Turkish baths in London

5 South Street, Finsbury Square

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

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The City Turkish Baths

One of the first London establishments

In 1860, Dr Edward Wickstead Lane, a hydropathist and Edinburgh qualified physician, purchased James Ellis's Hydropathic Sanatorium at Sudbrook Park, Petersham, just outside Richmond in Surrey. The Turkish bath there was probably installed by Ellis though this is not known for certain. But as a hydropathist Lane would have been aware of the bath's successful use in other hydros and may have installed it immediately after his purchase. What is indisputable is that Lane was a firm believer in the bath's value as a therapeutic agent because early in January 1861, only months after the first London establishment opened in Bell Street, he opened these, the first Turkish Baths in the City of London.

Though the day-to-day running of the baths was undertaken by a manager, Thomas Lowther Dove, Lane himself gave consultations at the baths every Tuesday and Friday afternoon between 1 and 4 o'clock.

The baths were open daily from 8.00 in the morning till 8.00 at night, and cost 2/6d, or a guinea for a course of ten. Wet-sheet packing and other hydropathic treatments were also available on the premises, together with bed and breakfast accommodation at a guinea and a half per week to include the use of the Turkish baths.

Most of what we know about these baths comes from two anonymous articles, one published in the usa, and the other (probably reprinted from a London paper) in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post. The former is a puff-piece typical of its time, its two-and-a-half pages starting with the description of a bath taken by a first-timer persuaded by a friend to try one. It continues with the usual suggestions as to how helpful the Turkish bath is to those suffering from a variety of physical disorders, with apposite quotations from Erasmus Wilson and David Urquhart.

But, like the second article, it does give some basic information about the establishment. So we know that immediately on entering the building the bather was asked to remove his outdoor shoes and replace them with the pair of red slippers provided. The bather undressed in a curtained cubicle and proceeded to the hot rooms clad only in a sheet.

There were two hot rooms, furnished with wooden benches for seating. The first was kept between 120°F and 140°F, and the second at up to 200°F. Unusually, after spending some time at the higher temperature, the bather then returned to the first hot room where the shampooing process was undertaken by one of four shampooers.

The showering process which followed seems to have had much in common with the practice prevalent in water-cure establishments. An attendant controlled the operation and the bather first received a shower of warm water. Next he was wiped down, and then the cold water was turned on and, as the author of the article put it,

for a moment you feel staggered, and involuntarily gasp for breath. Now comes the crowning luxury. You are wiped dry, wrapped in a sheet, a kind of turban is wrapped round your head, and you are taken up-stairs to lie down on a downy couch, to smoke it may be—and if you wish to enjoy yourself thoroughly you certainly will—a first-rate cigar, and a capital cup of coffee, and then you and your fellow-bathers recline, like the gods on hills together, careless of mankind.

A final touch, not so far encountered elsewhere, was that in the evening those in the cooling-room were 'further regaled by a musical performance of no ordinary character.' For once, one wishes the writer had told us more.

Why did bathers use the baths?

Towards the end of the article, there is a table showing an analysis of the reasons given by 221 bathers for taking a Turkish bath at this establishment. Since the article was originally published soon after the baths opened, there is reason to suggest that the analysis was of the first 221 bathers to use the baths, though one cannot be certain about this.

The bathers were first divided into groups according to whether they were frequent, occasional, or first-time bathers. Then each group was divided according to reasons given for the visit.

Usage table

This is a very small number of bathers for a survey, so one must be wary of drawing any other than tentative conclusions from the results. But what is especially interesting about these figures is that no-one has given bathing to cleanse oneself as a reason for the bath. This may be because the city businessmen who frequented this establishment would have considered themselves clean as they would probably have had bathing facilities, however rudimentary, at home. Or it may be because the proprietor felt that it would not be politic to ask whether this was the reason for the visit.

What is clear, however, is that already, within five years of the introduction of the Turkish bath into the British Isles (and only one year after the first one opened in London), it was already perfectly acceptable to admit that one went to the Turkish bath for enjoyment—and this despite all the advertising which concentrated on the bath as the ultimate cleanser, or the cure for an astonishing range of illnesses.

This page last revised 15 January 2022

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