Turkish baths in provincial England

Carlisle: James Street

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

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Carlisle Turkish Baths

Carlisle's Public Baths

Early in 1883, Carlisle's Baths Subcommittee took a trip to Liverpool and a number of other cities to discover what provision they had made for bathing and swimming. On their return they agreed that, in addition to swimming pools, they should also provide slipper baths, vapour baths, and showers at a cost, excluding the site, of around £6,000.

The foundation stone was laid on 4 September 1883 and the baths were opened by the Mayor on 31 July the following year.

When opened, they comprised 1st and 2nd class swimming pools (as required by the Baths and Washhouses Acts) and a pool for women. There were also 22 slipper baths (including 5 for women), 4 cabinet vapour baths (within weeks increased to 6), and what was called a Roman bath—though what exactly this was, is not known.

However, it does not appear to have been any type of Victorian Turkish bath. These had been considered, but finance was not available and a small area adjacent to the baths building was specifically allocated for their later construction.

A vapour or Roman bath, together with a shower and spray, cost one shilling. Hygiene was uppermost in the collective committee mind, Regulation 4 stating that, 'Bathers are not to spit in the water of the baths, but when necessary are to use the spittoons at the sides of the baths'.

Agreeing the Turkish Baths

The addition of the promised Turkish baths was already being considered within ten months of the pools' opening. However, it was decided that this could not yet be considered as the estimated cost of £250 was around £150 more than they then had available.

It was to be another five years before the council felt able to proceed, and Percy Dalton, later to be appointed Carlisle's City Engineer and Surveyor, was instructed to prepare plans and estimates for the site recently purchased from Hudson Scott and Sons for that purpose.

Entrusting the design of public baths to local authority surveyors or engineers had not been an unqualified success in some areas. But Carlisle was fortunate in that Dalton was a gifted practitioner of his art. During his years in post he would design five bridges taking traffic into town, and be placed in charge of the city's housing programme. With his innovative designs, and the wide range of his responsibilities, it is generally accepted that he beneficially changed the face of Carlisle forever.

In July 1901, Carlisle adopted the Baths and Washhouses Acts to enable them to borrow £1,985 to build the Turkish baths, and permission was granted for a loan to be repaid over 20 years. The following year new plans were prepared for a slightly smaller set of baths in order to keep within budget, and these were duly approved. But for one reason or other building work was not started, and was repeatedly delayed.

By 1908 it seemed as though the baths would never be built, but the final impetus to start was the receipt of a letter from the Local Government Board asking that if the Corporation was not going to act on the loan sanction it should be returned for cancellation.

The Surveyor was asked to resubmit the plans, prepare bills of quantities, and advertise for tenders. Even so, there was still opposition to the baths with an amendment to refer the decision back for a month.  The extended discussion over the amendment was reported in great detail by the local paper. But the general sense of the argument was between those who objected to the cost, and those who argued that 'It ought not to be a question of £ s d. The health of the people…was the city's best asset,' and that the baths would specially benefit the aged and the poor. Ten people voted for the amendment, and a large majority against.

During the intervening years, improvements had been made to the building's specification and the Council now needed to increase the amount they needed to borrow by an additional £515. This would bring the total being sought to £2,500 and the Local Government Board had to be asked to sanction this.

Naturally this gave rise to yet another—though this time final—attempt to refer the project back, a Mr Tiffen declaring that 'such places were aristocratic luxuries'. This was rebutted by Mr Dalton who stated that when he visited the Leeds Turkish baths one afternoon 'they were full, not of aristocrats but of working men'. The amendment was defeated by 24 votes to 8.

Finally, in October 1908, a contract worth £2,289.11.0. was signed with William Johnstone, the local builder who had won the public tender for the construction of the building. The plans were agreed, and official approval received from the Local Government Board.

