Turkish baths in Ireland

Dublin: Upper Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street)

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

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The Hammam or Turkish Baths

1. The Barter years

At some time around 1867, Dr Richard Barter ceased to have any connection with the Turkish Bath Company of Dublin Ltd or with the Lincoln Place Turkish Baths which he had built for them. The exact reason for his departure may never be known but the proposed introduction of moisture into the hot rooms may have been the main issue.

He immediately decided to open another Turkish bath in Dublin, this time to the north of the River Liffey. He would have felt it important that the new baths should clearly be seen to follow the principles which had governed the design of all his earlier establishments. He set about looking for a suitable site, and on 17 June 1868 advertised his requirements.

Wanted immediately to lease or purchase a suitable site in a central part of the city, the north preferred, for the erection of a first class Turkish Bath; a good residence would be desirable.

The advertisements brought a quick response and Dr Barter was able to open his second Turkish bath in Dublin less than a year later on 17 March 1869, just eighteen months before he died. It was built as an extension at the rear of a typically Georgian building, until then known as Reynold's Hotel, situated at numbers 11 and 12 Upper Sackville Street, and now known as (Upper) O'Connell Street.

The baths were built behind the hotel. All the public rooms, together with the thirty bedrooms, were refurbished, and the establishment was then renamed the Hammam Family Hotel and Turkish Baths.

Leading off the entrance hall was the galleried cooling-room and dressing rooms. Just beyond were four separate suites of Turkish baths, two large ones for men, one for women, and a private suite which could be made available for men or women. There were also private rooms with hot, tepid, and cold water baths.

As bathers passed from one hot room to another they were able to experience temperatures ranging from 120-230 degrees Fahrenheit. The rooms were heated by a type of underfloor hypocaust and bathers were provided with cork-soled slippers to ensure that they did not burn their feet on the floors.

The fittings and furniture were reported to be both costly and luxurious, with the ladies’ apartment being ‘even more sumptuously furnished and decorated than that of the gentlemen’s’. During the day the rooms were ventilated and lit by frosted or stained glass windows and skylights; by night the painted lamps and gasoliers produced lighting which was considered to be ‘most brilliant and effective’.

Unlike the baths at St Ann’s, which were part of a hydropathic establishment, the Hammam baths included a comfortably furnished ‘waiting or smoking room for gentlemen’. An arched corridor led to the men’s baths, with ‘appropriate inscriptions, inculcating the excellence and importance of thorough cleanliness’ painted in ornamental letters on each arch, and lit at night, like the other rooms, by coloured lamps and a double row of gas jets.

But there were, adjoining the baths, separate coffee-rooms for men and women, with an ice-cream soda water apparatus which produced ‘eight different kinds of delicious drinks, to cool and refresh the bather’.

As well as building the baths so that the hot rooms were dry and gave bathers an effective Turkish bath, Barter also ensured that the design and furnishing of the bath was special, for the original Lincoln Place baths were still open and would be competing for business. He seems to have succeeded. As one writer put it,

When the whole building is lighted up it has more the appearance of a scene in one of Scheherazade's beautiful tales than of a solid, bona fide brick and mortar business in the centre of a great city.

As with all Dr Barter's baths, apart from St Ann's, the day to day running of the establishment and its 'numerous staff of efficient attendants' was entrusted to a manager, in this case Mr James Walsh, who had previously run Barter's Turkish baths at Bray.

Dr Barter died on 3 October 1870 and the Hammam, as part of his estate, passed to his eldest son, Mr Richard Barter, who wisely retained Walsh as manager. Although Richard Barter's main interest was in agriculture and the farm at St Ann's, he still kept a close watch on the Turkish bath establishments and was not slow to make improvements, even to one which was not yet two years old. Within three months of taking over the Hammam he had decided that the catering needed improvement and transferred Joseph Shorthall from St Ann's, to become its Catering Manager.

Barely a month later, an additional set of baths was opened adjoining the original ones, which were now to be redecorated and reserved for the use of women bathers.

The new baths were on such a scale that they can only have been part of Dr Barter's original plan. The cooling-room was 70 foot by 34 foot wide, and its 25 foot high ceiling allowed for fifty-five cubicles to be ranged around the room and on galleries above, each cubicle upholstered and curtained off. The room itself was carpeted and amply supplied with seats and recliners. The main hot room was 60 foot by 30 foot, maintained between 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit; the smaller room was kept between 180 and 200 degrees. A range of different types of shower complemented a six foot wide cold plunge pool, seventeen foot long. This clearly met with bathers' approval; during the first three months the new baths were open they were catering for around 200 bathers each day.

