Turkish baths in London

London: 8 Harrow Road (later re-numbered 16)

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

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Harrow Road Turkish baths

The ownership trail

This establishment survived, under a number of different proprietors, for nearly eighty years and was only closed as a result of a compulsory purchase order prior to the construction of a flyover leading to the M40 motorway.

The original proprietor, James Cotton Goudy, opened the Harrow Road Turkish Baths in 1880. Baths, for men only, were available each weekday from seven in the morning till ten in the evening and on Saturdays from two in the afternoon. A Turkish bath cost 2/6d between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm on weekdays, and 1/6d at all other times. The baths were closed late in 1885, though why they closed so soon is not known.

They were bought by an auctioneer, Thomas Spink, and a Building Society Secretary, Thomas Richards, who seemed to know what they doing. They set about refurbishing the bath, and re-opened it on 27 February the following year as a 'Turkish Bathing Establishment for Gentlemen'.

Within four months they had set up a limited liability company to purchase the establishment (which was now known as The Paddington Hammam) for the sum of £2,500. Each of them was paid £500 in cash and £750 in company shares making them majority shareholders.

Barely four years later, in 1890, the baths were bought by Henry and James Forder Neville, and the Paddington Hammam Company ceased trading. The Nevilles already owned four other establishments including the Charing Cross baths in their recently built Northumberland Avenue headquarters, and were now seeking to enlarge their chain.

In due course they began to refurbish their new acquisition so as to make it closer in style and appearance to their other establishments, although admission charges at Harrow Road were always less than at their other baths.

According to an advert taken from an unknown publication with a pencilled ascription of 1893, a Turkish bath still cost the same as it did ten years earlier, 2/6d or 1/6d. Only the hours when the baths were less expensive had changed, Nevill's charging the lower rate after six in the evening.

Turkish baths declined in popularity in the post-World War II years (even more severely than they had done after World War I) and, having closed the Charing Cross baths in 1948, Nevill's sold their Harrow Road baths the following year.

Inside the baths

After forty years or so, Mike Young still remembers the appearance of the baths in great detail, and his description is all that one might expect from the eye of a professional designer.

The baths were built behind a normal shop front with a plain red door. Set into it was a small square Arabic style grille through which a bather could be checked over before being allowed in. Once inside the reception area, outdoor shoes were removed and stored out of sight, and valuables were locked in green mini-drawer-safes.

Past the reception area and through a Moorish arched wooden screen were narrow bed spaces for changing and resting after the bath. Each had its own light with a white shade. Otherwise everything in the cubicle was painted dark red, the colour of the curtain covering its entrance. The ceilings were in Victorian style Moorish designs made in embossed metal squares; the fittings were of metal and wood; the walls plastered and painted.

At the far end of the room there was a void in the ceiling allowing bathers a view of the balcony upstairs. Ranged round this were additional cubicles, some of which were designed to take two beds. Over the void was a dome housing the main ventilator and from it were suspended a golden crescent moon and a star—the Islamic symbols to be found in Turkish baths all over the world.

The Turkish bath itself was at the far end of the basement, the air being heated by a stove in the hotter of two interconnected hot rooms. The walls separating the hot rooms from each other, and from the rest of the baths, were like shop windows, glass stretching from chairback height to ceiling. Around each of the hot rooms, below the windows, were white marble seats with canvas cushions and seat backs to stop bathers burning themselves. Slung across both doorways, so as to keep the hottest air inside, were short canvas curtains hanging down to chest height.

Outside the hot rooms were two slabs for shampooing. There were overflowing fountains and special metal water scoops that were used by the shampooers to send torrents of cold water over the marble before and during a shampoo. There was also a small plunge pool, and a very long and narrow steam room. The walls of the wet areas were covered with ceramic tiles, the ceilings were enamelled metal tiles in cream and white, and the whole basement was quite light and airy.

By all accounts, few improvements were made during the last years of its existence, when it was known as Tyler's or the Metro, so that it continued to look like a Nevill's Turkish bath, though increasingly run-down, until it closed in 1963.

During the inter-war years, 1918-39, when the number of Turkish baths declined considerably, the nature of some of those which survived (especially those in the capital) began to change. Increasingly the baths' clientele were seen as belonging to one of two groups, self-recognising, but by no means mutually exclusive.

A public/private 'queer-tolerant space'

Those who were thought of as belonging, in the absence of any contrary evidence, to the traditional Turkish bath clientele, tended to use the baths mainly during the daytime. But increasingly during this period, the baths came to be used more openly by homosexual men who saw them as a relatively safe place for meeting friends, socialising, and making assignations. These bathers tended to arrive later in the evening and, where facilities allowed, to stay the night.

Eric Wright remembers the Harrow Road Turkish Baths, with its relatively low admission charge, as being towards the end,

rather downmarket, but very popular with the night owls who often queued waiting to get in after the pubs closed … [It was] very much cheaper than finding a hotel room for anybody passing through London overnight or catching an early train. Not that many people managed to get much sleep with all that toing and froing going on.

The Harrow Road Turkish bath was probably very little different, by day, from any of the other establishments to be found in London or elsewhere in the country. But at night it became a different place. At some unknown date, the opening hours had been extended and the bath became one of three in London which remained open all night. In fact the only time it closed during the week was between nine in the morning on Sunday, until the same hour the following day.

Our understanding of the extent to which sexual activity was taking place within London Turkish baths, the attitudes of the bath attendants and other bathers to this activity, and the confidence-building effect on the gay community of this re-appropriation of public safe spaces, has until recently relied mainly on hearsay, gossip, and the occasional derogatory remark from a less tolerant member of society.

But in a chapter in his study of 'space, identities and queer male practices', Matt Houlbrook has investigated male homosexual attitudes and behaviour in these three all-night London Turkish baths. Drawing upon sound archives, interviews, council minutes, and court cases, he shows that in the mid-twentieth century years—when a homosexual act between consenting male adults was still a criminal offence—each of these establishments became a haven of tolerance. In these Turkish baths, and doubtless in others outside London,

men forged a public sexual culture with its own protocols and micro-geography which was remarkably insulated from surveillance and hostility: a functionally private and queer tolerant space in which they could meet friends, relax and enjoy sexual encounters without fear.

The boundaries between public and private activities were reinforced by what Houlbrook refers to as the sexual micro-geography of the baths: cruising was tolerated in the public hot rooms, showers and corridors; sexual encounters were kept within the cubicles.

One interviewee quoted by Houlbrook noted that at Harrow Road you used to hear the grunts and groans throughout the night and that in the upstairs cubicles, each designed to take two beds, it was easy to slip into another's bed without any trouble. From time to time the boundaries may have disappeared, but only to reappear again if things were deemed to have gone too far. Nevertheless,

The extent to which men were prepared to engage in public sex—with no fear of arrest or violence—suggests that the baths had become their space.

It seems important to remember that not everyone who used Harrow Road Turkish baths in the evening, or even at night, was gay; nor was everyone who used the baths during the day necessarily heterosexual—important because the groups seem to have been, in practice, mutually tolerant.

This tolerance, also to be found in the Savoy and Imperial Turkish baths, was perhaps the harbinger of changing attitudes within the country as a whole, which had, within the next few years, finally accepted that there was an urgent need for changes in the law relating to the behaviour in private of such a significant proportion of the male population at large.

This page last revised and slightly enlarged 18 November 2018

Thank you icon

I am especially grateful to Mike Young and Matt Houlbrook for allowing the use

of their material, and for helpful communications from each. I am solely responsible

for any unintentional misinterpretations of the information they so freely gave.

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