Turkish baths in provincial England

 

Epsom: East Street

      

                                         

This is a single frame, printer-friendly page taken from Malcolm Shifrin's website

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

        

Original illustrated page with chronology and notes           

List of other Turkish baths in the provinces
 

 

 

Epsom Municipal Baths

 

The Urban District Council of Epsom, adopted the Baths and Wash-houses Acts in 1897,  allocating a site for the building in Church Street. But it was not until 18 June 1935 that the council (now the Borough of Epsom and Ewell) appointed a special committee to investigate the cost of building and maintaining baths to meet the needs of the locality.

In due course the council appointed Messrs A W S & K M B Cross as architects for the new Municipal Baths. This was a long established architectural practice which had been designing baths and Turkish baths for many years and one of the partners, Alfred W S Cross, was the author of a standard work, Public baths and wash-houses, published in 1906. It was agreed that a fee of £50 was to be paid if the project was abandoned.

On 13 January 1936 the architects submitted a full report proposing a scheme for building the new baths. As the original site had by then been used for the local fire station, a new site in East Street was chosen.

The council needed the sanction of the Ministry of Health in order to borrow money, and a public local enquiry was held on 3 November 1936.

The decision to include Turkish baths was strongly influenced by the suggestion that they would be well-used by many of those involved in the Epsom Races because, at that time, the nearest establishment was in London. It was to be built in the basement, reached by a staircase to the right of the entrance hall.

And in a move that would have pleased the Victorians, men and women were each to be provided with a suite of twelve slipper baths after the  enquiry was told that there were approximately fifteen hundred houses within a radius of one mile from the site of the baths which still, in 1936, had no fixed baths.

The borough was given permission to borrow the £64,834 needed to build and equip the baths, and invitations to tender were sent out. The contract was won by a local firm, Messrs H H & F Roll of Ashley Road, who submitted the lowest tender at £52,634, and construction finally started in September 1937.

The official opening ceremony was held on 15 March 1939, complete with civic dignitaries, bouquets and speeches, swimming and diving displays, a water polo match, and the singing of God Save the King.

The exterior of the building was faced with multi-coloured bricks and Portland stone dressings, while the roof was covered in dark red pantiles.

The building had a number of interesting features: during the winter months, the swimming pool could be covered over by a scaffolding- supported wooden floor, so that the hall could be used for boxing matches, dances, and stage performances.

The Turkish bath seemed to be well-equipped, and comprised its own changing room with lockers, five cubicles, and an attendant’s counter; there were three hot rooms, a vapour (steam) room, a shampooing room with three slabs, a shower room, a plunge pool, and a cooling-room with ten couches and a refreshments area.

There was also a suite of three Zotofoam baths, precursors of whirlpools, such as the Jacuzzi™, which are now so popular in health spas.

The wall tiles in the Turkish bath were glazed and those on the floors, with the surprising exception of the changing and cooling-rooms, were  impervious and non-slip.

The Turkish baths suite had its own heating equipment immediately adjacent to the suite. The system was designed by Messrs Walter W Nobbs to maintain the correct temperature for each area, twelve hours a day, three hundred days in the year. The annual heating costs were originally estimated at £50 for coke, £115 for gas, or £160 for electricity. Wisely, the Baths Committee, after due consideration, chose gas.

The Turkish baths were heated by a gas-fired air heater with a gas-stream
boiler for the vapour bath. The separate system was designed to ensure that there would be no demand, estimated at 120,000 BTU/hr, on the swimming pool plant, other than hot water supply.

A Baths Superintendent was appointed at £300 per year, rising annually by £12.10.0. to a maximum of £350. But he also had free accommodation in a self-contained flat at the rear of the building, together with free coal (rather than gas!) and electric light.

The staff comprised 2 male masseurs, each earning £3.8.0 per week, 2 female masseuses, each earning 25 shillings per day; and 1 male youth and 1 female youth, each earning 15 shillings per week as bath attendants.

The baths opened for a few hours only on Sunday mornings, but from Monday to Saturday, they stayed open from eight in the morning till eight in the evening, with Wednesdays being set aside for women.

The charges varied according to the time of day, a Turkish bath costing either 3/6 or 2/6. A massage cost 2/6, and a Zotofoam bath—by appointment only—3/- or 2/-.

Surprisingly, considering the previous experience of the architects, there were many teething problems: a curtain rather than a door had been specified for the entrance to the hot rooms and had to be replaced at the suggestion of the heating engineers; the pump in the plunge pool was defective; difficulties were experienced in maintaining the correct temperatures in the hot rooms; the fresh air duct appeared to be faulty; the shower sprays were defective. All of which goes to show that our ideas of a past golden age when workmen took a pride in their work and did the job properly might need a little reconsideration.

The fifty-two bathers who used the Turkish baths during the first week seemed to know far more about how they should be run than those actually running them. They were not slow to suggest essential improvements.

For example, initially there were no weighing machines, and the bathers made it quite clear that they shouldn’t be charged for using them when they did arrive. They asked for floor coverings and canvas chairs for the hot rooms, for curtains between the shampooing slabs, a carpet for the cooling-room, and a free supply of cold drinking water. Yet all these suggestions had been standard practice in Turkish baths for over 80 years.

But the Baths Committee did put their collective foot down on being asked for, and firmly refusing, the bathers’ request for a bridge table. In spite of this, the average weekly number of bathers using the Turkish baths had risen from the initial 52 to 75. And the bathers' request for floor coverings and carpets was met, later on, by a decision to provide bathers with slippers.

And so, ninety years after the Baths and Wash-houses Acts, Epsom had its very own Turkish baths. But it was not a propitious time for new leisure facilities. On 3 September, less than six months after the grand opening, war was declared and the baths immediately closed. The main halls were used to accommodate the Hook Road ARP Staff and the swimming pool remained closed until the middle of the following year. But the Turkish baths re-opened after only a couple of weeks, probably helping the war effort considerably by de-stressing its customers.

In 1989, the baths  were remodelled as part of what was now to be known as the Rainbow Centre, managed on behalf of the council by Civic Leisure Ltd. Admission (£5.00) gave access to the use of the three hot rooms (113-194˚F), steam room, sauna, plunge pool and cooling-room. In addition to separate days for men and women, the baths were also open to mixed couples (wearing costumes) on Sundays.

During the sixty years of their existence, the Epsom Turkish baths were enjoyed by thousands of local people until they were finally demolished in 2001 to make way for a new facility.

During its final years, the phrase 'Turkish Baths' was changed on the board outside to read 'Health Suite', and often the assistant at the reception desk did not know what a Turkish bath was, let alone that she was charging admission to it. So, like other councils had done elsewhere, the public was being prepared for a forthcoming unpleasant shock.

It would be nice to be able to continue by describing the superbly equipped Turkish baths in the brand new leisure centre. But it never happened. Saunas and prefabricated steam rooms may be pleasant—even if sometimes rather claustrophobic. But they are quite different from the traditional Victorian Turkish bath, both in manner of use, and in overall effect.

They have replaced the Victorian Turkish bath simply because they are cheaper to operate.

Alas!


  Jeremy Harte, Curator, Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell, for his kind help


The original page includes footnotes,
and thumbnail pictures which can be enlarged.
All the enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.

Entrance hall

Exterior of building

Hot room

Plunge pool

Slipper bath cubicles

Zotofoam bath at Hastings White Rock

Zotofoam baths at Epsom

 

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

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