Turkish baths in London

25 Northumberland Avenue

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

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Nevill's Charing Cross Turkish Bath for Gentlemen

At one time or another the Neville family owned nine Turkish baths, all of them in London. Of these, four were in reality twin establishments, built next to each other in pairs. The larger one was for (Gentle)men; the smaller one for women (Ladies).

The pair in Northumberland Avenue were, from the bathers' point of view, quite separate and had individual entrances, of which the women's was round the corner in Northumberland Passage (now Craven Passage).

There seems to have been no external indication, visible from Northumberland Avenue, that there was a Turkish bath delightfully decorated in Moorish style within the building. But planning regulations were probably less restrictive in the narrow pedestrian passageway from which access to the women's baths was gained.

This was the last of three new buildings for which the Nevilles commissioned designs from an architect, in this case Robert Walker, FRIBA. The four later establishments were conversions of existing Turkish baths which they had bought as going concerns, and which were then fully refurbished so as to conform with the company's house style.

The Nevilles, like Bartholomew before them with his Turkish baths, well understood the importance of their establishments being immediately recognizable as Nevill establishments—the family dropped the final 'e' when naming their baths. Each had 'double-doors with red stained-glass crescents and stars inset in leaded panels'. Specially magnificent was the rich variety of highly patterned Craven Dunnill tiles which were used extensively in their buildings.

The building and fittings

The site was formerly part of the grounds of the demolished Northumberland House, and the building, which took nearly three years to complete, was said to have cost around £30,000.

The Nevilles had their Head Office here, and the upper three storeys were let out as offices to other companies. The Turkish baths occupied the whole of the first floor, ground floor, and basement. One of the outstanding decorative features was the use of ceramic and stained-glass ornamentation. The floors of the hot rooms were of marble mosaic and the ceilings were clad with enamelled iron panels. With upholstered couches, marble seats, and an elegant fountain, the ambience of the public areas ensured that these baths were among the most comfortable to be found, as befitted a centrally located establishment hoping for clients from the Hotel Metropole on the opposite side of the road and from the nearby government offices. The gentlemen's entrance was at the rounded corner with its imposing columns.

Bathers paid their entrance fee at the cash desk just inside the door, leaving their shoes in the boot room and their valuables in individual lockers. They then passed into a large domed two storey high cooling-room with a gallery at first floor level supported by columns, gilded above, rich Pompeian red below.

At the far end of the decorated ceiling, stained-glass panes covered the underside of an octagonal dome. This was not merely decorative but also the means of ventilation, a fine ornamental grille at the top carrying off the heated air, while ducted fresh air entered through openings in each of the window ledges.

In the late 1990s the dome was temporarily exposed to view during building work.

The richly decorated interior, mainly in red and gold, was designed to give the impression of a middle eastern divan lit on three sides by stained-glass windows of a Moresque character. Half-height brass-decorated mahogany divisions formed alcoves in which there were couches for resting during and after the bath. Most of the alcoves on the ground floor had four couches, while those on the gallery were limited to two, making it possible for over 70 bathers to use the resting area at the same time.

A wide mahogany staircase led down from the cooling-room to a half landing with toilet facilities. From there, two separate narrower flights led to the basement, in the centre of which was the tepidarium, or warm room. Here, the floor was laid with marble mosaic, and the ceiling—formed of enamelled iron ornamented in white, blue, and pink tints—was supported by columns with decorated capitals . Against the walls, which framed stained-glass windows and were decorated with faïence panels, marble seats with backs of Indian matting were placed.

Two further hot rooms opened from this apartment, in the smaller of which the highest temperature was maintained. Cold air was drawn in from outside the building, filtered, and then heated in one of Constantine's Convoluted Stoves. The hot air then passed through a large ornamental grille at the end of the hottest room, whence it travelled through the other rooms in turn, cooling as it went. Again, the seats were of marble and the ceiling of enamelled and decorated iron.

