Turkish baths in Provincial England

Birmingham: Frederick Street

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

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The factory

One of the strangest locations for a purpose-built Turkish bath must surely be at the end of William Edward Wiley’s Birmingham pencil and pen factory in Frederick Street. Wiley had started making pens and pencil cases in 1850, and in 1862 commissioned a new three-storey L-shaped factory from local architect John George Bland (c 1828–98). Most of this survives as the Argent Centre, a Grade II* Listed Building in the Jewellery Quarter currently occupied by small businesses and a unique pen museum.

Built mainly of red brick, it is exuberantly decorated with polychrome brick chequered arches and panels, and black and white banding. According to the National Heritage List for England, ‘The building’s arcaded elevations take their inspiration from Florentine-Lombard early Renaissance palazzi with corner towers…’, although these were originally topped with pyramids and the parapet is a later addition.

The building had a feature which was unusual at that time. Because Wiley had originally intended that it should be built in stages as the need for expansion arose, each floor, including the top one, was built in a similar manner using hollow bricks rather than wood. This resulted in additional floors being added without in any way disturbing production on the floors below. The concrete for one additional floor was actually mixed over the heads of those working below. Wiley also maintained that this method of construction avoided the cost of insuring the building, though whether he did this in practice is not known. He might have settled for a much reduced premium.

At the northern end is a four-storey section, behind which is a tall tapered square chimney next to what was originally the boiler house. It is here that Wiley decided to build his baths. The beauty of this location, from his point of view, was that fresh air could be inexpensively heated by being passed over the flues and steam pipes connecting the boiler house to the factory, and then ducted into the hot rooms.

The Turkish baths

There were three complete suites of Turkish baths: for working men on the first floor, gentlemen on the second, and—opened slightly later—for ladies on the third. There were, of course, separate male and female entrances, one of which has since been bricked up. Each suite was the same, comprising a cooling-room 110ft long, three hot rooms, and a shampooing room.

After being greeted by a bare-footed boy in full Turkish costume, male bathers would remove their shoes and be taken up to the cooling-room. Its walls were decorated with arabesque scrolls, its windows with stained glass, and its floor covered with matting. Around the walls were red-curtained cubicles for changing, and couches for reclining. Relaxation after the bath was encouraged by the provision of chibouks, papers, chess, draughts and billiards.

The hot rooms, from 130°F–160°F and higher, had Sicilian marble seating round the walls and, in the first, a wooden bench in the centre. In the shampooing room, a long hose with a shower rose at the end was within reach of the slab.

The baths were opened to the public experimentally after Boxing Day 1862, and more formally on 13 February the following year. In fixing the charges at 3s 6d, 2s 6d, 1s 6d, and 1s, Wiley exactly matched those of his only competitor, James Melling, who had opened baths at The Crescent, Cambridge Street, the previous September.

However, a year later, Wiley's prices had been rethought, and first class baths were now reduced to 2s 6d, or twelve for one pound; second class baths were 1s 6d, or twelve for 12s 0d; and there was a working class ticket at one shilling, or forty for a pound. Melling's prices remained the same and his baths were still open in 1885.

Originally, Wiley calculated that the baths could accommodate 200 bathers per day, but when he put the refreshment department out to tender a month after they opened, he more realistically suggested an average of fifty per day.

Wiley was a public-spirited entrepreneur and offered free admittance to the working classes ‘on the recommendation of any Medical Gentleman.’ And in response to the Annual Report for 1862 of the Birmingham Lunatic Asylum Committee, which he had read in the local paper, and an article in The Lancet, describing the positive results of using the Turkish bath with patients at the Cork Asylum, he wished to make a positive contribution to the welfare of Birmingham's patients.

In a letter to the editor of the Birmingham Daily Post he wrote:

This extraordinary percentage of cures [in the Cork Asylum] induces me to suggest that a Turkish bath be added to the Birmingham Asylum, and I shall be happy to place one of my baths at the disposal of the medical superintendent of the Asylum, from seven to eleven a.m. daily, until he is satisfied of the beneficial effects of the Turkish baths upon lunatics.

Although several English asylums followed their Irish predecessors in adding Turkish baths to their establishments, it seems that Wiley's offer was either not taken up or, less likely, that it was tried out but not adopted.

The baths appear to have closed around 1870 when Wiley’s merged with three other closely related companies to form Perry & Co Ltd, and no further advertisements appeared. But whether the baths closed because they were unsuccessful, or because the new larger company needed the space, is not known.

This page first published 23 November 2018

Thank you icon


David Gardiner-Hill, great-great-grandson of William Edward Wiley for

the wonderful photograph of his great-great-grandfather

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.

Turkish baths exterior, 1862

Argent Centre exterior, 1990s

Polychrome brickwork


Opening advertisement [Click, then scroll down the page]

William Edward Wiley

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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