Turkish baths in Ireland

 

Limerick: Military Road / Charles 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 Ireland
 

 

  

Turkish baths

These baths were amongst those which Dr Richard Barter built, or was in some way associated with, in the second half of the 1850s. They were built on a large site, 50x150 feet, at the corner of Military Road (later renamed O'Connell Avenue) and Charles Street (later, St Gerard Street).

Not all his baths were like these—quasi-oriental in appearance—but all provided separate similar departments for men and women.

The men's section comprised a large cooling-room with a series of changing cubicles, each with a curtain over its entrance to ensure privacy.

Leading off the cooling-room was the first hot room with a temperature of from 120ºF to 130ºF. Separated from this by a wall about ten feet high, and with a curtain across the doorway, was an inner chamber heated to a temperature of about 145ºF to 150ºF. Air flowed freely between the two hot rooms as there was a five foot gap between the top of the dividing wall and the ceiling.

There is a certain irony in that the only description we have of the inside of this bath is taken from a long letter to The Lancet in 1861 by a Dr Thomas Westropp. Certainly parts of the letter seem quite neutral, or even positive, as in this extract.

In two small compartments, a little larger than an ordinary water-closet, screened off from the inner hot chamber, are tanks, also stone founts or loutra and pipes to wash off the accumulated perspiration from the bather before returning to the frigidarium to dress. The entire affair is nicely got up, and the attendants are civil and attentive.

But the letter continued, 

It struck me, however, on more than one occasion, that the ventilation was not so free as it ought to be, though there are several openings in the walls, which happened to be shut, perhaps to please some customers who think they can derive no benefit unless the place be as close as possible, and heated to a maximum. I also think some of the products of combustion from the furnace get into the inner heated chamber through the gratings in the floor and the sides of the couches. This ought not to be.

Like all the Turkish baths opened by Barter at around this time, this one was subjected to criticism of its ventilation during the 1860  controversy about whether the hot air in a Victorian Turkish bath should be wet, humid or dry. This criticism, much of which was not unbiased, was soon dismissed, especially the suggestion that 'products of combustion from the furnace' get into the hot room.

However, the ventilation of this particular establishment was to crop up again the following year due to the unfortunate death of a bather while in the Turkish bath. Dr Westropp's letter, with its criticism of the ventilation, followed this death and seemed to imply that the bather's death was in some way due to the supposed faulty ventilation.

The local newspaper reported the incident quite factually the day after it occurred.

SUDDEN DEATH

Last evening a man named William Thompson, who resided at the Windmill in this City, after taking a Turkish bath at the establishment on the Military Road, died suddenly in one of the dressing rooms, of disease of the heart, under which he was labouring for the last two years. The deceased has left a wife and eight children.

But two and a half weeks later, the report in the British Medical Journal was clearly biased against the Turkish bath. It read:

DEATH AFTER USING A TURKISH BATH—A person is stated to have died lately, in Limerick, from the effects of a Turkish bath. From the account given it is evident that the immediate cause of death was rupture of a blood-vessel—probably of an aneurism—the rupture being, we may fairly suppose, hastened by the effects of the bath.

In fact there were many doctors who believed  the use of the bath would do them out of business. As late as 1877 several wrote to Richard Metcalfe (who was campaigning for a Turkish bath in Paddington) and expressed views similar to those of Dr Andrew Clarke, who wrote, 'As I think that the Turkish Bath should not be used without the sanction of a medical man, I am unable to give my support to any project for its indiscriminate and unguarded use.'

An article in The Field  (which had previously published several items in favour of David Urquhart and the Turkish bath) used this incident to attack those doctors who, but a few months earlier had known nothing of the Turkish bath, and who now claimed to be experts laying down the law about when, for how long, and at what temperature, it should be used. The full letter from Dr Thomas Westropp to the editor of The Lancet (part of which is quoted above) was reproduced in the article. Westropp reported that he had been at the inquest on the death of an elderly man who had died in Barter's Limerick establishment.

On Tuesday evening, April 30, the man before mentioned, who is said to have laboured under some chest affection for a long time, went to the hot-air baths for the second time, having, as he thought, derived some temporary benefit or relief from his first visit. While being washed in the small compartment off the most-heated chamber, he was taken with a fit of retching or coughing, and exclaimed that some lump had broken within his chest, which relieved his sense of oppression. Immediately large quantities of blood issued from his mouth; the attendants removed him speedily to the outer cool dressing-room, and laid him on a cushioned bench; he gradually sank, and died in about four or five minutes from the haemorrhage. A medical gentleman who had been sent for found the man dead on his arrival. His opinion of the cause of death was, that an aneurism had ruptured; but no post-mortem examination having been ordered (which is a rather constant omission in Ireland), he of course could not be very accurate in his statements.