Surprisingly, a smoking room led off the second hot room. This was unusual since when Turkish baths boasted a separate smoking room it was more usually located next to the cooling-room, or else smoking would be permitted in part or all of the cooling-room itself. Finally, complementing the hot rooms, there were three shampooing (massage) rooms, with cool recesses, showers, and a 30ft plunge bath.

The most illustrious bather

Perhaps the most famous bather to have visited Nevill's Northumberland Avenue establishment was Sherlock Holmes.

In his book In the steps of Sherlock Holmes, Michael Harrison suggests that this was one of the advertisements which Holmes saw. While this may well have been the case, since Homes and Watson had clearly been using these baths for some time, this particular advertisement would no longer have been current in 1902, when the affair of The adventure of the illustrious client took place, because H[enry] Neville had died three years earlier and by this time J[ames Forder] Neville was the sole proprietor.

Harrison also suggests that on occasion Holmes popped in to Faulkner's hotel in Villiers Street for a Turkish bath. but this is not the case, and the Northumberland Avenue baths remain the only ones for which there is firm evidence for a visit by him.

According to Dr Watson,

Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath. It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him less reticent and more human than anywhere else. On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon September 3, 1902, the day when my narrative begins.

While Watson was not always wholly accurate or consistent in his accounts of Holmes's adventures, it is interesting to note that although there was, as we have seen, a separate smoking room next to the hot rooms in the basement, it does seem that smoking was also permitted, as one would expect, in the cooling-room.

Blackmail in the baths!

Sherlock Holmes was not the only fictional character to visit the Northumberland Avenue establishment. In P G Wodehouse's Psmith in the City, the eponymous hero, seeing his boss enter the Turkish baths, follows him in shortly afterwards then, after obtaining the second couch in his quarry's cubicle, shadows him from room to room until he can bring up the matter of an earlier dismissal of one of his colleagues.

The Northumberland Avenue establishment is not specifically named, but it is unambiguously located a few yards away from the Constitutional Club (referred to by Wodehouse as the Senior Conservative Club in Cumberland Street.)

Psmith enters the baths,

And, having paid his money, and left his boots with the boy at the threshold, he was rewarded by the sight of [Bickersdyke] emerging from a box at the far end of the room, clad in the mottled towels which the bather, irrespective of his personal taste in dress, is obliged to wear in a Turkish bath.

Seeing Bickersdyke's clothes in the cubicle, Psmith claims the second sofa.

Then, humming lightly, he undressed, and made his way downstairs to the Hot Rooms. He rather fancied himself in towels … He paused for a moment before the looking-glass to examine himself, with approval, then pushed open the door of the Hot Rooms and went in.

Mr Bickersdyke was reclining in an easy-chair in the first room, staring before him in the boiled-fish manner customary in a Turkish Bath. Psmith dropped into the next seat with a cheery 'Good evening.' The manager started as if some firm hand had driven a bradawl into him. He looked at Psmith with what was intended to be a dignified stare. But dignity is hard to achieve in a couple of parti-coloured towels.

Bickersdyke tries to move away to the opposite end of the room but Psmith follows him.

'There's something pleasantly mysterious, to my mind,' said he chattily, 'in a Turkish Bath. It seems to take one out of the hurry and bustle of the everyday world. It is a quiet backwater in the rushing river of Life. I like to sit and think in a Turkish Bath. Except, of course, when I have a congenial companion to talk to. As now. To me -'

Mr Bickersdyke rose, and went into the next room. 'To me,' continued Psmith, again following, and seating himself beside the manager, 'there is, too, something eerie in these places. There is a certain sinister air about the attendants. They glide rather than walk. They say little. Who knows what they may be planning and plotting?

After a while, Psmith broaches the topic of his colleague's dismissal, but without any immediate success in obtaining a change of heart.

Mr Bickersdyke resumed his perusal of the evening paper, and presently, laying it down, rose and made his way to the room where muscular attendants were in waiting to perform that blend of Jiu-Jitsu and Catch-as-catch-can which is the most valuable and at the same time most painful part of a Turkish Bath.

