Turkish baths in provincial England

Dover: Biggin Street

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

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Dover Turkish Baths

The proposal considered

The Dover Harbour Board had already approved plans for baths designed by J T Anson for a Mr Adcock in the late 1870s. These were expected to open at the end of the Marine Parade in 1878, but the scheme fell through. The three-floor building, its frontage ‘style being ornamental Byzantine’, was to have included a swimming pool 45ft by 25ft surrounded by 30 changing cubicles on the ground floor. On the second floor there were to be 14 separate slipper baths, Turkish baths, showers, and a relaxation area with refreshments. Finally, on the third floor, a flat for the proprietor or manager was planned.

Another twenty years passed before Turkish baths for the town were again being considered, but only in 1900 did the Corporation start seriously discussing the question. Opinions varied, as was usual in such cases. Some maintained that the town would benefit by having a healthier population and an added tourist attraction, even if the baths made a small annual loss. Others argued that ratepayers' money should not be spent on what some considered a luxury.

In July 1901 the Town Clerk sent a questionnaire to a selection of English and Welsh councils. It asked a number of questions about whether they provided Turkish baths or intended to do so in the near future. It also asked for details about those provided and about their profitability. Forty-three replies were received, resulting in much information, together with some interesting views on the subject. However, the answers to some questions often resulted in comparisons which were based on different circumstances, and so were in no way conclusive. For example, when the Turkish bath accounts were not separated from those of the swimming pool(s). The survey has been treated more fully elsewhere.

Nevertheless, much of the gathered information was helpful and when, at the beginning of the following year, the Corporation voted on the Baths Committee's recommendation that Turkish baths should be built, the resolution was passed by nine votes to six.

The baths were estimated to cost £2,200 and were to be leased to John James Lewis, proprietor of the Folkestone Turkish baths, for an initial three years. The idea was that Lewis's rent should cover the interest on the Corporation's loan and the sinking fund on the loan 'so that there can be no loss to the town during what is the most difficult period for any venture of the kind'. This was not to be.

The baths are built

Originally, the Turkish baths were to be built next to the Marine Baths on the sea front, but this was thought to be too far away from the town's residential area.  Instead, the Corporation chose a position adjacent to the Town Baths, in part of the garden of their newly purchased Maison Dieu House, because it was more central, and could share the boiler and chimney stack of the existing baths.

The building was designed by the Borough Engineer Henry E Stilgoe and built by local builders, Messrs R and G Brisley. The contract price was £2,399.

The external walls, sixteen inches thick for the ground floor and fourteen for the upper floor, were faced with knapped flints to blend with its neighbour, the Maison Dieu. Downstairs, all the rooms had tiled floors and, except for the office and changing room, the interiors were of glazed brickwork. Both floors were lit by electricity.

Bathers passed through the main entrance into the waiting room and removed their outdoor shoes. Passing the cold plunge pool with its ten changing and relaxation cubicles, each with a couch for resting after the bath, they entered the cooling-room furnished with easy chairs and including a refreshment area.

Given the research previously undertaken in connection with Turkish baths elsewhere, it is surprising to find no showers for bathers to use, either before entering the hot rooms or, even worse, between the hot rooms (including the Russian vapour bath) and the plunge pool. In fact the only shower immediately available for bathers, a needle douche, was in one of the two shampooing rooms.

A door from the cooling-room led to the Russian bath or, past the shampooing rooms, into the first of the three hot rooms. These were to be maintained at 140, 180, and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The heated fresh air entered the hottest of these from a furnace underneath, with the smoke flue being directly connected to the chimney stack of the boiler in the adjacent Town Baths. Vitiated air from the hot rooms was extracted through gratings underneath the marble seats. The furnace, described as having a wrought iron dome, seems to resemble a cockle stove of the type long superseded by such as Constantine's Convoluted stoves, though it might have been a more modern version.

Upstairs, accessed from stairs in the waiting room, was a room for electrical treatments (including electric light baths), and another for the medical baths. The latter included a sulphur bath, an ordinary slipper bath, and a variety of showers.

The baths open

The baths opened on 3 May 1903 with a staff of two men, two women, a boy and a girl. They were open from eight in the morning till seven in the evening, with the mornings on Wednesdays and the afternoons on Mondays and Fridays being reserved for women. A Turkish bath cost 2/6, but paying for five or ten tickets in advance (at eleven shillings or one pound respectively) enabled savings to be made, while a yearly ticket at three guineas brought the price of a weekly bath down to just over 1/2½d per visit. Advertisements for the baths included what they called their 'specialities'. These included electric light baths, Aix, & Vichy douches massages, Nauheim baths, facial massage, manicure, and chiropody, though none of them was priced.

However, a page from the manager's daily accounts dated Monday 2 July (1906, though this is not stated), indicates that Russian and medicated baths cost the same as Turkish baths, electric baths cost 3/6, a mustard pack cost 4/-, and light baths 5/-. Although these latter prices were from three years after the baths opened, they were almost certainly the same as they were on opening day.

