Turkish baths in London

76 Jermyn Street

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

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The Jermyn Street Hammam is probably the most important of any of the Turkish baths built on the British mainland. On this website, accounts of specific establishments have been separated from accounts of the companies that owned thembecause over the years, baths usually had several owners.

Although the only company to own the Hammam was the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company Limited, from which it cannot logically be separated, it has still seemed clearer to maintain the site's practice of division into two articles.

The one on the company will apear in due course, and this is the first part of a four-part article on the baths.

There are two-and-a-half chapters on the baths in the book.

1. Building the Hammam

Neither the two-year gestation of the Jermyn Street Hammam nor its birth were without problems. As so often is the case, people with different aims and objectives were not always able to work together; numerous technical problems had to be overcome; and the company formed to set up and run the baths, the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company Limited, was very inadequately capitalized.

Yet at four o'clock in the afternoon on Monday 16 July 1862, the Turkish baths— which some were to call 'the finest in the world'—were opened for members of the Board of Directors and their friends to sample. On 28 July they were opened to the public.

David Urquhart, the inspiration behind the project and an Honorary Director of the company owning the baths, was its first manager. But the Superintendent of the bath was John Johnson, who had for many years been a member of the Stafford Foreign Affairs Committee and was totally trusted by Urquhart.

Less trusted by him were architects—architects in general and, with some justification as it later turned out—the architect of the Hammam, George Somers Clarke, in particular.

The relationship between Urquhart and Somers Clarke started well, but was to end in angry letters and recriminations. Urquhart saw himself not only as an expert on the use of Turkish baths, but also as an expert on their construction.

This latter belief rested, if it may be expressed thus, on rather shaky foundations. For although he had perfectly valid ideas with regard to the types of materials to be used and the relationships between the different areas of the bath, even Urquhart did not quite believe he had the professional knowledge required to produce working plans and specifications, or to give appropriate instructions to the builders. Had he done so, he might well have been tempted to dispense with the services of an architect altogether.

Reporting to the Board on their initial discussions, he said that he had met Somers Clarke, 'who was willing to superintend as architect the erection of the Baths and that he would do so under Mr Urquhart's supervision.

While Urquhart had been typically forceful, it seems surprising that Clarke, who was no tyro undertaking a first commission, should agree to work under conditions such as these. Indeed they might be considered by some professionals to be somewhat demeaning, yet they were, at a later date, incorporated in his contract.

Of course, it looked, then, as if the building might be the first Turkish bath to be built in London and the unusual nature of the project might have made it seem worthwhile for him to bite his tongue in order to participate in it.

Finding a suitable site had not been easy. After considering possibilities in Pall Mall, Piccadilly, and next to the Alhambra in Leicester Square, Clarke placed an advertisement in The Times.

Wanted in the neighbourhood of the Clubs or at the West end of London to rent or purchase a Freehold or Leasehold building not less than sixty feet deep.

The site chosen was Crown property on which stood the St James's Hotel where Sir Walter Scott had lain fatally ill for three weeks awaiting his last journey home to Abbotsford. Although it was a condition of the lease that the appearance of the front of the building could not be changed, it was permissible to demolish the stables and outbuildings at the rear. This provided space large enough for a building which, internally at least, could be as Turkish in style as Urquhart wanted.

On 19 February 1861, Urquhart wrote a long letter to an unknown correspondent outlining his vision of how he saw the new bath, how it would operate, and how he expected it to make a profit for the company. Before taking a closer look at the content of the letter, it is worth trying to determine who the recipient might have been.

The Wellcome Library, in whose collection it is found, suggests that it may have been written to Dr John Louis William Thudichum. But this seems unlikely. Thudichum was a director of the company, and there would have been no point in sending him such a detailed account of something he would already know.

A far more likely candidate as a confidante is Harriet Ann Curtis, a long-time political supporter of Urquhart's who, like him, was living at that time in Rickmansworth. February 19, the day the letter was written, was also the day on which a draft agreement was initialled for the completion of the purchase of the lease of the hotel at 76 Jermyn Street. Half of the £6,000 price had already been paid, but this still left another £3,000 to find, with the company having just over £1,000 in its account. Yet the £3,000 was paid on 9 April. One week later, 400 £5 shares were allotted to Miss Curtis.

This made her a very large shareholder, second only to the chairman of the company, Stewart Erskine Rolland, and having twice as many shares as the next largest investor, George Crawshay. The only other large shareholders at this time were the dermatologist Erasmus Wilson and the surgeon Sir John Fife who each held 50 shares.

It is significant that, with the exception of Erasmus Wilson, every single one of the large shareholders, including Miss Curtis, came to be involved with the company through their work with the Foreign Affairs Committees, and the committees had been the core of the 'popular' Turkish Bath Movement. Without the initial support of these shareholders there would have been no Hammam.

Almost immediately, the company had to pay the Crown a further £5,000 for the stables and ground behind the hotel. This would have been paid from the capital received for Rolland's shares, helped out by a loan of £1,500 from another director, John Henry Nathaniel Da Costa.

