Turkish baths in Ireland

Cork: 8 Grenville Place
(later renamed Grenville Quay)

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

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Turkish Baths

The first baths

The Grenville Place Turkish baths were opened in 1859 by Dr Richard Barter, soon after patients at his hydropathic establishment in Blarney began using the first successful modern Turkish baths ever to be built.

Barter's first experimental beehive-shaped bath, built there with David Urquhart in 1856, had not been successful. He therefore sent his artist namesake, Mr Richard Barter, to Rome to find out how the original Roman baths were built. This enabled him, later in the year, to construct a more satisfactory bath, although even this one was still rather steamy and liable to burn the soles of the feet. But Barter was a perfectionist, continuing to work on any problem he encountered and taking a delight in trying to improve each of his baths throughout its life.

The front of the building, facing the river, was 'Grecian' in style and was built in Cork brick to the design  of local builder Denis Murray.  Separate sets of baths for men and women were separated by a central ticket office. Both sets of baths were the same, each contained in an area 80ft long by 20ft wide.

In an 1860 lecture in Cork, later published as a pamphlet, Dr William J Cummins described his own visit to the men's baths.

It consists of three well-ventilated apartments, the outside one open to and at the temperature of the external atmosphere; in the latter are placed couches of peculiar construction [ie, duretas], well calculated to relax the muscles and afford comfort and ease; the second chamber is heated to about 100° or 110° the light in it is partially obscured, and ordinary couches surround it on all sides, some of which are curtained off for invalids who may desire privacy. communicating with this by a wide door is the third chamber, of somewhat smaller dimensions, and heated to about 140° or 150°; in its centre is placed a bench which is covered in wood, on which the bather may recline and undergo the process of shampooing, if he so desires; off this apartment are washing rooms, where cocks of hot and cold water open into a large basin, and can be mixed at any temperature; beyond these again is the cold douche, which can be directed on any part of the body, and its force regulated by a flexible tube.

It seems reasonable to assume that the baths in Grenville Place were based on those at St Ann's, with a few minor changes, since as late as 1863—five years after the baths opened—Barter was still using a woodcut image of a women's hot room at St Ann's in his advertisements for the Grenville Place baths. The advertisement, like earlier ones, still took pains to reassure potential women bathers by indicating that the baths had separate entrances for men and women, and private dressing rooms rather than communal changing rooms.

Opening the Bray Turkish baths in October 1859, Dr Barter said that after the Cork baths had been open just over six months, '4,376 persons had used them, and…they had all expressed themselves well pleased.'

An early advertisement for the baths indicated the opening times and entrance charges. From 11.00 in the morning till 5.00 in the afternoon admission cost 2/-, or 20/- for twelve tickets. This was reduced to 1/-, or 10/- for twelve, between the hours of 6.00 to 10.00 in both the morning and evening. Children under 10 were admitted at half price, but only if accompanied by an adult. All these charges 'included the use of linen', but shampooing cost an additional 6d. On Sundays, the baths were only open between 10.00 and 5.00.

In designing and constructing these baths, Barter went back to first principles, making good use of his newly acquired knowledge of the Roman baths visited by his namesake. Unlike the humid Islamic hammams which Urquhart had visited on his travels in the Maghreb and the Ottoman Empire, the Roman frigidarium, caldarium, and laconicum were all heated by dry air channelled under the floors by means of a hypocaust. This allowed bathers to withstand the higher temperatures which Barter found to be more effective therapeutically.

For this reason, he called his Turkish baths 'The Improved Turkish or Roman Baths'. This had the unfortunate effect that in some circles he was thought to be arrogant and boastful. But Barter was not suggesting that he had improved the Turkish hammam, the main function of which was to be an effective cleansing agent; rather, that the Roman bath was an improved therapeutic agent, therapy being the main function of hydropathic establishments.

The baths refurbished

By the end of 1862, Barter was already dissatisfied with his Grenville Place baths and opened new ones on 23 February the following year, just twenty days after the opening of his Turkish Baths for the Destitute Poor in Maylor Street.

It is not known how much rebuilding was actually undertaken at this time but it seems most likely that only the inside—the baths themselves—were rebuilt.

During their first ten years, an average of over 18,700 bathers per year (or well over 360 bathers per week) used the new Grenville Street baths.

The baths closed

The baths appear to have closed early in April 1893, and a notice in the Cork Constitution suggests that the business had been transferred to the 'new' Turkish baths opened three years earlier in South Mall by Alf Jacob. What we cannot know is whether the transfer of the business was formally agreed between the two establishments or whether this was advertised independently by Jacob.

At some stage, probably towards the end of the 19th century, the building was converted. The building which still stands on the site today (2006) is now a block of apartments, as tall as those to be found on its right.

At first glance, it appears to be a completely different building, but a closer examination suggests that the ground floor façade is the same, but the top of the original building has been demolished and replaced by two additional floors. The ground floor door and window openings have been interchanged, and the corners of the front of the building remain rounded at the ground floor level. There is also a fire call plate marked 1858 FC, remounted on the side of the building. These plates were to indicate to any insurance company's fire brigade arriving on the scene that it was a building insured by them which was on fire.

We are so accustomed these days to buildings being totally demolished and replaced that it is difficult to understand the reason for this strange conversion. One possibility is that, at the time when the conversion was carried out, labour was cheap while building materials were comparatively expensive, but this is only conjecture.

This page last revised and enlarged 24 December 2017

Thank you icon

Photograph of the baths, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Eve McAulay Dictionary of Irish Architects, Irish Architectural Archive

Jez Nicholson and Stephanie Jenkins for explaining the fire call plate to me

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.


Exterior view of the baths

Converted baths building, 2006

1863 advertisement

1893 advertisement

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