John James Lewis files for Bankruptcy

In March 1905, just two years after the baths opened, John James Lewis filed for bankruptcy. It was clear from accounts of the hearings that he had considerably overreached himself. He had added a gymnasium to his Folkestone baths and, in doing so, had accidentally built onto the neighbouring land leading to his having to pay compensation. He had also made alterations to the building and equipped it with electrical appliances. But perhaps even more significant, he had needed to take money from his Folkestone business to keep the Dover one going.

At the hearings, Mr de Wet, acting on Lewis's behalf, pointed out that he had taken on the lease of the Dover baths, at the Corporation's request, at an annual rental of £150. He was led by them to believe 'that it would be a success because Dover was more important and because there was more money there than in Folkestone'. Mr de Wet said it was clear that the baths were being carried on at a loss, but the Corporation 'were not called to book as the debtor had been'. Judge Shortt, presiding, agreed to discharge Lewis on the basis that he should pay £100 over a period of three years.

The Turkish Baths between 1905 and 1934

After Lewis's bankruptcy, the Corporation set about trying to find someone to replace him. Early in the process, Sir Edward Wollaston Knocker, the Town Clerk, received a letter from a Mr W R Mowth asking whether  'Henry Rance the Manager of our Brixton [Stamboul] Turkish Bath' might visit to look round the baths, indicating that Rance 'knows of a man that will do excellently for the position'. Two days later, on 13 March, Rance visited the baths, saying that he would write if  he 'wanted further particulars'.

Rance seems to have become the manager of the Stamboul baths some time between the late 1890s and 1901, but an advertising folder with a 1905 calendar shows that by then the baths were already known as Rance's Turkish baths. The card also notes that there was another branch next to London Bridge Station. Rance seems to have become the manager of the Stamboul baths some time between the late 1890s and 1901, but an advertising folder with a 1905 calendar shows that by then the baths were already known as Rance's Turkish baths. The card also notes that there was another branch next to London Bridge Station. So it may be that Mowth was actually the manager, writing on behalf of Henry Rance who was, by now the proprietor, and one who was, perhaps, looking to expand.

Rance was clearly very knowledgeable about running Turkish baths, and the questions he asked, and his response to the answers he was given, should have acted as a warning to Dover Corporation that it would be difficult for them to make their baths pay.

He asked how many people used the baths each day, what wages were paid, how much a husband and wife would be paid to run the baths, whether the rent would include water, light, and rates, and what the baths had been making since they opened. We don't know what was discussed during his visit, but these questions would appear to be far more than would be expected of someone merely applying for the job as manager, and this seems to be confirmed by Rance's last letter to the Town Clerk.

Rance wrote that the bath was not one which he himself could run from a distance as 'the expenses would be too heavy in comparison with the takings'.  Further, 'I  have asked two of my employees but they do not care about taking it on'. In thanking Knocker for the trouble he had taken, Rance advised that it could be let to a man and wife at an initially low, but gradually increasing, rental. A couple could make it pay, but the wife would need to look after the women bathers and, finally, they 'should be very careful about the character' of the man 'as shampooers are as a rule very loose sort of people, I am sorry to say'.

In the event, Lewis's brother Arthur was appointed Manager, with Lewis's sister-on-law appointed Manager on women's days. Arthur Lewis and his wife ran the baths for nearly 30 years though they were never financially successful. Corporation approval needed to be sought for even the most minor non-regular maintenance as, for example, in 1909, when the Public Health Committee agreed the purchase of six new chair covers for the cooling-room at a cost of between four to six shillings each.

The original charges for the baths and other services remained unchanged for several years, and by 1913 the cost of a single Turkish bath had only risen by 6d to 3/-.

In 1920 it was reported that the baths were losing about £300 year and it was proposed to convert them into offices. One of the reasons was found to be that the hot rooms were considered by users to be not hot enough. Clearly the design temperatures were not being maintained. This was improved by pumping steam from the town's adjacent electricity works so that an increase in the number of bathers gave the baths a temporary reprieve.

But despite attempts to publicise them in 1921 by sending cards to all the hotels in East Kent there was no significant improvement. During the six months beginning on 1 April that year, only 288 baths had been taken by men and 256 by women. The most taken in a year had been £390 in 1913, while the loss in 1920 had been £263. The Borough Accountant indicated that the baths had lost £4,334 during the past ten years. There was a strong feeling that the baths should be closed.

Not all agreed, one councillor maintaining that the baths were a valuable asset to the town. She asked what arrangements would be made in the way of a pension for Mr and Mrs Lewis if the baths closed, and was told by the Chairman that they had no power to grant one.

But although the Baths Committee recommended that the baths should be closed, this was defeated at the town council meeting by one vote, the value of the baths being urged from a medical point of view.

The following year things had improved and the corporation asked the Lewises if they would be prepared to take the baths over if they were not responsible for the loan charges. But the offer was not taken up.

