Turkish baths in London

9 Caledonian Road

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

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The King's Cross Turkish baths

The first sighting we have of these baths is in Kelly's directory of London dated 1871, so we can be reasonably certain that Josiah Johnson, 'a gentleman of considerable property', opened them some time around 1870. We know nothing more at all about Johnson, and we only learn anything about the baths themselves in 1877 when they were advertised for a few weeks in The Standard.

Strangely, no advertisements can be found announcing the original opening of the baths, but the 1877 campaign was designed to announce their re-opening on Monday 8 October after they had been closed for re-decoration and enlargement.

Although there is no indication as to what facilities were available to bathers, we are told that 'No expense has been spared to make these Baths the most perfect in ventilation and comfort of any in London'—a description applied by their proprietors to most of the baths in London.

Nevertheless, we do learn a little about the bath's opening hours which, for men, were generally from seven in the morning till nine at night. However, on Tuesdays and Thursdays the baths were reserved solely for women from eight until noon, men not being allowed in until three in the afternoon.

By February 1879, Albert Redley had been appointed Manager and the baths were showing signs of a new broom at work. This was the occasion for publishing a much larger advertisement, which seems to have appeared only once. By now the baths were not only being called the best ventilated in London but 'the best ventilated and most luxuriously fitted of any in Europe'.

Certainly the cooling-room which complemented the hot rooms seems by this time to have been extravagantly decorated. The cooling-room, according to the advertisement,

is, in verity, a hall of mirrors. It is a room of noble proportions entirely covered from ceiling to carpet with looking glass, which reproduces the room ad infinitum, forming a sight as singular as it is beautiful. Over 1000 super, feet of glass is employed in producing this unparalleled effect.

There follow four extracts from newspapers extolling the virtues of the establishment, together with its opening hours, which Redley has changed; the baths are now open on Sunday mornings from seven till ten.

The new manager has also taken note of when the baths were less profitable; there are no longer any times set aside for women bathers. Even though the baths were only available for women for eight hours in the week, it appears that there were not enough women bathers to make it financially worthwhile.

There could have been many reasons for this, including the fact that few women had the time or disposable income for such visits. And while the King's Cross area was much like any other during the daytime, its evening and night-time reputation was very different.

[King's Cross] is the centre of a foul network of London vice and ruffianism…The profligate finds here a haven for his vicious desires, and he can be seen from an early hour in the evening till early dawn or until the recuperative powers of nature no longer lend their aid for a prolongation of their animal enjoyment.…Here, as in many other parts of London, disorderly houses of the most disreputable kind exist ad libitum, under the very eyes of the police, and wherein, night after night, a calling of the most iniquitous kind is carried on with the sanction of all the departments of officialdom.

So wrote Henry Vigar-Harris in his London at midnight published in 1885, and it would not have been surprising if many women were wary of venturing there unescorted, even during the daytime.

In 1887, we finally get an artist's impression of what three of the rooms at the baths looked like. Arthur Redley has now become the owner of the baths and he initiated a series of illustrated advertisements which appeared in a number of the programmes issued during performances of the Paris Hippodrome at Olympia.

Redley made further improvements to the baths and, in a brief description which accompanies the images of a hot room and two cooling-rooms, announced the addition of a 'Toilet Saloon' with a hairdresser and a chiropodist in attendance. He also extended the Sunday opening by a further three hours—in effect doubling them by remaining open till one o'clock in the afternoon.

By 1908, Arthur Redley had died and, for a couple of years or so, the baths were run by his widow, Alice Maud Redley. However, some time around 1910, they were bought by Ernest Henry Adams who already owned two other Turkish baths. Adams may have been attempting to build a chain of establishments to rival Nevill's, but the following year all three of his baths were sold to William Cooper who proved to be rather more successful at chain-building.

Cooper was already a successful businessman running a London company which manufactured a great variety of prefabricated greenhouses, sheds, shacks, stables, kiosks, and items of rustic furniture which were not only sent all over the British Isles, but also to the colonies.

Soon after purchasing his first Turkish bath, Cooper formed Savoy Turkish Baths Ltd to run what was at one time a chain of seven London Turkish baths, although one of them, the Camden Town Turkish Baths, closed in March 1916 after a serious fire.

Cooper was a restless spirit constantly changing his mix of businesses and in 1920 he closed his Kensington High Street establishment. The following year he closed three others.

We don't know why he decided to close any of them. These baths, like his establishment at London Bridge, were right opposite an important railway station—in this case, the original Metropolitan Railway King's Cross underground station—and could have been expected to prosper. However, the use of Turkish baths specifically for personal cleansing declined after the 1914-18 war as more homes were built, or fitted, with bathrooms. Cooper may just have felt that there were now too many establishments in London for each of them to make a sufficient profit.