He then pointed out the moral of the story.

Hitherto Turkish baths have been cried up in Ireland as something miraculous; now, the chance is, public opinion will run into the opposite extreme, and pronounce them a kill-all.  I, as well as other medical men, had long since warned the public to use them only medicinally under competent advice.

The article in The Field suggested that Westropp's use of the Latin terms for the room name s made it seem 'more than likely' that he had 'been "reading up" the bath' in the pages of Erasmus Wilson's book on the subject. The writer of the article then asks:

What are the facts of this case? An elderly man dies in a bath from what is suspected to be an aneurism. Mr Westropp says that it is a bath arranged by Dr Barter, and that it is ill-ventilated. Very likely; that is the defect in every so-called public Turkish bath built for the purpose of speculation that we have as yet seen.

This writer is not totally disinterested either; he writes from London where it is known that David Urquhart himself is at that moment involved in building the Hammam in Jermyn Street, and he would certainly ensure that the ventilation there would be perfect. The article continues:

But defect of ventilation, though it might produce temporary inconvenience, and even drive the bather out of the bath to seek fresh air, will not kill. The man, in the opinion of the Limerick faculty, died of an aneurism; and an aneurism will kill anywhere. Mr Westropp is not so absurd as to suggest that the bath caused the aneurism; but if it did not, what can be the logical reason for connecting them? Does he suppose that the bath can cure an aneurism? No one has ever pretended that it can; though perhaps it may be maintained, and with success, that the use of the bath might defer the mortal effect by improving the health and working condition of the organs. What, then, has Mr Westropp's 'case' proved, but that a man afflicted with a mortal disease, of a nature to kill him at any moment, happened to die in a Turkish bath? What then? he might have died in his bed, or in a coach. Would Mr Westropp, in either of those cases, have written to The Lancet his fears that public opinion would run into the opposite extreme, and pronounce beds and coaches 'a kill-all'?

A month later, the incident was brought up again by another doctor with an axe to grind. A Dr William Alfred Johnson, proprietor of Malvern House, a hydropathic establishment in Delgany, near Dr Barter's Turkish baths in Bray, published a pamphlet entitled A word to the public on the Turkish bath. Although an unashamed puff for his own hydro, the pamphlet was designed to appear as an unbiased appraisal of the Turkish bath for the general reader. It was almost immediately taken to pieces, with great irony and a certain stylishness, by Dr T Rayner (at that time proprietor of the Lower Temple Street Turkish baths in Dublin) in a pamphlet of his own, A voice from the thermae.

Most of Johnson's attacks on the Turkish bath were simply dealt with. But his use of the unfortunate death of this bather in one of Barter's establishments, in order to prove that the Turkish bath was a danger to be avoided at all costs, was clearly too much for Rayner.

But there is one singular case which the Doctor adduces among his 'facts' which we have scarcely seen equalled either in any Medical Report, or any arguments like those deduced from it. He quotes the case of a man who died after the Turkish Bath, at Limerick, thus—'This very day, May 3rd, 1861, I have just read an account in the Irish times of an inquest having been held on the corpse of a man, who, whilst in the Turkish Bath at Limerick, was seized with spitting of blood, and who died shortly afterwards. I have not seen the result of the inquest, but as far as I can observe, a general impression appears to prevail that the calamity was due to the bath, but that it was the man's own fault who went into it shortly after dinner. To my mind this is a dangerous and foolish doctrine, for it gives to the public a cloak of security as false as it is transparent. If the bath be so severe as to cause death, the precaution of taking it only on an empty stomach will prove no safeguard against its danger. If five grains of strychnine be taken into the stomach it makes very little matter whether the stomach be full or empty, for death will follow in either case!!'

Now let us consider this as a grave statement of facts, by a Medical gentleman, in reasoning on an agent which is of the utmost importance to the public health.

An inquest is held on the 2nd of May, on the body of a man who died after a Turkish Bath at Limerick. Dr Johnson reads this fact, as he states, on the next day, May 3rd, in a Dublin paper. The verdict of that jury is brought in on that same day, the 3rd; but we must not presume that Dr Johnson never either read or heard of that verdict, though, no doubt, it must have been published in the Dublin papers on the 4th.