Walsh retired in 1873, being 'presented with a purse of sovereigns by a number of the frequenters of the Turkish Baths, as a mark of esteem,' and was briefly succeeded by William Henry Kelly.


2. The baths under Michael Duggan and son

Soon after Kelly was appointed, Richard Barter decided, as his father had done before him, to end direct ownership of his baths once they had become firmly established. Instead, the premises and facilities would be leased to someone else who would then run the business as an independent proprietor.

So on 6 March 1874, the baths changed hands and Michael Duggan (previously Steward of the Agricultural Club and therefore well-known to Barter) became the new proprietor, paying him £800 a year in rent. Initially, Duggan seems to have managed the baths and the hotel himself, but the baths were decorated and improved in 1877 and after this he appointed a Mr M H Williams as manager.

Most of the improvements, apart from the electric bath, seem to have fallen into the category of redecoration and repair, but there were also cosmetic improvements to the outside of the building. At each side of the doorway 'a large lamp of coloured glass bearing the name of the establishment and supported by an arm clad in armour reaching out from the wall' was added. Inside, the entrance and hallway were much altered and a fountain added. To take account of these improvements Duggan's rent was increased to £810 a year, payable in monthly instalments.

In August 1878, at the time of this advertisement, the two main competing Turkish baths in Dublin (both originally built by Dr Barter) were joined by a new competitor, the Stephen's Green Turkish Baths opened by Henry J Jury of Jury's Hotel. Although the new baths were closer to Lincoln Place than Upper Sackville Street, central Dublin was not so large that the baths were not equally competitive with each other.

At the same time, the hotel was also improved, and included in its advertisements were tasty inducements to try the restaurant, and a rather coy pretence that the two establishments were separately owned.

Table d'hôte at Half-past Six daily, comprising Two soups, Two Fishes, Two Entrees, Joints, Vegetables, and Cheese, Three Shillings and Sixpence. NB—The Proprietor having entered into arrangement with the owner of the Turkish Baths, the charge to visitors staying at the 'Hammam' is only One Shilling for the Bath.

Further decorative improvements were carried out the following year, and much of the furniture was replaced by items which were more easily cleaned and therefore more hygienic. It may be that this is where competition from Jury's establishment led the way. The new couches were of wirework covered in easily cleaned matting. The shampooing benches were made of plain wooden planks. The floors were tiled and the washing facilities renewed.

Michael Duggan died on 4 July 1881 and his son took over for a few months. However, the rental agreement between Barter and Michael Duggan was 'for the term of Mr Duggan's life' and, for whatever reason, his son omitted to inform Barter of his father's death. Barter was not at all pleased, and took Duggan Jnr to Court seeking to recover possession of the Hammam.

Duggan claimed that a new letting had been made to him by virtue of Barter's acceptance of the rent, paid two days after his father's death. But the jury found for Barter on the basis that when he accepted the rent he was not aware that Duggan had died.


3. The baths under John North, and their destruction

Ten days after the end of the court case, the baths already had a new proprietor. John North, previously manager of the County Galway Club, bought the hotel and the baths, and retained Mr Williams as his baths manager for the next eight years.

It is not absolutely clear whether North leased the building from Barter, as Duggan had done, or whether he also bought it. This seems the most likely scenario because if Barter had merely wished to raise the rent slightly, it would have been easier and less costly to have made a new agreement with Duggan's son. But if he wanted to sell the property completely, then Duggan would not have been able to afford such a purchase. Barter's own lease on Nos. 12 and 13 had only another eleven years to run, and that on No.11 had only seventeen years, so this would have been a good opportunity for him to sell.

North continued the practice of regular refurbishment and renewal. In August 1890, for example, he added a fourth shampooing-room, having earlier opened a separate set of second class baths for men. These had their own entrance in Thomas's Lane at the rear of the building. They were open from six in the morning till nine at night, and cost just sixpence.

On 13 April 1892, North took a new 100 year lease on the hotel building. This gave him the confidence to extend it by the addition of public rooms which could be hired out. At the same time he installed electric lighting throughout the hotel and added a billiards room which was not only accessible from the hotel but also from the baths.

John North, who had latterly been one of the two Vice-Presidents of the Hotel and Restaurant Proprietors Association of Ireland, died some time between 1901 and 1911, and the Hammam, together with the Donegall Street Turkish Baths in Belfast, passed to his son-in-law, Joseph Armstrong.

