Turkish baths in London

Ashwin Street

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

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Original page

This is a much shortened version
of an article which first appeared in
Hackney History 14
published in December 2008
by The Friends of Hackney Archives.
It appears here by kind permission of
Isobel Watson, the editor of Hackney History.

Dalston Junction Turkish Baths

In today’s multicultural society, where mosques—especially those with minarets, ogee windows, or domes—are familiar to anyone living in a town of any significant size, Islamic architecture no longer surprises us. But in 1882 this was not so.

Of course, drawings or paintings of such buildings abroad would be familiar to some, but only rarely would an English building (the idiosyncratic Brighton Pavilion, for example) have astonished the ordinary passer-by.

It is quite difficult for us nowadays to imagine the effect on a local resident leaving Dalston Junction Station, perhaps on the way home from work, on seeing this new building—a Turkish bath—right opposite, in Ashwin Street.

The opening of a Turkish bath in Dalston was not in itself extraordinary; twenty-two years had already passed since the first such bath had opened in London. But the Dalston Junction Turkish Baths were unusual.

First, it seems that they were probably the only Turkish baths ever to open in the boroughs of Hackney, Shoreditch or Stoke Newington, although there were, at various periods from 1860 onwards, establishments in all but one of the surrounding boroughs. In the second quarter of the 20th century the councils of both Hackney and Stoke Newington decided to build Turkish baths, but neither project came to fruition.

Second, Dalston Junction was one of a minority of Turkish baths which were purpose-built. Of approximately 600 establishments which I have identified in Victorian Britain (that is, including the whole of Ireland), only twenty percent were purpose-built. The remainder were located in existing buildings, mainly converted shops, houses, or occasionally even churches.

Third, Dalston Junction was the first of only two Turkish baths in London to have attempted an Islamic style of architecture for the exterior of the building. (The other, dating from 1895—now a listed building—is currently a restaurant in Bishopsgate Churchyard, near Liverpool Street Station.) Underlining Dalston Junction’s importance, is that there were only fifteen other baths throughout the rest of the British Isles which were designed to echo, or mimic, what Victorians often called the Saracenic style of architecture. A discussion of why this should have been so can be found elsewhere on this site.

It is not known for certain who was the first owner of the Dalston Junction Turkish Baths, though it may have been Mr H G Bell who was listed as its proprietor in 1884, two years after it opened. Whoever it was must have been financially secure, or have had wealthy backers. And he must surely have worked in, or been connected with another Turkish bath beforehand to have been able, so expertly, to specify what he wanted.

The architect (who was also employed to supervise the building work) was 27 year old John Hatchard-Smith who had offices nearby at Moorgate Station Buildings. This was quite early in his career (he had begun independent practice only in 1877), but he became an architect of some stature, with perhaps his highest profile project being the famous Trocadero Restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue for J Lyons & Co. He was also very active in his home town of Epsom (where, among many other projects, he was commissioned to modernise Lord Rosebery’s Epsom mansion). On the eve of WW1, he took his son, William, into partnership. Some time after the war, William settled in Budleigh Salterton and successfully ran his end of the 'J Hatchard-Smith & Son' practice from there. (More about Hatchard-Smith and his family can be found on the Epsom & Ewell History Explorer website.)

The construction was undertaken by J Holland, builders, of Poplar, and the engineering work, by Messrs Tylor & Sons, a company of sanitary engineers which had originally been founded in 1768 as a manufacturer of tea urns.

Although the building was so unusual there seems to have been no mention of its design (or even its opening) in any of the local papers. Nor do there appear to have been any newspaper advertisements announcing its facilities or charges, though there were a few in local directories.

Perhaps the owner thought that the appearance of such a building so close to the railway station was advertisement enough. He was certainly sufficiently confident to specify a relatively large building, possibly influenced by the fact that the population of Hackney parish had risen considerably in the previous two decades and was still rising.

Unfortunately it is not known whether his optimism was justified as there are no figures to indicate how successful the baths were. And, for men at least, there was competition in neighbouring Islington at 275 City Road where Thomas Smith’s Turkish baths had opened in 1872 and survived, under his son Robert, until 1941.

Another indication of self-confidence was building separate Turkish baths for men and women. Of around 370 stand-alone Turkish baths built in the British Isles during Victoria’s reign, only 100 or so had any facilities for women. Of these, about one third had separate baths for each sex. The norm was for the men’s baths to be reserved for women’s use at specific times, usually just one or two days per week.

At Dalston Junction Turkish Baths men and women could use the baths simultaneously whenever the baths were open. In practice, it seems that—at least around 1887—the women’s baths were not open all the time. Although the men’s baths were open every day from eight o’clock in the morning till ten at night (noon on Sundays), the women’s baths were only open from eight o’clock till nine on Mondays and Wednesdays, till five on Fridays, and from five in the afternoon till ten o’clock on Thursdays.