Work proceeded and, at the beginning of June 1909, the Surveyor was authorised to appoint one male and one female attendant to undertake shampooing at wages of 30/- and 7/6 per week respectively. At first glance this might seem inequitable, even by the standards of the day, but it has to be borne in mind that when the subcommittee shortly afterwards set the entrance charges and opening hours, male bathers were allocated five days in the week, whereas women were only allocated one—Tuesday.

The wages therefore appear to have been 5/- per day for the male attendant and 7/6 per day for the female attendant. However, though not stated in the authorisation, it may have been taken for granted that the male attendant lived on the premises and had free rent, heat and lighting.

This was the situation in many Turkish baths where there was a more even distribution of opening hours between the sexes, or when there were separate baths for women. In such cases a married couple would frequently be appointed. Further research is needed to determine what the actual remuneration was in this case, and whether there were any additional perks.

But if we are not sure about the remuneration we do know that John Ormston, previously at Newcastle Turkish baths for 20 years, was appointed to take charge of those at Carlisle. Three years later he was made Baths Superintendent, and only retired in 1939 when he was succeeded by Robert Gardner, Superintendent of Arbroath Baths.

Due to the need to keep costs down to an acceptable level, the requirement of the Baths and Washhouses Acts that two classes of baths had to be provided could not be met by having separate sets of baths, such as could be found in a few commercial Turkish baths. Instead, the common practice of setting different prices and times for each class was more easily adopted. From 9.00 am till noon or 5.30 pm (according to the day of the week), the first class charge was 2/-; for the rest of the day, the charge was 1/-.

The Turkish Baths open

Unlike the practice in many local authorities at that time, there were no celebratory gala dinners in Carlisle when, after 25 years in the planning, the new Turkish baths opened on 20 September 1909. There was no special Opening Day, and little advance publicity has been found. Indeed, the necessary authority to incur expenditure on advertising the baths was only passed two and a half weeks after their opening—a low-key beginning which seems also to exemplify the council's attitude to the baths in more recent times.

It may be that there was much publicity within the existing baths, and leaflets about the new facility might have been available. The only advance promotion so far recorded was the opening of the new baths to public view on 17 September. This was, according to the Carlisle Journal,

visited by a large number of people interested in this important addition to the means existing within the city of enabling the inhabitants to secure and preserve the purity of their bodies and thus promote their happiness and health.

This article also provides us with the best description we have of how the building was laid out when it first opened.

Because the Turkish baths were originally envisioned solely as an extension to the main baths, there was no direct entrance from the street. The west wall was the only side of the building originally visible from the outside.

This is now obscured by a later two-storey block which incorporates the original access passageway leading from the pools. The passage, and therefore the Turkish baths, are currently entered through a plain modern doorway from James Street.

But when the Turkish baths opened, bathers entered through the main baths entrance. Men passed through the second class swimming pool hall directly into the Turkish baths passage, while women entered the passage from their own  baths, through a door which was only unlocked on Tuesdays.

Bathers purchased their tickets through a window in the attendant's room at the end of the passage. Continuing into an area to their right, they removed their shoes and replaced them with felt slippers. Shoes and valuables were left with the attendant for safekeeping in his storeroom lockers, and light refreshments could be ordered for consumption after the bath.

The bathers then passed through a horseshoe shaped entrance into the Terrazzo paved cooling-room (captioned Lounge on the plan). This was, and remains, the heart of the baths, although the description which follows is of the baths as they were on the day they opened. Immediately in front of the bathers were tables and chairs at which they could sit and read newspapers and magazines, or have a drink and a snack after their bath.

Beyond this relaxation area is the cold plunge pool. This is constructed of concrete and faced with white glazed bricks. Although the pool is featured as the centrepiece of the room, it can only be entered down the steps at the far end, under the horseshoe archway leading from the hot area. The wooden doors flanking the archway both have surrounds of alternating green and yellow tiles.

