Turkish baths in Wales

Neath: Church Place / Old Market Street

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

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The early years

In 1863, barely two years after Charles Bartholomew was 'adjudicated bankrupt on his own petition’, and having ensured that he was still running his large Bristol establishment, he was ready to think of opening a second Turkish bath.

He set about it in a typically Foreign Affairs Committee manner, first arranging—or encouraging someone else to arrange—a public meeting at which he could speak about Turkish baths and gain support for the formation of a company to open one. The meeting took place at the Neath Town Hall on 31 March with Dr William Griffith Jones, a local surgeon, in the chair, and his lecture, probably somewhat extended, was later published as a 32-page pamphlet with an appendix of testimonials from medical men and bathers who had used his baths in Bristol.

The Neath Bath Company was formed on 6 February 1864, and soon after took centrally situated premises in Church Place opposite St Thomas's. The building was L-shaped, and had a second entrance on the narrower frontage in Old Market Street, which runs parallel with Church Place.

The baths, which occupied the ground floor of the building, were opened two months later on 14 April. There were three main rooms: the frigidarium, without any artificial heating, so that it remained at the same temperature as that outside the building—though perhaps the room was heated during the winter months. Bathers undressed here, and were provided with a dressing gown. The second room, the tepidarium, was kept between 95° and 100°F, and the caldarium, between 136° and 140°.

The bather is then placed on a marble slab, when the attendant subjects him to a process of 'champooing' or violent rubbing with horse-hair gloves, and after this the visitor is placed in the lavatorium, where he is plentifully drenched with both hot and cold 'rain,' and if wished the douche bath is also supplied.

In the evening there was another meeting in the Town Hall. This time the Mayor took the chair, in spite of which, according to the Cambrian, 'there was not a very large attendance, although we noticed several ladies present.'

The baths were leased to Bartholomew before they were open. They appeared, together with those at Dock Street, Newport (Monmouthshire), in an advertisement for his Bristol baths, published in a directory dated 1865, though it was probably compiled the previous year. We do not know when he left either of the two Welsh baths, nor even when he opened the one in Newport.

Initially, the Neath baths were managed for Bartholomew by a Mr J A Thompson. But it was rash to take on two separate baths so soon after his bankruptcy, even if they were relatively close to each other, and even if there was also a manager at Newport.

We do know that by 1 March 1865, his creditors were offering the Newport baths (where he was the proprietor) for sale, and he presumably left the Neath baths (where he was the lessee) at around the same time. Newspaper accounts indicate that he seems to have left Neath in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner. The Turkish bath was much smaller than the College Green establishment and should not have given Bartholomew any trouble. But there were problems from the very beginning, and some of these clearly could not be laid at his feet.

The baths were, as was usual at that time, lit by gas lamps. The Neath Gas Light and Coke Company was, by all accounts, not providing an effective service and a new company was formed to try to gain a concession to provide Neath with its gas. The bill for giving powers to the Neath New Gas Company (which had already passed the House of Commons) came before a committee of the House of Lords in June 1866.

Mr G J May, a local chain manufacturer, giving evidence to the committee, said that the gas currently supplied 'was bad in illuminating power, and deficient in pressure.' Furthermore, he said, 'in the day time sufficient gas could not be obtained even for cooking purposes.'

Nothing could be more unanimous than the feeling against the old company. A few days earlier there was insufficient gas at the railway works, 'and at nine o'clock in the morning, at the Turkish Baths, they were obliged to burn candles.' Another witness claimed that the atmosphere at the Turkish Baths had been so hot 'that the candles almost melted away.'

Another complaint against the company was that it refused to supply gas to a new tenant if the previous tenant had left with bills unpaid, and the following day brought to light further evidence to show that Bartholomew's tenancy had been less than happy. James Kenway, a past mayor of Neath and holder of the largest number of shares amongst the original subscribers to the bath company, addressed the committee on the second day of the hearings.

He was, he said, 'virtually manager to a bath company in Neath which had let the baths on a lease to a Mr Bartholomew; he failed, and the property reverted to the company. They received from the Gas Company a bill for gas supplied during Bartholomew's tenancy, and they threatened to cut off the gas, and in fact did so, so that the Bath Co. were compelled to pay the claim before they could obtain the supply of gas which was necessary to the carrying on of their business. He believed Bartholomew put in the fittings...There had been constant complaint at the baths; the gas jumping up and down, and going out suddenly.'

Cross-examined on behalf of the original gas company, Kenway reiterated that 'Bartholomew was not the manager of the baths for the company; he had a lease before the baths were completed.' And added, ruefully, 'Bartholomew paid no rent because he failed; he paid nobody.'

Bartholomew, accustomed to running a large establishment, in a large prosperous city, had underestimated the problems of running a small bath in a town where the reliability of public utilities could not be taken for granted. Of course, we only have one side of this story and do not know whether he had been misled, for example, as to the likely number of bathers who could be expected to patronise the baths, or whether he had been given any guarantees by the company.

For Bartholomew, Neath and Newport seem to have been his only failures. He was to wait another ten years before opening a another Turkish bath, by which time he was an altogether far more experienced businessman. And he never repeated the experiment of running a Turkish bath for anyone other than himself.

The baths after Bartholomew

After Bartholomew's departure, the company initially ran the baths on their own account, appointing a Mr William Evans as Superintendent. An amusing, well-written, whole wide-column article, A visit to the Turkish baths at Neath, appeared describing the effect of the bath on a first-timer. The first hot room is called 'the bake-house' and the second one 'the oven'.

The baths are described more fully than in the article referred to earlier, indicating that there were curtained changing cubicles lining one wall of the frigidarium and beds and couches, for use after the bath, lining the other. The general appearance was supposed to be in 'the Oriental style', and 'red and white were the predominant colours, with the inverted "horseshoe" surmounting every conceivable object.' The writer concluded, as others had done before, by pointing to the shame that the inhabitants of the much more prosperous town of Swansea had 'to travel eight miles to enjoy the luxury of a Turkish Bath' at Neath.

By 1870 there was a new lessee, Henry Stephen Ludlow, a local medical officer, but from 1872 onwards the baths were run by a manager, Mr E J Fraley, who had previously worked in Turkish baths in Birmingham, Bristol, and Dublin. What is not clear is whether he was appointed by Ludlow, or was another lessee. But Fraley remained at the baths till they closed some time around 1888.

These baths were never to be hugely profitable. In 1870, for example, the total number of bathers during the week ending Saturday 23 April was just 76, of whom thirteen used the third class baths, and seven the slipper baths.

Profitable or not, both they—and the company which owned them—survived for nearly twenty-five years. And a few years after their closure, so established was the use of the Turkish bath in Neath by this time, that another establishment was opened by a new company in Alfred Street—an establishment which had also to struggle to survive.


Thank you icon

Harriet Eaton, Heritage Education Officer, Neath Library, for her images, help, and

    enthusiasm

Rachel Gardiner, Media Officer, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council

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