So, in 1921, the King's Cross Turkish Baths closed its doors, and the premises were used for a variety of other purposes becoming, in common with the area itself, somewhat run down until, in the first decade of the 21st century, the cycle of renewal began.

By 2010, modern offices, shops, and a café, stood on the block which used to house the baths, though happily the external façade of the building has been retained.

Just inside the York Way entrance to the new development, a large aluminium-coloured wall plaque is displayed on which the Turkish baths are listed among the many other businesses which used to be housed there nearly a century ago.

At the time of writing, in 2011, the premises of the Turkish baths are occupied by a friendly café-shop-studio and a basement annexe to the next door bookshop. Remarkably, much of the building is relatively unchanged and several interesting architectural details are still visible inside. One can also, at last, try to get a clearer idea of how the baths might have been laid out.

The Turkish baths and their associated areas were arranged on three levels, above which were at least two floors of living quarters for the owners, and a few rooms to let.

Today, on entering the building from Caledonian Road, customers find themselves at the top end of a rectangular room which houses a delightfully informal crafts shop. But when the baths were in operation, this would probably have been subdivided so that there would be an area where tickets were bought and towels provided, a set of cubicles where patrons could change, and probably somewhere for them to lock their valuables. This area may also have had areas where the advertised chiropodist and hairdresser worked.

At the other end of the room, opposite the main entrance, is a flight of ten steps which led up to the cooling-rooms where today's café is situated. Just before the stairway, to the right, a door opens onto a flight of steps which led down to the hot rooms, plunge pool, shower and toilet.

The larger of the two hot rooms would have been the cooler of the two. Each one had marble benches round the walls and each appears to have had encaustic tiled floors which have either been removed or covered over. The ceilings comprise longitudinal brick arches resting on cased girders. These can all be seen in the image of the 1st hot room taken from Alfred Redley's advertisement. The benches and floor tiles are no longer to be seen but the cased girders and brick arches are still visible and remain as part of the structure of the building.

Totally unexpected, because unmentioned in any of the written descriptions of the baths which have so far come to light, is the marble-lined plunge pool lying next to the hot rooms. A narrow rectangular pool about 4ft 6in deep with steps at each end, the empty pool, though now covered over, can still be seen through a trapdoor.

It is difficult to determine when the plunge pool was added to the baths. If they had been added by the first two proprietors it seems inconceivable that it would not have been mentioned in any of the baths advertisements. Further research is necessary before attempting to decide definitively whether it was added by Adams or, perhaps more likely, by William Cooper.

When the bather had sweated sufficiently, he would return upstairs to the first cooling-room where he could relax while cooling down. Apart from the mirror-lined walls, chandeliers, carpet and loungers, the essential shape of the room and some of its features can still be discerned. The room is still lit by a central skylight, though the original small glass panes have been replaced with much larger ones. The false columns with decorated capitals are also still in place, but the style of the large radius curved cove between wall and ceiling has been simplified.

At the far end of the first cooling-room is a second one. It is much smaller, and arranged so that its length is the same as the width of the first room. Each lounger in the cooling-rooms has a small table next to it and this would suggest that light refreshments were available to bathers while they relaxed after their bath.

The columns in this room look rather more substantial and may even be part of the structure. The room still has a dome but, as can be seen when comparing the 19th century illustration with a 21st century photograph (especially in the enlarged versions of the images) it has been altered. At some stage a false ceiling has been placed so as to close off the upper, smaller, part of the dome.

Most noticeably missing, of course, is the fountain which, correctly placed well away from the hot rooms, provided an attractive decorative feature visible down the whole length of the cooling-rooms.

The above description of the location of the various minor rooms, treatment rooms, toilets, and entrance area, is based on the available evidence. However, further research is needed before these suggestions can be confirmed. For the present, we must be grateful that it is still possible to see parts of what was once an attractive Victorian Turkish bath dating from the first decade of the existence of such baths in London.

This page was last updated on 09 March 2011

Thank you icon

Kate Bateman for leading me to Drink, Shop & Do; John Cooper

Neil Infield and his blog, for advice and encouragement

Kristie & Coralie for making us feel so at home in their delightful café-shop-studio

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Two cooling-rooms and a hot room

Commemorative plaque

Exterior of the building

The entrance area

First hot room, with ceiling and steps details

First cooling-room in 19th & 21st centuries

First cooling-room, with details

Second cooling-room, with details

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