Lining the outer walls of the cooling-room are the changing and relaxation cubicles, three single and two double on each side of the pool. These are separated by polished wooden screens with art nouveau stained glass panels in their upper parts. Much use is made of fine tiling and glazed faïence work with shades of pale green, pale blue, and buff glazes; also incorporated at intervals are paired tiles of art nouveau design. The tiling, horseshoe arches and flamboyant corbels all combine to give what was thought of some years ago as a distinctly oriental appearance. A weighing machine was provided for bathers who wished to check their weight before and after their Turkish bath.

Between the cooling-room and the hot room area are a number of small windowed lobbies reached through the doors on either side of the pool. Each door leads from the cooling-room to a small lobby with access to the pool steps and to the first hot room. But the lobby on the right also leads to and from the shampooing room, while that on the left accesses the small Russian steam room, the temperature of which was controlled by a valve key operated by the bath attendant.

All three hot rooms and the shampooing room are plainer in appearance than the cooling-room, although the Terrazzo floor continues throughout. The walls are of white glazed bricks and the ceilings finished in white enamelled iron. Possibly dictated by the site, each of the three hot rooms is trapezium shaped, though the first is much larger than each of the others. It also has marble slabs for sitting or lying down, and a drinking fountain.

The shampooing room was located next to the first hot room. It had two marble slabs, with hot and cold sprays and, leading off it, a small room with needle and douche showers.

The hot rooms were designed to be kept at 130, 160, and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and were well ventilated, the air being heated by one of Constantine's Convoluted Stoves. This had long been the industry standard for Turkish baths, and Carlisle's stove only became irreparable in 1936 when it had to be replaced—by a second Constantine stove.

All the original internal decorative tiling and glazed faïence work was executed by the respected company Minton and Hollins of Stoke-on-Trent. Apart from that, and the heating and ventilation work undertaken by Constantine's of Manchester, all the work was undertaken by local craftsmen.

The Turkish Baths more recently

Starting slowly with little publicity and only picking up numbers gradually, Carlisle's Turkish baths were never going to be a great money spinner. It was not then considered essential for public services to make a profit, let alone a profit for an outsourced operating company.

In 1922, it was decided to abandon the maintenance of the class system and all Turkish baths would cost 2/-. Some effort was put into increasing the number of bathers. Carlisle United was granted a 10% concessionary discount for their players provided they bought one hundred tickets at a time.

While a few years earlier, a grateful patron, Joseph J Jopling, Head Master of Friends' School, Wigton, offered the council a gift of five pounds to be spent on advertising free tickets to be given to 100 people who had never had a Turkish bath before. The council accepted, though with what result is not known. Mr Jopling did not offer to pay for the tickets himself, as was widely reported in many newspapers around the country, but the council did set aside 100 free tickets. 

Closure was threatened, and carried out, on several occasions, but always the public good won a reprieve. In 1937, a proposal to close had been overturned after a suggested consultation with the city's medical profession found that a large majority of doctors replying were in favour of its continuation.

The Turkish baths were closed in the late 1950s, but re-opened at the end of 1959. In what appears to be a series of regular attempts, closure was threatened again at the end of 1991 but a reprieve followed a petition signed by more than 800 people. Another reopening, this time of what was now inexplicably being called a Victorian Health Suite and outsourced to GLL (which trades as "Better"), followed at the end of 1995.

The future of Carlisle Turkish Baths?

The best piece of news for lovers of the baths was the announcement in 2010 that the 'Turkish Suite' had been designated a Listed Grade II building for reasons of quality, intactness, and rarity. It will now be extremely difficult to demolish the building, though by no means impossible to close the baths and 'repurpose' them.

The problem was well encapsulated in a piece by Rob Sutton, Audience and Content Editor of News & Star, written in 2019. For a short while after the 1992 reprieve, wrote Sutton,

the Victorian Suite was managed to a higher standard with its own attendant and payment till installed, indeed it started to make a profit so it was saved from closure. Now we have drifted back to poor management, no full time attendant, poor maintenance and cleanliness.

