle to London) referred to the younger David in a lecture he gave before the British Medical Association in 1860:

I lately saw a child, four years and a half old, who had been brought up in the constant use of the thermae and who had never worn clothes. He is a sturdy, healthy little fellow, graceful in his figure and movements, and has the independence of deportment of an Indian chieftain.

The adults at Riverside seem not to have bathed in the nude, though they may have done so when the family was alone. In the presence of visitors, however, ‘sheets’ were worn in the bath. These were described by an unidentified visitor, in a letter to the editor of The Free Press:

The drapery appropriate to this bath is another of its curiosities. A long length of wide calico, about three yards long, which is draped about the body like a Roman toga, or as one of the Highland ways of wearing the plaid.

Two baths at Riverside

In fact there were two Turkish baths at Riverside. The first, ‘a mere case, about seven feet cube, enclosing a boiler, erected in an outhouse’ was built for use by the outdoor servants. But it was also used by the Urquharts while the larger bath was being constructed (and on other occasions when the latter was being improved). Small though it was, it worked effectively enough for Urquhart to invite others to see it in action. He wrote:

Persons experienced in the use of the bath say they have never had a nicer one than is here to be found; it embraces all that is requisite, and these good results arise solely through the judicious adaptation of simple means ... This Oriental luxury may be obtained by any one for the sum of £5, and is within the reach of any one who possesses a coal-box.

The second bath was altogether grander:

It occupies two stories, and measures 25 feet in height, 30 feet in length, and 20 feet in width. It is heated by a furnace in another room, and a flue which is not visible, and whose surplus heat dispenses with the necessity for fires or chimneys in six other rooms... A plate of coloured glass lets in light from the roof... When your purification is accomplished, you robe yourself in a toga, and step out into a chamber looking out on the lawn and over the fields across the river...
A frame filled with glass admits the sight of the country to the bath while separating it from this chamber of repose, where, as in Turkey, coffee, and narghiles, and other refreshments, complete your enjoyment.

Erasmus Wilson, describing the bath at Riverside in nine and a half pages of florid prose, began:

We arrive at the door of the Frigidarium; we loosen the latchets of our shoes, and we leave them behind the lintel; the portal opens, and we enter. The apartment is small, but it is sunny and bright; through the glass doors we see a balcony festooned with the tendrils of the rose, now leafless and out of bloom, for it is early winter; beyond the parapet of the balcony are terraces of which the rose is still the favoured ornament; further on, the rippled surface of a boisterous noisy stream; then meadows with grazing herds and flocks, and the faithful horse…

But even as described in plainer language, it would have been difficult to refrain from being impressed by the bath at Riverside, especially since at that time there were still only a dozen or so public Turkish baths in the whole of the British Isles.

The hottest ‘room’, in effect a sort of four-poster divan enclosed in scarlet hangings, was built directly over the hypocaust so that its customary temperature of 240°F-250°F was economically maintained. The second ‘hot room’, a perfumed area with an ordinary divan, was still close enough to the source of heat to enable it to be kept at 170°F. Four steps lower down, at the side of the plunge (where the temperature was raised to 150°F by means of warm air entering directly from the furnace through a decorative grating) a third divan was provided. Cushions were strategically placed wherever appropriate.

Opposite was a curtained recess, with a step down to a sloping floor where the bather could wash before venturing into the plunge pool. There, water (to a depth of four to five feet) was pumped up from the adjacent river and kept cold, during the summer, with blocks of ice.

Wilson described how, after washing, he sampled each area in turn, returning from the hottest to the plunge and back again. Then, back in the washing area, his host soused him repeatedly with alternate basins of hot and cold water, followed by a good rub with a warm, soft Turkish towel, before completing the process with half an hour’s relaxation.

Gordon Stables, medical columnist in both the Boy’s Own Paper and the Girl’s Own Paper, later wrote his own book on Turkish baths. Of Wilson’s panegyric, he wrote:

As a rule there is not much room for poetry in the medical profession ... Yet we cannot read the glowing and graphic description given by the great dermatologist, concerning his visit to the bath at Riverside, without wishing that he had marshalled his thoughts, for once in a way, in the splendid hexameters of a Longfellow.

Flowery his language might have been, but Wilson was describing what would be seen by many as a luxurious flight of fancy at a time when very few people indeed had anything like an ordinary bathroom. It was unique, and Urquhart—who was not by contemporary standards a particularly wealthy man—had spent £1,000 on its construction and fittings.

He was later to find that there were also disadvantages in inviting visitors to the Riverside baths; when he moved to Worthing he reverted to a more basic construction, and was proud of how little it had cost by comparison.

I found that my Bath at Riverside deterred rather than invited imitations, as people thought less of the advantage than the cost, and fancied that it required a thousand pounds to get a wash. This closet, with all the fittings for the supply of the water, hot and cold, and the building of three of the walls, has cost £37.

Visitors to the bath

For the present, however, the bath at Riverside was the most effective weapon in Urquhart’s campaign to encourage the widespread building of Turkish baths throughout the country.

At this early stage of English practice… his hospitality was great… He had many visitors, scientific or invalid, and Mrs Urquhart seldom failed to keep her more desirable guests for breakfast.