In his letter, Urquhart writes that he had originally rejected the site because of the constraints imposed on modifying the exterior of the building, but the difficulty of finding another central site changed his mind and,

after long and painful labour on the part of Mr Somers Clarke and myself, we have fixed upon a plan partly of construction, and partly of adaptations, which altho' not according to the proper form of an Eastern Bath, still in all essentials, and in a very great degree even in appearance, will represent the Bath of the East.

If I have to regret that it will not be as I should desire it to be—an exact facsimile—it will on the other hand possess (and especially for Europeans) attractions which no existing Bath in the East does possess whilst it will have qualities which those of the East are losing, or have lost.

He describes the baths as originally envisaged and as approved by the Crown Surveyor subject to a 'slight modification'.

There can of course be no architectural forms, as towards the front the building will remain unchanged. But internally it will be a noble edifice, the Central Hall being 50 feet cubed and domed. There will be three galeries [sic] round, communicating with cold rooms on the successive floors of the present building, whilst at the further extremity there will be a descent to the basement story affording entrance for the cheaper class of bathers and for more extensive facilities of washing without raising vapours. And there also will be a large Tank, or swimming basin. Thus we will have four stories all communicating with a Central heated Hall, with hot chambers in the angles over the fire-place furnaces.

There will be two entrances & one of these will again divide off into three sub entrances communicating with different levels, and at different rates of price. The second entrance from the street, will be for women, for whom accommodation will be provided, without intruding on the Central Hall.

Based on this plan, Urquhart described how the space would be used and how the company would make a profit. The letter is worth quoting at length here because it shows how unrealistic Urquhart was in financial matters. It was inevitable that he and the members of the Board would later differ on the level of entrance fees and the need to make an acceptable profit, however close they were to him personally, as believers in Turkish baths for all, and as people so closely involved in his political work.

There requires for the taking of a Bath five distinct allotments of space (independently of the Tank [ie, the plunge pool]) and one of the most difficult parts of the arrangement is to apportion that space. It is only last night that I have completed that part of the work. A quarter of an hour being allowed for each operation, the time on an average will be an hour and a quarter. In these operations, the space required for each person varies from ten to 20 square feet, passages not included. The general result is that 300 persons can be accommodated simultaneously for bathing, on the Men's side, and 70, for on the Women's. The scale of prices will vary, at least according to my present lights on the subject, from 9 o['clock] to 5/o[clock] and taking an average of 1/6 you will see that the Bath may hold at one time for a single bathing, £25; and taking 12 or 13 working hours, these numbers might be repeated 10 times. Of course the throng will be only at two periods—in the afternoon at the higher prices, and in the evening at the lower. Say that the Bath is filled but twice during the day, the gross returns would be £15,000 a year; and if the practice took, of course it would be 5 or 6 times that amount. The expenses on the other hand, would be £2400 fixed. Say as much more of a fluctuating nature, depending on the amount of business.

He continues by taking possible competition into account, accepting that London would be unlikely to support the 4,000 baths suggested by comparing the size of its population with that of Constantinople. He notes that two small London establishments which had been open for about a year were making returns of 150% and 300%, though he omits to mention that these were owned by individuals and not by companies.

In the event, it was fortunate that the plans originally drawn by Somers Clarke were 'found to exceed the means of the company' and Urquhart and Clarke were asked to redo them, otherwise the company would have been in immediate financial trouble. The new baths were much smaller, having two floors instead of four and being connected to the main building at entrance level only.

By mid-July, the directors had approved the revised plans which Urquhart and Clarke had worked on together, and the firm of Kirk & Parry of Little Queen Street had been appointed builders. As a sign that things were really beginning to move, however slowly, it was decided to appoint a housekeeper to look after the main building.

At the same meeting, Urquhart had also won the directors' approval to construct a small Turkish bath in the main building, to cost no more than £100. Ostensibly it was for use by invalids, but Urquhart probably also had in mind that feedback from its use by members of the public would be helpful in avoiding mistakes in the baths proper.

In fact, the Board received a request at the end of July from Dr Arthur Leared to allow a number of his patients who were suffering from phthisis (ie, tuberculosis) to be treated, as an experiment, in the Turkish bath. Spurred on, no doubt, by Urquhart's sense of social responsibility, not to mention the possibility of some favourable publicity in acceptable medical journals, permission was granted.

The suggestion of an experimental bath for invalids was a good one and in December it was extended to allow its use by directors and friends. Money was short at this time and it must have been obvious to all that the company was far short of the capital it needed. Use of the small bath by directors would have enabled them to encourage their friends to try it, to become interested in the company, and then apply to become shareholders. This suggestion, too, was a good one and a few months later, in April 1862, the small bath was closed for alterations—though it is not known what changes were made, or why.

By the middle of July, the Hammam was ready to open.

Thank you icon


The Archivist and staff of the then Wiltshire County Record Office

The Wellcome Library for access to their collection of David Urquhart's letters

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