George Elson:
chimney sweep and shampooer

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

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Elson's early years —sweep and shopkeeper

One of the few people to have written about working in a Turkish bath was George Elson. He was, by any set of criteria, a remarkable man. Born on 19 May 1833 in Northampton, he was brought up in the workhouse for several years between the early death of his father, and returning to live with his mother and her new husband.

At the age of ten he was apprenticed to a chimney sweep as a climbing boy—one of the last, as he relates in his very readable autobiography. He continued in this work—as boy, journeyman, and finally master chimney sweep—for nearly thirty years.

By the early 1870s, however, Elson was running a haberdashery shop and hawking maps and charts. In 1872, either because the shop was not doing too well, or because he just felt like a complete change, he decided to answer an advertisement for the post of swimming teacher at the Sansome Walk baths in Worcester which were owned, at that time, by Barnabas Lett.

Elson in Worcester

Elson discovered that Lett was really looking for a shampooer for his Turkish bath, but that he wanted someone who could also teach swimming. He was offered the job provided he would undertake both duties.

'This to me was a startling proposal,' he wrote, 'having never taught the art of swimming professionally, nor ever been inside a Turkish bath.' Nevertheless, he decided to accept the position as a novice shampooer, while his wife was encouraged to look after the women bathers.

At the beginning I thought I should be dried up entirely with the extreme heat; I lost a stone weight in the first fortnight, which caused me to fear I should fail in my new venture; but the theory and system were right. I had need to get rid of the superfluous matters—not that I was stout. I required a rectification of the physical powers ere I could recuperate and get back my weight, which was returned to me in the course of a few weeks.

Any person that knew of my former occupation would admit that my new one was a contrast with a vengeance. Instead of appearing with a soot bag and brush to sweep chimneys, I was installed in rooms with an atmosphere hotter than tropical regions, and in place of doctoring chimneys, I was learning to doctor men.

On Tuesday afternoon the bath was given up to the ladies. The proprietor induced my wife to attend to them, and after a few weeks experience she bore the heat well and became quite efficient.

From May, during the swimming season, there would be from 40-50 bathers a day in the pool—up to 100 on a warm day. On Saturday afternoons, when 'the poorer classes' were able to swim for just 1d, there might be 200 at a time. Elson regularly taught the pupils at Malvern College to swim in the pool, the boys addressing him as 'Professor'. He also taught, initially much to his surprise, some of the pupils at the Worcester Blind School.

In 1875, when Elson had been at the Sansome Walk baths for three years, the Worcester Turkish Swimming & General Baths Co Ltd was incorporated as a joint stock company with the aim of purchasing the baths from Lett. Elson makes no mention of this in his book. It is difficult, therefore, to tell whether he found it unsettling, or whether it was merely coincidental that he was looking for a better paid job at this time. He had, after all, considerable experience by now in this relatively new field. However, for whatever reason, Elson and his wife now moved on to a new position in Leamington where he had heard of a vacancy for a shampooer and his wife at the Royal Pump Rooms and Baths.

Elson in Royal Leamington Spa

The Elsons were appointed from over thirty applicants.

On arriving at Leamington, I found that in addition to the Turkish there were a swimming and also numerous other baths, all on the same premises, the property of the Corporation, a committee being selected from the Town Council, who directed and provided for the whole establishment. I was given the entire working of the Turkish Bath, having nothing to do with the swimming and other baths.

The attendance was very small at the first, not more than fourteen bathers a week, but under my care it gradually rose to fifty and sixty. The Tuesdays were set aside for the Ladies, when my wife attended. This convenient arrangement gave me a day off all the year round, which I always turned to good account...

Finding that very little was known locally about Turkish baths, Elson wrote a short pamphlet called A Shampooer's view of the Turkish bath of which he had three thousand copies printed at his own expense. The Pump Room Committee clearly approved, giving him a sovereign (one pound) to print an advertisement for the baths on the fly-leaf. Successfully offering them for sale at Turkish baths round the country, and selling the remainder in Leamington at 2d each, he made a small profit and earned much approval.

When off duty, Elson spent much time walking and participating in other outdoor pursuits.

Notwithstanding the many attractions out of doors, I was never absent one day during the whole fourteen years, if the Bath was in a fit state to be open.

Elson was clearly well-respected, liked, and well-tipped by the bathers, many of whom were very well-known in their day. Like a good pub landlord, he kept the peace and adjudicated in any disputes which arose. In 1889, he gave up his position at the baths and passed the years till his retirement undertaking private shampooing and massage at the homes of his wealthier clients.

This page revised and reformatted 10 November 2023

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The Last of the climbing boys

Poster for Lett's Baths

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