If the baths continued running smoothly and uneventfully during the next few years, the Easter Rising of 1916, one of the defining moments in the struggle for Irish independence, interrupted its peaceful existence. The GPO (the General Post Office, standing on the side of O'Connell Street opposite the Hammam) became the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers. When the British woke up to what was going on, they bombarded the building. The GPO and several other buildings on that side were soon in flames, while others in the street were effectively under siege.

During this period, supplies of food for the 75 visitors and staff inside the Hammam began to run out and rations were severely reduced. There were not enough bedrooms to house everyone and the Hammam cooling-rooms 'had to be used as bedrooms for a large number of people who were unable or afraid to occupy their rooms in the hotel during the revolution.' But, continued the Irish Times, there was a lighter side.

A diversion that was much enjoyed was created by a pig hunt which took place in the lane at the rere of the hotel on Saturday evening. Two soldiers on duty failed to secure the pig and then shot the animal, which was taken into the hotel. Happy visions of rashers for supper were conjured up in the minds of the half-starved visitors. But here the difficulty was encountered of how to prepare the carcase for food. No one knew what should be done, and as a last resort the military were appealed to. Amongst the soldiers a man was found who had formerly been employed as a butcher, and he willingly consented to perform the necessary operation, 'but,' he said, 'this is our pig you have got. We have only bully beef and you have our pig.' An excited discussion followed, and at length Mr Thomas Atkins obligingly said. 'Oh, well, I'll clean him all right.' This he did in first class style, and the carcase was duly hung up in the hotel kitchen. Dismay was on every face when it was learned that the bacon would not be fit for consumption until the following Tuesday (today). There were no rashers for breakfast on Sunday.

After the Rising was defeated, little seems to have been done to improve the baths. This is only to be expected. It would be surprising if business had been other than relatively poor, although no documentary evidence survives to confirm or refute this suggestion. Relaxation was hardly in the air. Britain was heavily involved in the 1914-1918 War, and in Ireland itself there was increasing tension between the various military and political factions which was soon to culminate in the Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923).

If the Hammam was under siege during the Easter Rising, six years later in 1922, it was right at the centre of the fighting in O'Connell Street. On 3 July it was reported that during the afternoon the end of the conflict had seemed near.

…a large and expectant crowd is at this moment gathered along the quays in anticipation of seeing the white flag hoisted from the Gresham, Hammam's and other hotels in O'Connell-street amidst the bulging stout bins in which Mr de Valera [later Premier, and afterwards, President of what was to become the Republic of Ireland] and his adherents have ensconced themselves. Whether their capitulation is as imminent as seems popularly to be supposed it is quite impossible to say.

But two days later the battle for O'Connell Street was still in progress, with shots being fired from both sides of the street. The Hammam was a major target, and was spectacularly and rapidly destroyed.

There had been the usual early morning lull in hostilities, and the crowd of onlookers, which seems to beset every near approach to the actual fighting, took advantage of it to enter O'Connell-street at the lower end. They scattered on the approach of the eighteen-pounder gun, a single shot from which enlarged a breach in the ugly dull red front of the hotel. Incendiary bombs were then placed in the doorway, but these were ineffective. National soldiers entered the building, and afterwards emerged safely, having apparently encountered none of the opposing force. Immediately afterwards the flames broke out, and Hammam's was soon a roaring furnace.

Nothing was left of Dr Barter's last public Turkish baths but a pile of bricks and masonry. Two years after the fire, Joseph Armstrong, as lessee of the Hammam, claimed £36,632 for the destruction of the hotel and Turkish baths attached, £9,982 for furniture and fittings, and £511 for his stock. The Recorder of Dublin granted the claims for the building and stock, but reduced the amount available for furniture to £7,000.

The Recorder also attached a full reinstatement clause. This was a clause in the post-war Damage to Property (Compensation) Bill of 1923 which stated that if a building destroyed during the fighting was normally used for business or trade and contributed economically to the area, then the full cost of replacing it had to be awarded.

But although the hotel and baths had been in the family for 35 years, Armstrong decided to call it a day. It may be that he did not have the will to start over again, or it may be that in such turbulent times he felt that his family, as protestants, would have a better life in Belfast where he already owned the Donegall Street establishment. The site was put up for public auction.

The Hammam was never rebuilt after it was destroyed. Offices and shops stand on the site today; their only connection with Barter's baths is the name—Hammam Buildings.

Thank you icon


Eithne Massey, Dublin & Irish Local Studies Collections, Dublin City Public Libraries

Tash Shifrin

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

The Hammam Turkish baths and hotel

The Hammam cooling-room, c.1910

Free State troops throwing smoke bombs

The hotel in flames

The Hotel and Turkish baths gutted by the flames

Auction sale announcement

Hammam Buildings, 2006

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