The Corporation continued to be concerned about the cost of the baths over the following years, a concern which led to further suggestions in 1928 that they should be closed. Reading a report about this, Ellen Hopkins, a user of the baths who lived in Folkestone, wrote to one of the local papers about her own experiences as a bather, and this was read to the Baths Committee at their next meeting.

She was surprised that a member of the committee had needed to ask whether the baths were full. She had been using the baths three times a week for the past three years. On the days that she had been there,

There have been 10, 11, and 12 ladies, never less than 10, necessitating the use of rooms other than the cubicles for undressing, and in addition there have been several, myself included, who have also taken [an electric] light bath or electrical massage. It would not be possible, and it would certainly be inhuman to expect one person to do any more than is done by Mrs. Lewis. It was evidently not your intention to overwork one person, as is shown by the fact that you have two shampooing rooms and this seems to me to be the secret of the matter. If on certain days an extra masseuse was employed and it were known that double the numbers could be taken, without incurring extra expense, of fuel and lighting (in winter), I think it would be one way of reducing the loss.

To the suggestion that those who use a Turkish bath can afford to pay for it, she replied that they pay the same as at any other average bath in England. Then she firmly but politely blamed the attitude of certain committee members for the problem.

The matter then is this: You have well equipped baths. You have two officials who know their work well and who give the greatest satisfaction to all who come. On the days I have been there I have seen them much overworked to try and take more people than their space allowed. If the interest shown by some is no greater than that by Councillor Dawes when he is not sure of the title of your official and dubs him 'caretaker' or 'operator' (both I should imagine incorrect) it must be very difficult for those who see the real good of the baths and are upholding the position of the same. In conclusion may I say that to you I would like to offer my personal tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Lewis. I have been to various baths in many parts of the British Isles, but at none have I received as much benefit or consideration.

Finally, she explained that the only other time when she was tempted to write was when she saw, quoted in the paper the previous year, the amount of salary paid to two qualified people after nearly 25 years of service.

In the discussion that followed, several councillors said that bathers had told them of the benefit they felt and the good work of the staff. Others were suspicious that not all money taken was passed to the town. It was understood that tea was provided. But the Borough Accountants replied that 'as they found they were losing money providing refreshments, the Manager was allowed to provide them himself '.

Further discussion followed and it was noted that the cost of an additional assistant would be £2 2s. a week and would allow 36 extra bathers bringing in an extra £6 per week.

No decisions appear to have been made, but at the following meeting Arthur Lewis presented a report to the corporation suggesting ways to increase the baths income.

He suggested the construction of three additional cubicles, and that the douche room 'was at present non productive and should be converted into a rest room, with the inclusion of ultra-violet ray apparatus which would increase the income'. He also suggested that it would be possible to get better value from the staff by rearranging the duties, so that instead of an office attendant at £1, a masseuse and office attendant at £2 would bring in extra income, and that the additional employment of an office girl and cleaner at 10/- would only increase the total wage bill by £1.10s. per week. Finally, he suggested that advertising boards should be placed on roads leading to Dover. This was rejected, but showcards would be distributed to local hotels and boarding houses, and two column-inch advertisements would be placed for three months in the Dover Express, the Kentish Express and the Kent Echo.

The baths are closed

The baths appeared to continue in this manner until June 1934 when Arthur Lewis resigned due to ill health. It was suggested by (the now Alderman) Dawes that the baths were losing £10 per week and they should ask the Council to decide whether to continue the baths before advertising for a successor. But the Mayor argued that they lose money on the Pleasure Grounds and other services. The Turkish baths, he insisted, were 'valuable from a health point of view'.

In the event, the position was advertised. Mr & Mrs A Kitchen, of Tuley's Electro-Hydropathic & Turkish baths in Huddersfield, were duly 'appointed as joint Managers of the Dover Turkish Baths, at a salary of £275 per annum, rising to £300 after 12 months satisfactory service'.

Despite this, the Council agreed on 27 November that, on the recommendation of the Baths Committee, the baths should be permanently closed and that 'the building should be used for some other suitable purpose'.

In July the following year, the Dover Town Council, again on the recommendation of the Baths Committee, agreed a scheme to convert the building into a lecture hall with adjoining public conveniences at a total cost of £1,950. It was argued that a lecture hall holding around 120-130 people was a long felt need in the town, and there would be no difficulty in letting it as 'they received heaps of applications for the use of a small room or hall'. The Borough Accountant warned that there might be an annual loss of £52 on the scheme, to which the Mayor replied that the Turkish baths had been losing £500 per year.

Biggin Hall opened in 1936 and remains open.

This page first published 3 Feb 2022

This account should be treated as work in progress. Further research is needed to find out about how the baths were used, how long they survived, and why their ownership changed so soon after they were opened.

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


Elevation drawing

Goad fire plan

Ground floor plan

Electric treatment room

Advertisement, 1907

Cooling-room

Biggin Hall, 1990s

Rance's Brixton Turkish Baths

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

 
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