Turkish baths in hydropathic establishments

England: Ilkley: Ben Rhydding

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

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The Turkish Baths at Ben Rhydding Hydropathic Establishment

The hydro

Ben Rhydding was founded by Hamer Stansfield , a former Mayor of Leeds. He had visited, and been impressed by, Gräfenberg Spa in Silesia. When he returned home he formed a small private company with some friends and built his own establishment in Ilkley at a cost of £30,000.

Discipline was very strict at the hydro and the Directory of Ben Rhydding noted that, 'The Scriptures are read in the drawing-room every morning after breakfast'.  But, most unusually for the period, patients did have private bathrooms and, 'a "fresh air bath" consisting of a closed room into which moorland air was pumped.'

In 1847, three years after the hydro opened, Dr William Macleod was appointed as manager. First he went to Malvern for a few weeks to work with Drs Gully and Wilson who were the most experienced hydropathists in England at the time. He was a born administrator and was adept at dealing with his patients. He gradually bought all the shares until he was sole proprietor.

The original Turkish baths

In 1859 Macleod added a Turkish bath to his establishment. In this, he was way ahead of his time by comparison with most other hydropathists and the bath was erected barely three years after Dr Barter's first bath at St Ann's.

Macleod’s bath, like Barter's, occupied its own separate building and was designed by architects Lockwood and Mawson, making them the first major architectural practice to build a Turkish bath in England. It cost £2,000 and was called—rather more accurately—a Roman bath.

The building had three main rooms which were heated by fresh hot air which entered from below the floors, while the ventilation system allowed the sweaty hot air to escape higher up.

The first of the rooms was the Frigidarium or cooling-room. As soon as bathers entered this room their clothes were exchanged for a bathing dress (for women) or a sheet (for men), together with a pair of wooden pattens which protected the feet from the heat of the floor.

The Frigidarium was 36 feet by 32 foot six inches in area, and 30 feet high. Light from an opening at the top was filtered through stained glass to give a soft and pleasing appearance. Ranged round the room, were dressing rooms with couches enabling people to prepare for, and relax after, the Turkish Bath. The patterned floor was made of coloured encaustic tiles, with a decorative fountain surrounded by rocks as centrepiece. Around the walls, curved ribs—partly masked by carved corbels—supported the coved and vaulted ceiling.

The Tepidarium was smaller, octagonal, and maintained at a temperature between 90-110ºF. The pseudonymous 'graduate of Edinburgh University' (almost certainly Macleod himself) wrote,

Round the room, are a series of enclosed recesses, luxuriantly fitted up, which secure the desired privacy to each visitor—while a chastened and beautiful light is admitted, through a rose-coloured ring in the centre of the lofty vault.

The hottest room, the Calidarium, was maintained at a temperature between 140-150ºF. The writer continues,

From handsome carved corbels of Caen stone, springs a ceiling of rich groined work, ornamented with bosses, supporting a lantern light of stained glass of beautiful pattern. The floor is laid with encaustic tiles, seats, shampooing tables, and other requisite fittings occupy their appropriate places.

Immediately connected with this room are the Wave Douche, the Rain, and other cold water baths--the whole forming a suite of apartments, superior by far, for the purpose of the Roman Bath, to anything of the kind yet erected in this Country.

The hot room temperatures adopted by Macleod were relatively low by comparison with those of Barter, who firmly believed (with Urquhart) that the therapeutic effects of the Turkish bath were most efficiently served by much higher temperatures. It may be that Macleod's more gentle approach was the result of his already having decided to relax the strict regime which Hamer Stansfield copied from Vincent Priessnitz's establishment at Graeffenberg. Macleod wanted Ben Rhydding to appeal to a much wider clientele by becoming what was essentially a hydropathic hotel.

From the inception of the Turkish bath he decided against the rough Turkish shampooing procedure considered so important by Urquhart as a cleansing agent. Instead he adopted Ling's System of Movements which is, perhaps, better known as the more gentle Swedish style of massage.

To this end also, he later broke away completely from the hydropathic tradition by obtaining a licence to serve alcohol with meals, with the immediate result (according to Richard Metcalfe) that 'a group of some fifty Quakers, who were in the house when this change was effected, at once left'.

There is a wonderfully evocative impression of what it was like to be a patient at the hydro in the Ben Rhydding chapter in Tim Binding's delightfully unusual and extremely readable On Ilkley Moor: the story of an English town (Picador, 2001).

The new Turkish baths

It seems as though the original baths were replaced some time around the early 1890s as they had, by then, been in use for around 35 years. The refurbishment would most likely have taken place soon after 1891 when the original Ben Rhydding Hydropathic Establishment Company was financially restructured as a second company with the same name.

The new Turkish baths were augmented by Russian and plunge baths, and the building connected directly with the main building 'so that Patients, in using them, do not leave the house.' They can still be seen on the extreme right of a photograph of the hydro taken in the 1930s.

The baths cost 2/6d, or 12/- for six, though 'Bath Blankets and Sheets are provided without additional charge'. The staff at this time comprised a Head Bathman, a Head Bathwoman, and an unknown number of supporting bath attendants. The baths were open four times each day excepting Sunday: from 6.30 to 8.15; 10.00 to 1.00; 3.30 to 5.30; and 8.00 to 9.30.

Unlike at Smedley's much larger hydro, where there were separate baths for men and women, at Ben Rhydding different days were allotted, women having sole use of the baths on Tuesdays and Fridays, while men used them on the remaining four days.

Increasingly in the twentieth century, Ben Rhydding became less of a hydro and more of a recreational establishment ending, finally, as a golf hotel, which continued in operation until WW2. It is not currently known how long the Turkish baths remained in use. The building was demolished in 1955, though the golf club is still in existence.

Page first published 5 September 2006; slightly revised 13 June 2019

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John Hawkesworth  

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Dr William Macleod

Exterior of the Turkish baths


Photo of the main building in the 1930s


Ben Rhydding Hydropathic Establishment, c.1862

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