Turkish baths in Ireland

Cork: 15 Maylor Street

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

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Turkish Baths for the Destitute Poor

(The People's Turkish Bath)

The concept

The two men most responsible for the successful re-introduction of the Turkish bath into the British Isles, David Urquhart and Dr Richard Barter, were both men who believed that the bath should be made available to all who needed it irrespective of whether they could afford the normal entrance charges. They not only believed this, but each, so far as he was able, made his own bath available free to those in need.

Barter was, by the time he built his first Turkish bath at St Ann's, already running a successful hydropathic establishment, and could afford to be especially generous and, as soon as he had successfully built a bath, he made one available for his workers on the estate. He wrote,

I have erected a complete bath for the poor at my own expense, and they resort to it in hundreds; and see what a boon this is to them! It removes from them the necessity for stimulant drinks; and I venture to affirm that it is the means best calculated to take from Ireland its two great evils—intemperance and filth.

Barter was, therefore, keen to see inexpensive baths made available in all the major cities in Ireland. The existence of such a bath in Dublin is still unconfirmed, but in 1860 he opened the Working Class Turkish Baths in Belfast, and in 1862 he announced the forthcoming opening of the Turkish Baths for the Destitute Poor, then being built in Maylor Street.

An advertisement in a local directory stated that 'The IMPROVED TURKISH or ROMAN BATHS for the POOR' were to be funded by voluntary donations and a large grant from the Barter Bath Charity Fund.

It is intended to give the Bath at a very low charge, and a considerable reduction will be made to employers and others on taking books of Tickets for distribution. Books of Tickets will be also issued at a further reduction to Members of the Medical Profession, for issuing to their poor patients.

The advertisement also indicated that the bath was to be managed by a committee of local women. As in his advertisement for the Grenville Place establishment, which appeared on the next page of the directory, Barter chose to use illustrations of the baths at St Ann's.

The building and the baths

The building and furnishing of the baths cost £500. The successful task of raising this sum, over the preceding two years, was said to be 'due to the energy and enterprise of Mrs C G Donovan', who was widely thought to be the author of a memoir of Dr Barter published after his death. Contributions included £50 from the local MP, Mr J F Maguire, and £100 from the Corporation of Cork.

The baths opened on 3 February 1863. The facilities were described in a local newspaper.

The entrance is tastefully built, a neat stained glass window, on which is inscribed 'Turkish Baths for the Poor' surmounting the door. Immediately inside is the ticket issuer's box, where for a penny and two-pence can be obtained the card entitling to a bath. To the left is the entrance to the cooling and dressing room, which is divided into the compartments usual in such a room,—in this case eight in number. In a small chamber off this room is the boiler and heating apparatus. Beyond the cooling-room, separated by a small passage, is the first of the hot rooms, that in which the lowest temperature exists, and inside it is the hotter room, off which lies the bath room.

But the newspaper's praise for the intention of the baths and for the execution of its construction was accompanied, as then were so many philanthropic endeavours, by reassurance to its readers that the poor were not being spoilt or mollycoddled.

Throughout all these compartments the evidence of great good sense in the designer is evident. The bath, while comfortable in every department, is devoid of the unnecessary refinements which prevail in those for another class of the population, but which would be useless and out of place in an establishment designed especially for 'the people'. No element, however, which will make the bath practically useful is wanting ; and for all cleansing and sanitary purposes we venture to say, as good a bath can be had in this establishment as in the most refined and luxurious building of the kind in the country. It is besides, commodious, and in regard to accommodation, will be fully equal to all demands that will be made on it.

The report concluded by thanking Dr Barter and his management committee, which by now included men as well as women.

The citizens of Cork, who of course, must, both pecuniarily, and otherwise, take an interest in the poor of their city, and especially with regard to their sanitary condition owe sincere thanks to the ladies and gentlemen who have brought this admirable project to a successful finish.

But the ladies and gentlemen of the management committee had by no means considered their project 'finished'; nor did they see their remit as being limited to the actual running of the baths. Some of them, at least, went further by speaking and publishing tracts in support of the use of Turkish baths and other hydropathic remedies. The indefatigable Mrs Donovan was one of them.

Mrs Donovan's pamphlets

It is difficult to know how many pamphlets she wrote, or over what period they were published, as all were written under pseudonyms. One such pamphlet on hydropathy and the use of the Turkish bath, published in 1875, was called Chat upon health: Pat Dennehy visits Mrs Magrath, 'by the author of Illness: its cause and cure, etc'.