For the Doctor publishes a pamphlet on the subject of the Turkish Bath in the middle of June. He cites the fact of the man's death after the bath at Limerick; he cites the fact of the inquest being summoned, but, though the verdict of the jury was this:—'That the deceased came by his death from natural causes, and that no blame was to be attached to the bath, nor to any one connected therewith'; though the evidence of the Medical gentleman who examined the body was this:—'That, in his opinion, the deceased died of aneurism, or from the rupture of a diseased vessel situated in some place in connection with the heart, and a rupture of that vessel might have been the cause of death; excitement in his own family at home, or in the street, might cause death'—yet, in defiance of the verdict of the jury, in defiance of the evidence of the Medical man, on which it was founded, Dr Johnson quotes 'a general impression' which he said 'appeared to prevail', before the verdict was given, 'that the calamity was due to the bath'. He assumes this as true, and then argues on this monstrous assumption, 'If the bath be so severe as to cause death, the precaution of taking it on an empty stomach is no safeguard against its danger', and he then compares its being taken at any time to a person taking 'five grains of strychnine'

Fortunately, none of this seems to have affected the use by the public of Barter's baths. There is also a certain irony in the fact that three years after this controversy, in 1864, Dr Johnson installed a Turkish bath, which was also open to the general public, at his Delgany Hydropathic Establishment in County Wicklow.

In 1872, two years after Barter's death, the surviving proprietor, Samuel Wormleighton refurbished the baths. This was, in effect, a major refit and the bath was closed for quite a while during the alterations.

The men's area was enlarged and the heating system changed from the original flues under the floor which necessitated the wearing of wooden pattens to avoid burning bathers' feet. Privacy in the shampooing area was improved by the provision of orname ntal screens. But the new facility probably most appreciated by bathers was the installation of a cold plunge pool, 15ft long by 5½ft wide and 4 foot deep, in the centre of a separate room. The steps, the bottom, and edging were in white marble, while the side walls were of white ename lled bricks. No new facilities were added in the women's baths although, like the men's baths, the ventilation and lighting were improved.

In the light of the improvements in the heating and ventilation systems it might be thought that perhaps the ventilation in the original baths was, after all, not as good as it should have been. Clearly Mr Wormleighton was prepared for such a suggestion, for the Limerick chronicle reported that,

In remodelling the Turkish Baths upon more scientific principles, Mr Wormleighton has had the benefit of a long experience of all the Turkish Baths in Ireland while acting as partner with the late Dr Barter, whose name in connection with those great health-invigorators is a household word. He has, in the present establishment, remedied all the defects that science and common sense could suggest, and we have no doubt it will be found he has made it one of the finest, and, for its size, one of the most perfect institutions of its kind in Ireland.

At this time there were two classes of bather. The baths were open from 6.00 in the morning till 8.30 at night, bathers paying 1/- in the morning or evening, and 2/- around midday.

There is some confusion as to who was the proprietor after Samuel Wormleighton died. Was it his daughter, or perhaps sister, and was she followed by his wife? However, by 1884 it was owned by Mrs Connolly, widow of James Connolly who had been superintendent of the baths for several years.

It seems that she was unable or unwilling to continue running it for more than a few years, and business may have been affected by the brand new Turkish baths opened in 1887 by Mr Taylor in Sarsfield Street. Although there is a trade directory entry for the baths in 1891, this has not been corroborated elsewhere.

The Turkish baths (on a long lease at a ground rent of only £17 10s. 0d per year) were offered for sale as a going concern by the vendors 'because they believe themselves unable to give the concern the attention which is absolutely indispensable'. At the time of the sale the baths included an Italian marble plunge bath, but whether this was part of the original baths is not known.

Also unknown at present is whether there was a purchaser, and in what year the baths finally closed.

 



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

Exterior of Military Road Turkish Baths, Limerick

Limerick's Military Road Turkish baths: for sale advertisements

Top of the page
                   

 

All complete pages,
with images, footnotes,
glossary & bibliography,
can be reached from the

Printer-friendly single frame
versions of all text pages
(and from them, all images)
can be reached from the

You can bookmark this page

Home Page

You can print this page

Site Map

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

Comments and queries are most welcome and can be sent to:

malcolm@victorianturkishbath.org

The right of Malcolm Shifrin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him
in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988