Turkish baths on ocean liners


RMS Queen Elizabeth



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


Original illustrated page with chronology and notes

List of other Turkish baths in ocean liners



RMS Queen Elizabeth


The Queen Elizabeth spent her first years as a troop carrier during World WarII. It was refitted in 1946 and both Harry Leather and John Dempsey, who before the war had worked on the Queen Mary, were appointed to the new liner, together with a young boy, Tommy McDonald, as assistant. The liner was in no condition for luxury cruising.

There was dirt, dust and workmen everywhere: joiners, carpenters, fitters... Nobody knew where the Turkish bath was but we eventually found it under the first class restaurant. We cleaned and scrubbed the place until it began to look something like a Turkish bath. Whatever we needed for stores had to be ordered…the same Knights Castile soap, '365' Cologne for alcohol rubs and bottles of olive oil.

Because the Turkish bath was situated below the restaurant, there was no balcony overlooking the swimming pool from which one could enter the Turkish bath—unlike the layout of the Queen Mary. Instead, the entrance was directly opposite the lift from the promenade and sun decks, past the squash courts and gymnasium, and straight down to the level of the Turkish bath.

The facilities provided were, in general, similar to those on the earlier Queen, though the furnishings were, perhaps, a little softer. John Dempsey describes the Turkish bath suite as consisting of  

a long corridor with various rooms on either side. The first door on the right opened into the electric therapy room with radiant heat and ultraviolet. The door opposite led to the swimming pool. On the right of the corridor was our locker room and lavatory and to the left were eight cubicles with curtains, beds and lockers…

This part of the corridor, some 25'6"x10'0" was, in effect, the frigidarium—a far more utilitarian space than the lavishly furnished rooms in the Olympic and the Titanic.

There was also an electric bath, although this was so little used that it was soon converted into a linen store. The three showers, with jets of ice cold or hot water, were considered most successful though no-one seems to have considered the difficulty of using a beautiful balance-type weighing machine on a ship which was prone to roll.

The massage room had two up-to-date tables with chrome surrounds and a two-inch armoured glass surface. This made it extremely easy to clean up any surplus massage oil which might seep through the clean towels on which the bathers lay.

Next to the massage room was the Turkish bath itself, comprising three hot rooms: the tepidarium (150ºF) and caldarium (175ºF), each 14'0"x10'6", and the much hotter laconicum (200ºF) which was only 7'6"x10'6".

Dempsey writes,

To complete the picture there was a Russian bath which used steam instead of dry heat in order to work up a quick sweat.

The [whole] place was completely tiled in magnolia and we had plenty of wonderful soft carpeting which was easy on the feet. It was a very light colour so shoes were banned and we didn't like people coming straight in from the swimming pool...

The baths were open each day from 7 till 10, and from 2 till 7 for the male passengers, and from 10 till 2, under the direction of Mrs Wilson (the masseuse) for female passengers. The return trip took from eleven to thirteen days and crew members would work five consecutive trips with the sixth taken as leave.

Once passengers had enjoyed a Turkish bath on board, they tended to return again, encouraged also by the reduced rate for tickets valid for the whole voyage. In the words, again, of John Dempsey,

Passengers usually booked the Turkish bath for the whole voyage and, most often, at the same time every day. They didn’t come down because they wanted to lose weight or were suffering from some ailment or muscle disorder but because it formed part of their entertainment aboard ship. We were well known for our stories and general bonhomie. It was an opportunity for them to leave their cabins and the upper decks filled with lounges, smokerooms and restaurants to let their hair down for a while. They usually told a few stories and had a pint of beer with us. Occasionally they came down just for a snooze in one of our cubicles. It was fun.

John Dempsey was to stay on the Queen Elizabeth for fourteen years before he decided to move to Bermuda where he had been asked to run the Turkish bath in a newly built hotel.

By that time, leisurely crossing of the Atlantic by sea was in decline, increasingly affected by the growing popularity of jet air travel. Passenger numbers fell and Cunard began seriously to examine the costs of every aspect of their liner operation. The financial return on the provision of Turkish baths on the Caronia and the two Queens must have made dismal reading.

A memorandum from the Cunard General Manager's Office, dated 6 May 1963, noted that on the Queen Elizabeth, the cost of the Turkish baths staff—two males, one female, and a boy—exceeded the receipts by £1,971.5.0. This was a considerable loss (though less than that being made on the Queen Mary).

An analysis of the previous year's voyage receipts showed that on the Queen Elizabeth, able to accommodate 823 First Class passengers, the average number of 'treatments' given per sailing day was only 13.7

The writer, Mr T Laird, asked whether any overtime was being worked and suggested that if the staffing could be reduced by one person, and the charges to the passengers raised, then the service 'might be put on a profitable basis'.

It is not known whether any changes were made, but by this time Cunard must already have been considering whether to continue the liner in service after the launch of their new project, the QE2.


  Charlotte Swire, Special Collections and Archives,
Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool

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High jinks in the Turkish bath

John Dempsey adjusts the heat lamp in the therapy room

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

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