Men and women paid the same admission charges, but since women did not have either a plunge pool or a smoking room, they were in effect being charged at a higher rate. A Turkish bath cost 1/6d, or 1/- for twelve tickets bought at the same time. All tickets cost 1/- after five o’clock on Thursday afternoons.

In addition to Turkish baths, there were also slipper baths for men and women. These were an important facility since few houses had running water, and then, usually, only to the extent of a single tap.

In other areas of London, as elsewhere, slipper baths were provided by those local authorities which had adopted the Public Baths and Wash-houses Acts of 1846 and 1847. These were enabling acts which allowed boroughs to borrow money to provide baths, wash-houses and, initially, open-air swimming pools. An 1847 amendment added the provision of vapour baths, and another in 1878 allowed the swimming pools to be covered in.

But Hackney only adopted the act in 1891 and its public baths in Lower Clapton Road did not open until 1897. While neighbouring Stoke Newington and Shoreditch adopted the acts even later.

Dalston Junction Turkish Baths, with its own nine slipper baths, could hardly hope to make much impact on such a shortage of baths, even in conjunction with other smaller private establishments. More relevant is that their baths were expensive compared with those provided elsewhere under the act, and so were way out of the reach of those most in need of them. In 1885, a warm bath here cost from 5d to 1/-, with the price varying according to the time of day and, usually, whether soap and towel were provided.

Shortly before the baths opened, probably towards the end of January 1882, a short illustrated article—apparently the only one—appeared in The Builder.

Externally, the building was faced with red Suffolk bricks, having arches built of the yellow clay-and-chalk bricks known as malms, and the caps, cornices, and cupola moulded in cement. There were separate doors for each sex—men entering on the left and women on the right. 

The internal layout of the building was well thought out. The hot rooms, shampooing rooms and plunge bath were in the basement. The cooling-rooms and slipper baths were on the ground floor, and the smoking room on a mezzanine floor above the offices and slipper baths. There was a large area over the cooling-room where bath linen was dried (probably next to a laundry area), and also a room for the caretaker who slept on the premises.

Bathers passed through their appropriate front door into a marble tesserae-lined waiting room where tickets were purchased through a window in the centrally placed ticket-cum-manager's office. From here, a passage led past the slipper baths and toilet to the cooling-room.

The bathrooms, six on the women’s side and three on the men’s, were lined with blue tiles, and a medical bath was available for any male patient if requested by a doctor. This unequal provision of baths was because space had to be found on the men’s side for a staircase down to the boiler, coal cellar, and 'hot water apparatus'.

Each of the two separate 32 ft x 16 ft cooling-rooms was 16 ft high, and each had seven curtained 'dressing boxes' (changing cubicles) and fourteen couches for relaxing on after the bath. Unfortunately. the final decorative scheme of these rooms is unknown since The Builder was writing before the plaster had completely dried. On days when the women's baths were closed, doors could be opened which enabled the two cooling-rooms to be combined into a much larger one for use by the men, and at the same time could make additional bathrooms available to them—an extremely sensible way of maximizing the use of available space, and one (so far) not found elsewhere.

After undressing, bathers went down a short flight of stairs to the hot rooms. These had painted dados, with the walls above being coloured. On each of the longer sides of the hot rooms were marble slabs on which bathers could recline. The first of the hot-rooms, the tepidarium, was reportedly heated to about 100ºF; the second, the calidarium, to around 120ºF and the hottest, the laconicum, to a maximum of 230ºF.

These temperatures, ascribed in The Builder, seem rather unlikely, and their reporter may have misread his notes. It is not that 230ºF (more than the boiling point of water) seems wrong in itself; dry air is not the same as vapour and today many saunas are used at higher temperatures. But the temperature of the second room seems too close to the first, and the gap between the two hottest rooms, too great. More usual might have been: 140ºF, 180ºF, and 220ºF, the range to be found at Harrogate's Royal Baths (with slight Variations over the years).

The air was heated by a boiler placed as close as possible to the hottest rooms, and at the front of the building so the coal cellar (beneath the boiler room) could be filled by a chute from the pavement outside.

Fresh air would have been drawn into the boiler room through a grille covered with a fine mesh filter. It then passed over and around the boiler while being quite separate from the boiler flue. The heated air would then pass along a duct and into the laconicum, continuing through the other hot rooms, cooling as it went, until it passed out of the building at the other end.

Bathers, after a period of sweating in the hot rooms, were then called to the shampooing room. Here, they lay on a marble slab while the shampooer firmly 'rubbed' (or massaged) the bather's body, before giving it a thorough wash with a fibre-brush. Then came a shower in the needle douche after which an attendant took the bather back to the cooling-room where papers and refreshments were available. For male bathers, there was also an optional dip in the cold plunge bath and a visit to the smoking room.