When John Johnson, one of Urquhart’s political disciples, had been seriously ill, Urquhart invited him to Riverside where he stayed three months. During this time,

Many people afflicted with chronic diseases were brought long distances to the Bath and cured. The Bath was frequently thronged; some days as many as twenty-five people using it…

Several letters survive from such visitors; that dated 14 July 1860, from Richard Summers of Pimlico seems typical:

I write this to state that I have been severely afflicted upwards of 32 months during which time I have tryed a very many medicins prescribed by the first Doctors which were all to no use. I am very happy to say that after having 7 baths at your house I can walk much better the Pains are leaving me. I have great faith that after a few more Baths I shall be able to give you a statement of perfect cure.

Urquhart did not set himself up as a doctor. However, he saw no valid reason why he should not recommend an ‘alternative’ therapy which he had himself found so beneficial. And Dr John Louis William Thudichum was one of several doctors who sought the benefits of Riverside for their patients. Agnes Robertson was one of Thudichum’s patients; he personally accompanied her there, arranging for her to be admitted daily for several weeks in 1861.

That she was not an altogether willing patient is clear from her letter thanking Urquhart for his help in her cure, and for putting up with her initial unwillingness to follow his rules.

I may as well mention that for the first month I felt attendance on the Bath as irksome & only a duty, now I experience all the pleasurable sensations described by so many.

In January 1861 Thudichum had lectured on the Turkish bath to the Medical Society of London, arousing a fair amount of opposition during the discussion which followed, and for weeks afterwards in the two major medical weeklies, the British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Criticism ranged from outright condemnation from those who had never tried the bath, to those who felt—no doubt for the most genuine of reasons—that the bath should only be taken under the supervision of a doctor.

Urquhart had been present at this meeting and the following month an omnibus of visitors from the Medical Society of London visited Riverside for a day, together with a shorthand writer. It is true that none of the twelve doctors who spoke against the bath at the Society’s meeting attended, but ‘the most eloquent on that occasion—Dr Richardson—has since become a convert.'

Thudichum was one of a group of Urquhart’s friends who regularly met at Riverside and called themselves ‘The Companions of the Bath’. Several were later to become directors of The London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co Ltd which built, and in 1862 opened, the London Hammam in Jermyn Street. This was possibly the most famous of all British Turkish baths (remaining open until until just before the end of 1940, and closing only months before the building was destroyed on 17 April 1941 during the London Blitz).

The influence of the bath at Riverside

Other ‘Companions of the Bath’ used Riverside to further their cause. George Witt wrote to Urquhart asking whether he could bring Miss Rothschild’s architect to Rickmansworth to encourage her to include a Turkish bath in the bathing establishment she was thinking of donating to the town of Lewes. Dr Arthur Leared was responsible for the construction of a Turkish bath at the Brompton Consumptive Hospital and Dr R H Goolden for that at the new St Thomas’s Hospital.

In fact all who wished to build a Turkish bath or investigate its therapeutic potential made the pilgrimage to Riverside and, if they wished to learn, were made welcome.

Dr Goolden described how it influenced the building in 1860 of the first establishment to be opened in London:

The proprietor [Roger Evans] was an uneducated man ... He had been a mechanic, and kept a small coffee-shop. Having some business which brought him to [Rickmansworth], he there saw Mr [Urquhart], and went into the bath which that gentleman has most hospitably provided for all comers. He was then a severe sufferer from tic douloureux, and had been so for years. Receiving great relief from the pain ... he determined to build a bath in his little house in Bell-street, intending it for the use of mechanics at a small fee of one shilling. He built the bath, I believe, with his own hands, and, by dint of great self denial, managed to improve it gradually, and his patron gave him the assistance of his plans and patronage. This for a long time was the only public bath in London.

For Urquhart himself, Riverside was the laboratory in which he gained his experience. When a section of the floor of the London Hammam collapsed, it was found that the architect, George Somers Clarke, had economised by reducing the thickness of marble slabs used, and the distance between their supports, both of which had been correctly specified by Urquhart in accordance with the measurements used at Riverside.

The bathing procedures at the Hammam were also based on those followed by his guests. Strictly adhered to, they began:

The two baths at Riverside, are open for the use of persons suffering from disease, only on the following conditions:—

The bath being the practice of a cleanly and polite people, the habits of cleanliness and politeness must be observed. Visitors, therefore, must seek to learn from the attendants how to conduct themselves.

There followed eight regulations covering such matters as the removal of shoes before entering, and washing in water taken from a basin and not in the basin.

These rules were important to Urquhart, and all visitors to the Turkish bath in the Chalet des Mélèzes (which he built at St Gervais, near Geneva, in 1864) were required to keep them. Later they were retained by his son Francis (Sligger) Urquhart who insisted that his guests also abide by them.

And several of the rules were still being issued, unaltered, to bathers at the Jermyn Street Hammam as late as 1929.

Almost all of the Turkish baths opened in the British Isles after 1858 owed something, directly or indirectly, to Urquhart’s baths at Rickmansworth. Perhaps the final word should go to the first Baron Lamington who wrote (several years after Urquhart’s death) that,

His house at Watford (Rickmansworth) was an Eastern palace, with a Turkish Bath… which in luxuriousness was inferior to none in Constantinople…

This page revised and reformatted 10 February 2023

Thank you icon

The Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford for permission to consult the Papers of

   David Urquhart

The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine for access to Correspondence and

   papers of David Urquhart and Harriet Angelina Urquhart (Western Mss 6236-6240)

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Urquhart's Riverside Turkish bath

View from the Urquharts' Riverside Turkish bath

The Urquharts' chalet near Geneva

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