Pointing his finger at the heart of the matter, Sutton continued,

The "Better" organisation see The Victorian Health Suite as an encumbrance, an add on to The Pools that is poorly managed by them.

This is a fine Victorian Health Spa one of only a few left in the country with its unique architecture.

Its value for mental health and stress relief are equal to any gymnasium.

Fitness over mental health always seems to take precedence with sports activities attracting VAT relief but not Health spas.

Now the Turkish Baths are under the most serious threat of all because the original baths are to be demolished. Although the hot rooms, sauna, and steam room have their own independent heating systems, the building is dependent on the Pools for its central heating system and the water for its showers.

A support group is in the process of being set up and already has its Facebook page and Twitter homepage but, as successful groups in Manchester, Newcastle, and Glasgow have shown, this is not something that can be achieved overnight and time is of the essence.

The local News & Star is again very supportive. Most recently Phil Coleman, its Chief Reporter has written that 'Fears are growing for the future of a unique Carlisle building,' noting the suggestion of former city councillor Elsie Martlew that,

The Pools and the Turkish Baths—both of which are owned by the city council—are undergoing a decline after being outsourced and managed by a private company.

Mrs Martlew said: 'I recently raised my concerns with a leading city councillor who told me that their demise was because "they weren’t well used".

'That is hardly surprising when you look at the exterior of the building and the total lack of marketing of this unique facility.'

Coleman reported that Mrs Martlew urged the city council to take,

positive and decisive action' to ensure the building’s future by: taking it back into council control; guaranteeing its future after the demolition of The Pools: restoring the building; and marketing it to encourage its wider use by the public.

and added,

I call on the city council to give an immediate guarantee to safeguard the future of the building and to continue to operate it as the Turkish Baths. A failure to do so will be tantamount to municipal vandalism.

We can only hope that the cutting off of the heating and water supply resulting from the demolition of the old pools does not lead to these wonderful Turkish baths being vandalised while a rescue is being launched. Or that any repurposing proposals are not actively delayed so the baths' existing equipment deteriorates so as to preclude the retention of their original purpose.

This type of delay has been used elsewhere in the past. Carlisle City Council Leader John Mallinson has been quick to deny that the building is at risk; John Stevenson, the local MP, has been quick to welcome a £400k investment in the historic Turkish Baths. But these statements seem designed to give the protesters a false sense of security.

There has been no assurance that the building will continue to be used as a Turkish bath. Even more relevant is the total absence of any indication of how it has been proposed to repurpose the building. No one gets a grant of such a size without someone having put in a bid for it, and it is highly unlikely that such a bid would have been granted without a specific purpose being stated. This sounds like another typical faux 'public consultation' after the crucial decision has already been made.

These baths, designed during Queen Victoria's reign, are amongst the very finest remaining Victorian Turkish baths in the country. They should not be left in the hands of an outsourced company which is not interested in operating them, and does not have a good record managing other Turkish baths.

Carlisle's Turkish baths have never been marketed—as they deserve—as a tourist attraction, as are those in Harrogate or Baden-Baden, Germany. After an active visit learning about the castle, what could be better than relaxing in the city's unique Turkish bath? Handled wisely, the baths can be made profitable along the lines suggested by the Facebook Campaign. These wonderful Victorian Turkish baths are not an asset which has to be invented. They are there for the taking.

The baths were closed on 12 November 2022. What was Carlisle Council waiting for?

This page first published 19 May 2021
and slightly revised 12 November 2022

Thank you icon

Louise Smith, Archivist, Carlisle Archive Centre

"Bovine" for permission to use his images

Lindsay Kelso for permission to use his images

Julie Minns for further information about the temporary closure in the 1950s

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

Percy Dalton

Entrance to the baths

Door panel of stained glass

Reception area plan

Cooling-room/lounge plan


Plunge bath

Cubicles with couch and stained glass panel

Arches, corbels, and tilework

Lobbies plan

Hot rooms plan

Hot rooms

Hanging sign

Ground floor plan and section of building

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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