It was not till he was resting on his sofa, swathed from head to foot in a sheet and smoking a cigarette, that he realized that Psmith was sharing his compartment.

He made the unpleasant discovery just as he finished his first cigarette and lighted his second. He was blowing out the match when Psmith, accompanied by an attendant, appeared in the doorway, and proceeded to occupy the next sofa to himself. All that feeling of dreamy peace, which is the reward one receives for allowing oneself to be melted like wax and kneaded like bread, left him instantly. He felt hot and annoyed. To escape was out of the question. Once one has been scientifically wrapped up by the attendant and placed on one's sofa, one is a fixture.

Even those unfamiliar with the novel will not be surprised to discover that Psmith, with the help of a little gentle blackmail, in due course gains the desired reprieve.

Wodehouse was a Sherlock Holmes fan and also a member of the Constitutional Club.5 He and Conan Doyle both knew these baths well, the latter having probably discovered Turkish baths during his early stay in Portsea.

Raffles and Bunny

Doyle's friend and brother-in-law E W Hornung was also a patron of the same Turkish baths. So it was hardly surprising that E W Hornung's character Bunny Manders, like his friend, the amateur cracksman Raffles, also found the Turkish bath refreshing. But in the story The chest of silver in A thief in the night, he would have done better picking up a periodical to read instead of buying the daily paper which was so to spoil his calm.

In my dilemma I did what I have often done when at a loss for light and leading. I took hardly any lunch, but went to Northumberland Avenue and had a Turkish bath instead. I know nothing so cleansing to mind as well as body, nothing better calculated to put the finest possible edge on such judgment as one may happen to possess. Even Raffles, without an ounce to lose or a nerve to soothe, used to own a sensuous appreciation of the peace of mind and person to be gained in this fashion when all others failed. For me, the fun began before the boots were off one's feet; the muffled footfalls, the thin sound of the fountain, even the spent swathed forms upon the couches, and the whole clean, warm, idle atmosphere, were so much unction to my simpler soul. The half-hour in the hot-rooms I used to count but a strenuous step to a divine lassitude of limb and accompanying exaltation of intellect. And yet—and yet—it was in the hottest room of all, in a temperature of 270º Fahrenheit, that the bolt fell from the Pall Mall Gazette which I had bought outside the bath. I was turning over the hot, crisp pages, and positively revelling in my fiery furnace, when the following headlines and leaded paragraphs leapt to my eye with the force of a veritable blow: Bank Robbers in the West End — Daring and Mysterious Crime...

I determined to go through with my bath and make the most of it. Might it not be my last for years?

But I was past enjoying even a Turkish bath. I had not the patience for a proper shampoo, or sufficient spirit for the plunge. I weighed myself automatically, for that was a matter near my heart; but I forgot to give my man his sixpence until the reproachful intonation of his adieu recalled me to myself. And my couch in the cooling gallery—my favorite couch, in my favorite corner, which I had secured with gusto on coming in—it was a bed of thorns, with hideous visions of a plank-bed to follow!

Brigid Brophy wrote that 'Hornung took his brother-in-law's detective pair, Holmes and Watson, and reincarnated them on the wrong side of the law as Raffles and Bunny, who pursued the business of getting a living by the entirely logical method of stealing it'.

A search through all relevant accounts, however, suggests that the dramatic meeting of Holmes, Watson, Raffles and Bunny in the cooling-room at Northumberland Avenue was but another dog which barked in the night.

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Cooling-room at Northumberland Avenue

Underside of the cooling-room dome

Ventilator grille in the cooling-room dome

Cross-section through Nevill's Northumberland Avenue building

Price list for Nevill's Northumberland Avenue Turkish Baths

The dome temporarily revealed during building work in the late 1990s

Capital of original basement pillar

Advertisement for the Charing Cross Baths

Branches listed in 1899 advertisement

Booklet cover: Why you should take a Turkish bath

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