Turkish baths in London

119 Buckingham Palace Road

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

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Grosvenor Turkish Baths

These baths were designed by Edward Welby Pugin, architect son of the more famous architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. All that is so far known about their design is that they were 'ventilated on a new principle', that they had a 'plunge bath with marble steps and sills', and that the premises included a 'capital dwelling-house and shop'.

Almost immediately after the baths opened, the Grosvenor Turkish Bath Company Limited was formed to 'purchase, rent or acquire 119 Buckingham Palace Road'. One of the company's directors was William Cottrill, the initial proprietor of the baths. So either Cottrill had overextended his financial resources in building the baths, or he already had an informal agreement with the group which intended to purchase the baths. The former scenario seems most likely for why would Cottrill undertake to finance the project on his own if he could spread the cost among those who intended to purchase it as soon as it opened?

At three shillings a ticket, the baths were expensive and would only have been patronized by the wealthy. Alfred Lord Tennyson was said to have used them. And their architect Pugin was a regular bather there. But clearly there were not enough bathers of this class to enable the baths to make a profit. Within a short time the company was in trouble and the baths were advertised as being for sale by auction 'pursuant to an order', to include the house and shop (which was then being used as a restaurant). The advertisement noted, in the manner of estate agents of all periods, that the baths,

[are] admitted to being one of the most comfortable and as well-arranged as any in the metropolis, are extensively patronized by Royalty and members of the aristocracy, and the number of bathers is constantly increasing from the growing predisposition in favour of this healthy and exquisite system of baths, and the property is therefore expected to yearly increase in value.

The baths were bought by Benjamin Bell who, with his family, immediately moved into the house, which had been included in the sale. In 1861, Bell had been a domestic servant somewhere in Sussex, later moving to Bermondsey in London where he became a bath attendant.

Some time in 1871 or 1872, he moved to Ramsgate where he became manager of the Turkish baths which Pugin had just added to his Granville Hotel in Ramsgate. By 1873, he had 'introduced amongst other things notably successful and hygienic methods of ventilation...' and may, as a result, have advised Pugin on such matters during the design stage of the Grosvenor baths.

Apparently a man of some ability, Bell was able to save or borrow enough to pay for the lease of the Grosvenor Turkish Baths and then go on to make a success of them.

It is to be doubted that he immediately tried cutting costs by lowering standards in any way; a booklet advertising the baths published a few years later boasted a testimonial, signed Arthur, from the Duke of Connaught. Rather, without the Grosvenor company's debt or its need to make a return for its shareholders, and with a wife and two sons aged 15 and 17 to help, he would have found it much easier to generate a profit.

This he must have done, since in 1883—only five years later—he started the Wool Exchange Turkish baths in Basinghall Street, and three years after that, purchased the Terminus Baths at London Bridge.

Benjamin Bell had a lively mind and something of a sense of humour. An advertisement which appeared in 1882 purported to be addressed to Cetewayo, King of Zululand, who, after his devastating defeat of the British at Isandhlwana, was eventually captured. However he so impressed his captors, that he had been allowed to travel to England for an audience with the Queen.

Cetewayo—Meet me at the Grosvenor Turkish Baths, Buckingham-palace-road, any day this week at Four o'clock.—B.B.

Two years later Bell used the same approach, perhaps it was part of a series, asking Randolph [Churchill] to meet him at his Basinghall Street baths.

Bell's humour is seen again in a little book of silhouette drawings called Jones' first visit to a Turkish bath. It was originally published for distribution to his Grosvenor customers some time between 1879 and 1883, when these were the only baths he owned. It was reprinted, possibly more than once, some time between 1883 and 1889, the period when he owned both the Grosvenor Baths and those at the Wool Exchange.

The only difference between the caricature pages of the two versions is the inclusion on this later one of the addresses of the two baths following the original caption. The booklet contains eight images illustrating the various stages of the bath.

In 1890, the local directory records that the proprietor of the baths was now Benjamin's son, Harry. Benjamin may well have wished to take things a little easier and give his elder son more responsibility, while still retaining control over the Wool Exchange Turkish Baths.

He had shown signs of wanting to dispose of the baths some time around 1887 when he had sold them to Joseph T Pearson. But this had not, by all accounts, been successful and he took back ownership of them the following year.

It is also possible that Harry was merely made manager—contemporary directories were not over careful in such matters as long as they recorded what the building was used for.

In either case, Harry did not stay there long; by 1893 the baths, for some unknown reason, had closed.

This page last updated 21 March 2024

Thank you icon



Heather Burns for her help, and for the photo of her great-grandfather, Harry Bell

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Edward Welby Pugin [This is a framed page]

Jones' first visit to a Turkish bath (the front of the booklet)

Jones' first visit to a Turkish bath (the eight caricatures)

Harry Bell

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