On each of two visits, Mrs Magrath has a comic-strip type of conversation to describe the use of the cold compress bandage and hot bran poultice. Pat tells her he won't be able to remember all her instructions.

Mrs M—If you can't, the best thing you can do is to buy the bandage ready-made at the People's Bath, Maylor Street. You will buy it there cheaper than you can make it, and will besides get all the directions you require from the Bath attendants.

Pat is then reminded of the 'beautiful Hot-Air Bath':

Mrs M—Remember we have hot as well as cold treatments. And you are to understand that all whom I advise, take the bath regularly, and oftener on illness than in health.

Pat—I'm afraid few will take up with your cure. People are afraid the Bath will kill them.

At a second visit Mrs Magrath describes a sitz bath but Pat is dubious.

Pat—I suppose that as you are so particular about clean air, you are not satisfied without clean skins. Do you take an all-over wash every morning?

Mrs M—Yes, but our morning wash is soon over, for it is not on that we depend for cleanliness. For a real wash we go to the Turkish bath.

Pat—So you take the Turkish bath! People tell me I would be roasted there. What is the use of all this heat?

Mrs M—What is the use of the sun? One of the plainest marks of good health is a feeling of comfortable warmth, as cold is always characteristic of death. Ask the poor rheumatic cripple what good heat does him? Or the man who was comforted in the Bath in the first chill of illness. If the poor creatures we see on a winter's day shuddering with cold, at the doors of our Dispensaries, were put into the Bath, they would think themselves transported into Heaven.

Pat—If the Bath be so good, why isn't it in all the hospitals?

Mrs M—I leave that to others to answer. All I can tell you, Pat, is that there is no Institution in the City so valuable to you and me as the Bath. It not only washes the skin, but it also washes the blood. It fortifies against cold. It brings the blood to the surface of the whole body, as the hot stupe [poultice] does to a particular part. Its general use would change the whole condition of society, lessen the Poor Rate, and prevent cholera, small-pox, and similar evils, which all spring from dirt....

Pat—Nelly [his wife] says that women are afraid to take the Bath when they are nursing, or when they are in the family-way.

Mrs M—They never made a greater mistake. Not only would it serve the future mother, but the unborn child; and common sense will show that whatever purifies and benefits the nurse will also be useful to the child, who depends on her for nourishment. I often saw babies in the mother's arms in the Bath, or sleeping quietly in a cool corner, and you can't think how bright and lovely little children can look when they come out...

Finally, the pamphlet ends with a straightforward advertisement for the baths.

N.B.—At the People's Bath, 26 Maylor Street, Cork, a Turkish Bath may be had gratis, or for a nominal charge. Advice given, and cold-water bandages and various hydropathic appliances may be purchased.

It is difficult to assess what effect, if any, such pamphlets had in an age when the ability to read was not universal and those presumed to be most in need were least likely to be able to take notice of their content.

Were People's Baths a success?

Nevertheless, in spite of the Maylor Street Turkish baths having such low charges for admission, not to mention the policy of free admission for the poor, the figures for the year 13 November 1871 to 2 November 1872 showed that 14,567 Turkish baths were taken. This brought in an income of £193 16 11 which, after expenditure of £175 13 3, left them with a profit of £ 18 3 8—no mean feat considering that the price of coal had risen considerably since the baths opened in 1863.

At some stage the admission charges must have risen above those in effect when the baths opened, because by 1879 the standard charge had been reduced to 3d. for men and women, and 2d. for children.

In spite of the success of these baths, there was no rush to adopt such ideas elsewhere. In 1873, three years after Barter's death, an article in the Dublin University Magazine, later reprinted as Public bathing: the hot-air bath by Dunlop Durham, argued cogently for Barter's example to be copied.

In Ireland, the Baths and Wash-houses Act has remained almost a dead letter, yet there is no part of the empire in which equal facilities exist for salubrious bathing. This is owing to the enlightened policy followed by the late Dr Barter, the reviver of the hot-air bath in western Europe, whose career as a public benefactor has yet to be appreciated. The baths he was instrumental in establishing in Ireland have been of great public advantage, yet the good they have done only serves to show how much yet remains to be accomplished. We want cheap baths for the people.

Dunlop's plea, like several before it, and others which followed, was ignored.

The baths probably closed some time during 1894. By 1896 when Map 8 of the 1897 Goad Plans were drawn, the site was occupied by Haden & Company's Mineral Water factory.

This page last revised and enlarged 18 November 2018

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1863 advertisement for the People's Turkish Baths

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