Mr Bell probably owned the baths for as long as they remained open, and during this time there were two managers: Mr J Howie till around 1885, and then Mr C Norfolk. However, some time after 1888, Bell decided that instead of running the baths directly, he would lease them to Mr Norfolk.

This may have been Norfolk's own suggestion. He seems to have been a capable person, and one with a flair for advertising. During the time he was manager, he produced a double-sided broadsheet which not only publicised the opening hours and admission charges but, in five rhyming verses, praised the bath as a pick-me-up. In the first verse he likens the Turkish bath to a dream, and in the next three, he extols its curative properties for ills of the body and mind:


I sing the Turkish Bath! a fit, a worthy theme,
Alike for sage's discourse or for poet's dream.
A dream it is; yet sage—and real—and true,
A dream of joy; but not (as most dreams do)
Eluding fitfully our eager clutch
E'er half conceived or realised; nor such
As, after brief enjoyment, leaves the pain
Of disappointment tingling every vein.
But one defying fancy's fickle freak
A dream to keep you happy for a week.
A week, say you, and then—why then, my friend
A bath a week—your dream will never end!!!

Ye myriad hosts, whose countless ailments small
Imbue your lives with bitterness of gall.
Ye mines of small distempers! never well,
Yet wanting words in which your ills to tell!
Essay the Turkish Bath! gain peace, repose;
Temper your distempers; 'whoa' your woes,
And ye who let life's petty warps and strains
Play havoc with your weary, jaded brains!
A moment pause to ponder and reflect
How much 'tis due to bodily neglect,
That ye, grand temples of that grander shrine
The human intellect, should scarce divine
The difference 'twixt a mammoth and a mole;
Or (not to deal in needless hyperbole),
Deem high as pyramids or deep as wells,
Such mounds or pools as are but bagatelles.

Gross matter mars the immaterial mind
(As sea-drift, by the breakers left behind,
Checks and impedes their rhythmic ebb and flow,
Till comes some monster wave, recurring slow—
With many a pygmy wavelet in between—
To sweep obstruction from the turbid scene)
. Thus grossness, prone to stagnate in the frame of man,
Obstructs the diverse channels of the mental plan,
Until that wave of health, the Turkish Bath,
Rolls, welcome, up, to clear the cumbered path;
And leave the soul unfettered free to soar
Above those mundane frets we oft deplore.
'Tis thus the strong whom trifling ills annoy
May cleanse the gold of health from all alloy,
While to the sick a vigour new twill give
And those who now exist henceforth may live.

Ye poets—painters—priests—right zealous workers all
Who foster art, and scatter wide the truth,
When poor 'Pegasus' halts as if to fall
Fly to the Bath, renew the verve of youth!
Come, busy denizens of business dens!
This acme of delight no longer miss,
Whose subtle charms pervading every sense,
Can win the soul to dreams of rural bliss.
Ye hardly-driven drivers of the quill,
Of sallow countenance, lack-lustre eye;
To whom vile gas-light shed on foolscap blue
But mocks the glorious azure of the sky!—
Come, try the Bath, and feel your pulses stir
With gen'rous, joyous reawakening zest,
And then confess (You must, you can't demur)
The Turkish Bath of 'Pick me ups' the best!!!

The last verse is, perhaps, more of a hard-sell indicating the refreshments served and the reading matter available in the cooling-room. Were the first lines also addressed to women bathers? As poetry it may not have won any prizes, but as an advertisement for the baths it was at least mildly amusing:

Ye piteous victims of a too-much married state,
  Bask in this freedom for one blessed hour;
  Throw off the mean indignities of fate
  To don the robes of majesty and power!
  Here, here at least, ye shall in all command:
  Your minions execute what ye dictate;
  Or with your own august, despotic hand
  The tasty new-laid egg decapitate;
  Deep draughts of true enjoyment in your coffee quaff:
  Find in chops, charms you never found before.
  O'er Punch's wild vagaries loudly laugh,
  Peruse your Daily, Cornhill, Longman, or
  In misty circles from a fragrant mead
  Weave wondrous visions of health, wealth and power.
  In short, conceive yourself Grand Turk indeed,
  Take pleasure at a plunge and blessings in a shower.

Dalston Junction Turkish Baths had a relatively short life. Just before midnight on 6 May 1890, the building was almost totally destroyed by a fire which broke out in the basement. The fire, which took hold so quickly that the caretaker, sleeping on the premises, had only just time to escape unharmed, was discovered by a constable on point duty who gave the alarm. Although the roof of an adjoining building was slightly damaged, the fire was contained by the use of ‘six engines, three steamers, three manuals, two fire escapes, and two turncocks’. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Thank you icon

Roger Morgan, for helpful information about John Hatchard-Smith.

Isobel Watson, for suggesting the original article, and whose knowledge of Hackney saved

me from a number of errors about the borough.

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Exterior of the building

Basement plan

Cross-section of the building

Ground floor plan

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