Turkish baths in Provincial England

Epsom: East Street

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

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Epsom Municipal Baths


The Urban District Council of Epsom adopted the Baths and Wash-houses Acts in 1897, allocating a site for the building in Church Street. But it was not until 18 June 1935 that the council (now the Borough of Epsom and Ewell) appointed a special committee to investigate the cost of building and maintaining baths to meet the needs of the locality.

In due course the council appointed Messrs AWS & KMB Cross as architects for the new Municipal Baths. This was a long established architectural practice which had been designing baths and Turkish baths for many years and one of the partners, Alfred WS Cross, was the author of a standard work, Public baths and wash-houses, published in 1906. It was agreed that a fee of £50 was to be paid if the project was abandoned.

On 13 January 1936 the architects submitted a full report proposing a scheme for building the new baths. As the original site had by then been used for the local fire station, a new site in East Street was chosen.

The council needed the sanction of the Ministry of Health in order to borrow money, and a public local enquiry was held on 3 November 1936.

The decision to include Turkish baths was strongly influenced by the suggestion that they would be well-used by many of those involved in the Epsom Races because, at that time, the nearest Turkish baths were in London. They were to be built in the basement, reached by a staircase to the right of the entrance hall.

And in a move that would have pleased the Victorians, men and women were each to be provided with a suite of twelve slipper baths. For the enquiry had found there were about fifteen hundred houses within a radius of one mile from the site of the baths which still, in 1936, had no fixed baths.

The borough was given permission to borrow the £64,834 needed to build and equip the baths, and invitations to tender were sent out. The contract was won by a local firm, Messrs HH & F Roll of Ashley Road, who submitted the lowest tender at £52,634, and construction finally started in September 1937.

The baths building

The exterior of the building was faced with multi-coloured bricks and Portland stone dressings, while the roof was covered in dark red pantiles.

The building had a number of interesting features: during the winter months, the swimming pool could be covered over by a scaffolding- supported wooden floor, so that the hall could be used for boxing matches, dances, and stage performances. Further information about the other facilities in the building can be found on the Epsom & Ewell History Explorer website.

The Turkish bath seemed to be well-equipped, and comprised its own changing room with lockers, five cubicles, and an attendant’s counter; there were three hot rooms, a vapour (steam) room, a shampooing room with three slabs, a shower room, a plunge pool, and a cooling-room with ten couches and a refreshments area.

There was also a suite of three Zotofoam baths—precursors of such whirlpools  as the Jacuzzi™ which is now so popular in health spas.

The wall tiles in the Turkish bath were glazed and those on the floors, with the surprising exception of the changing and cooling-rooms, were impervious and non-slip.

The Turkish baths suite had its own heating equipment immediately adjacent to the suite. The system was designed by Messrs Walter W Nobbs to maintain the correct temperature for each area, twelve hours a day, three hundred days in the year. The annual heating costs were originally estimated at £50 for coke, £115 for gas, or £160 for electricity. Wisely, the Baths Committee, after due consideration, chose gas.

The Turkish baths were heated by a gas-fired air heater with a gas-stream boiler for the vapour bath. The separate system was designed to ensure that there would be no demand, estimated at 120,000 BTU/hr, on the swimming pool plant, other than hot water supply.

A Baths Superintendent was appointed at £300 per year, rising annually by £12.10.0. to a maximum of £350. But he also had free accommodation in a self-contained flat at the rear of the building, together with free coal (rather than gas!) and electric light.

The staff comprised two male masseurs, each earning £3.8.0 per week, two female masseuses, each earning 25 shillings per day; and two youths, one male and one female, each earning 15 shillings per week as bath attendants.

The baths open

The official opening ceremony was held on 15 March 1939, complete with civic dignitaries, bouquets and speeches, swimming and diving displays, a water polo match, and the singing of God Save the King.

They were then open from Monday to Saturday, from eight in the morning till eight in the evening, with Wednesdays being set aside for women. It was also open for a few hours on Sunday mornings.

The charges varied according to the time of day, a Turkish bath costing either 3/6 or 2/6. A massage cost 2/6, and a Zotofoam bath—by appointment only—3/- or 2/-.

Surprisingly, considering the previous experience of the architects, there were many teething problems: a curtain rather than a door had been specified for the entrance to the hot rooms and had to be replaced at the suggestion of the heating engineers; the shower sprays were defective, as was the pump in the plunge pool; difficulties were experienced in maintaining the correct temperatures in the hot rooms; and the fresh air duct appeared to be faulty. All of which goes to show that our ideas of a past golden age, when 'workmen' took pride in their work and did the job properly, might need a little reconsideration.

The fifty-two bathers who used the Turkish baths during the first week seemed to know far more about how they should be run than those actually running them. They were not slow to suggest essential improvements.

For example, initially there were no weighing machines, and the bathers made it quite clear that they shouldn’t be charged for using them when they did arrive. They asked for floor coverings and canvas chairs for the hot rooms, for curtains between the shampooing slabs, a carpet for the cooling-room, and a free supply of cold drinking water. Yet all these suggestions had been standard practice in Turkish baths for over 80 years.

But the Baths Committee did put their collective foot down on being asked for, and firmly refusing, the bathers’ request for a Bridge table. In spite of this, the average weekly number of bathers using the Turkish baths had risen from the initial 52 to 75. And the bathers' request for floor coverings and carpets was met, later on, by a decision to provide bathers with slippers.

World War II and after

And so, ninety years after the Baths and Wash-houses Acts, Epsom had its very own Turkish baths. But it was not a propitious time for new leisure facilities. On 3 September, less than six months after the grand opening, war was declared and the baths immediately closed. The main halls were used to accommodate the Hook Road Air Raid Precautions staff and the swimming pool remained closed until the middle of the following year. But the Turkish baths re-opened after only a couple of weeks, probably helping the war effort considerably by de-stressing its customers.

In 1989, the baths were remodelled as part of what was now to be known as the Rainbow Centre, managed on behalf of the council by Civic Leisure Ltd. Admission (£5.00) gave access to the use of the three hot rooms (113-194°F), steam room, sauna, plunge pool and cooling-room. In addition to separate days for men and women, the baths were also open to mixed couples (wearing costumes) on Sundays.

During the sixty years of their existence, the Epsom Turkish baths were enjoyed by thousands of local people until they were finally demolished in 2001 to make way for a new facility.

During its final years, the phrase 'Turkish Baths' was changed on the board outside to read 'Health Suite', and often the assistant at the reception desk did not know what a Turkish bath was, let alone that she was charging admission to it. So, like other councils had done elsewhere, the public was being prepared for a forthcoming unpleasant shock.

It would be nice to be able to continue by describing the superbly equipped Turkish baths in the brand new leisure centre. But it never happened. Saunas and prefabricated steam rooms may be pleasant—even if sometimes rather claustrophobic. But they are quite different from the traditional Victorian Turkish bath, both in manner of use, and in overall effect.

They have replaced the Victorian Turkish bath simply because they are cheaper to operate.


Thank you icon



Jeremy Harte, Curator, Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell, for his kind help

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Exterior view

Entrance hall

A hot room

Plunge pool

Zotofoam baths compartments

Advertisement for Zotoform baths

Slipper bath cubicles

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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