Turkish baths in provincial England

Cambridge: Jesus Lane

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

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The Roman Baths

1. Prelude

By 1861, small Turkish baths had opened in many towns and cities around the British Isles, although over a year was to elapse before large London establishments such as Dr Barter’s Oriental Baths in Victoria Street or David Urquhart’s Jermyn Street Hammam were completed.

These early Victorian Turkish baths were built along similar lines. Some were larger than others, or had additional facilities, but their essential feature was a series of rooms heated by hot dry air, each being maintained at a higher temperature than the previous one. Such dry heat rooms—the tepidarium, the caldarium, and the laconicum—were found much earlier in the thermae and balnea of ancient Rome.

In this, they differed from the Islamic hammams of Turkey in that bathers in the hammam also washed themselves within the hot rooms making them humid and steamy, rather than dry.

Even so, the Victorian hot-air baths were most generally known as Turkish rather than Roman because it was in Turkey that Urquhart, who re-introduced them into the British Isles, found them in such widespread use.

But the Victorian Turkish bath—exemplified perhaps at its best by Urquhart’s Jermyn Street Hammam, and others modelled on it—were in fact hybrid establishments. They went back to Roman basics for their dry air hot rooms, their separate washing areas, and the cold plunge pool, and then added the shampooing and manipulation (massage) of the Turks, their modesty loincloths, their coffee and chibouks, and the general ambience of the Turkish hammam.

Urquhart’s use of the term Turkish bath, though he well knew the bath’s Roman origins, was quite deliberate. He saw the bath as an effective means of introducing Turkish culture to the British people as something worthy of emulation, encouraging a more favourable popular view of Turkey, which in turn would lead to greater governmental support for Turkey in relation to its dispute with what Urquhart saw as a power hungry Russian empire.

Not all advocates of the hot-air bath were agreed on the necessity for such Turkish additions to the original Roman model, or agreed with Urquhart’s political aims. Neither were some, usually doctors who saw the Turkish bath as a medical competitor, happy about the high temperatures to be found in some establishments where there was no doctor in attendance.

Careful, therefore, not to arouse opposition from the medical profession, a group—later revealed to include two doctors and a surgeon—informed the editor of The Lancet that a company was to be registered for the re-establishment of the Roman bath, which would be better than the Turkish bath. To reassure medical people, ‘the company would consult doctors about the most appropriate temperatures so that it is hoped to hear no more about the injurious consequences of indiscriminate use of hot-air baths’ raised to temperatures of 150˚F or even 180˚F.

This brief announcement gave rise to a correspondence about such matters which was initiated by Dr John Edward Tilt and lasted several months. Tilt, later to become President of the Obstetrical Society, wrote that he had taken Turkish baths in Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus and saw no need for temperatures above 150˚F. Furthermore, he found that shampooing in those cities had been ‘in the gentlest, quietest, and most gentle manner possible’ and he protested against ‘the tremendous energy with which the poor human body is thumped and battered and crushed’ by some of the shampooers in existing Turkish baths in Britain.

Three letters supporting the value of the bath appeared the following week. The first was from Dr Septimus Beardmore, writing ‘As the promoter of the company to which you referred’. He wished to wished it to be known that,

…conversation with some of the most eminent members of the medical profession, as well as personal experience, has convinced me that the ‘bath,’ to be a success, must be regulated in a fashion somewhat different from those at present in use. Dr Tilt … has very properly pointed out that the excessive pommelling in which shampooers vie with each other is damaging to the bather, and I can assure him that his suggestion in this respect, as well as the temperature, will receive the attention of the directors; and I shall be happy to receive from members of the profession any further suggestions with which they may favour me.

A second letter, also from London, was from a doctor who signed himself ‘Henry W Kiallmark, Late Surgeon Ottoman Medical Staff,’ who stated that ‘There are two or three points in the management of the bath to which attention should be directed.’

Instancing the Sultan Mahmoud baths in Constantinople, he remarked on the ‘considerable amount of vapour, not altogether arising from the water thrown on the heated floor’ and emphasized, with some justice, that the importance of good ventilation,

cannot be exaggerated. The building should be a specially constructed one, with large, airy, domed chambers, capable of being supplied with a continuous stream of hot air, well lighted from above, and faced with marble or tiles … No adaptation or alteration of a private dwelling house will permit of these necessary arrangements.

But there was no suggestion that such specially constructed buildings were exactly the kind of facility which the Roman Bath Company, of which he was a director, was intending to build.

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Barter's London establishment in Victoria Street

Cooling-room in the Jermyn Street Hammam

Hacı Kadın Baths, Istanbul: hot room with washbasins

Shampooing at The Őrŭcŭler Bath in Istanbul, 1990s

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces

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

 
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