Turkish baths in provincial England

Lewes: 35 Friar’s Walk

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

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Lewes Turkish Baths

A gift to the town?

That there was a Victorian Turkish bath in Lewes is well known. Even today, the old building—until recently in use by Lewes District Council as a printing works—still has a small sign on the back door indicating that it is ‘The Old Turkish Bath’. But there is still a mystery about the exact circumstances in which it came to be built.

In 1860, the newly widowed Mrs Henry Fitzroy—Hannah Mayer, daughter of Nathan Mayer Rothschild before her marriage—was said to have ‘presented the town of Lewes with some few thousands of pounds for the erection of baths’. The building was intended as a memorial to her husband who had been the town’s Liberal MP since 1837 and had died the previous year. By April, a committee chaired by Mr Burwood Godlee, JP, and a senior member of the local Liberal party, had been set up to oversee the building and future running of the baths.

On Monday 16 April, Mr Godlee happened to meet an acquaintance, George Witt, on the Brighton train and told him about Mrs Fitzroy’s gift. Witt was, at that time, a close friend of David Urquhart and later to be involved with him in setting up the company which built the Jermyn Street Hammam. In true Urquhartite fashion, he proceeded to tell Godlee how much more effective and economical the Turkish bath was as a cleansing agent, inviting him to his Knightsbridge home in London to try a Turkish bath for himself.

Witt was a Fellow of the Royal Society, his private bath was already well-known and, according to a contemporary writer, it had begun ‘to excite the interest of the scientific world’ so that ‘ several of the leading metropolitan physicians and surgeons applied for permission to test it upon themselves’.

Godlee visited Witt’s Turkish bath the following Saturday and was, as Witt wrote to Urquhart the following day, ‘highly delighted’. He was also taken to meet another friend, Stewart Rolland, in order to see the new Turkish bath at his home in Victoria Street. Not content with this, as Witt told Urquhart in his letter, he and Godlee then went on to see Mr (later, Sir George Gilbert) Scott,

the architect employed by Mrs Fitzroy & we have succeeded so far that he will stop his present ‘water trough’ plans & one of his clerks is to come here to see what a Bath is—Mr Scott himself goes on Monday to Germany & when he returns I should like, if he will spare the time, to bring him down to Rickmansworth…

Mr Godlee wants to have the people enlightened on the subject of the Bath & through them act on Mrs Fitzroy as doubtless Scott in his ignorance will prove a stumbling block—now, the object of all this is to ask whether you will deliver a lecture on the Bath at Lewes—Mr Godlee (who is a leading man there) says that he will do the hospitable, & he pledges himself to get such an audience as will fill the largest place in Lewes.

Such a pattern of events—a visit to Urquhart’s famous Turkish bath at Rickmansworth, followed by a town meeting in order to gain public support—would be followed time and again all over the country as the ‘Turkish Bath Movement’ spread.

But this time something went wrong. Towards the end of May, Godlee wrote to the local paper:

It is rumoured, and I believe very generally credited by the inhabitants of this town and its neighbourhood, that we are about to be gratified by the erection of a handsome building in the High Street, for the purpose of affording to all, but particularly to the less wealthy classes, the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of the bath at a nominal cost.

He continued by announcing that in the near future, ‘Mr Urquhart, late MP for Stafford, and Secretary to the British Embassy in Constantinople, to whom belongs the credit of the recent introduction of the bath into this country’ would visit the town to give us ‘a complete history of its present and former condition and objects.’

The following week, an editorial also mentioned the proposed gift and, for the first time, named the donor. But while it referred to the forthcoming visit by Urquhart, it also talked about the lack of swimming facilities which were sorely needed in the town.

David Urquhart visited Lewes on Friday 8 June 1860 and gave, not one, but two lectures on the bath. The first was at County Hall at 2.00 pm and the second in the evening at the Mechanics Institute Lecture Hall. For all Godlee’s exuberant promises, the Sussex Advertiser reported that attendances were ‘not large’ and ‘not numerous’.

The following week Godlee wrote again to the Advertiser and it is clear that, after the poor turnout at each of Urquhart’s lectures and the continued pressure for swimming facilities, he could see that campaigning for the provision of a Turkish bath for the town would be an uphill task. In vain he argued, correctly, that hot-air baths could be provided at a fraction of the cost of hot water baths and still leave money for ‘the proposed washing appliances, which would be useful in their way,’ and (perhaps in desperation) that ‘the building of a Turkish bath would provide more swimmers for the proposed swimming baths.’

So successful, however, was his own conversion that he was by this time in the process of building a private Turkish bath at his own home at Leighside. He announced that it would shortly be open for public inspection so that those who were interested could learn more about it. (Urquhart's practice was to invite doubters to use his bath at Riverside.)

It is not yet known why Mrs Fitzroy changed her mind, but presumably she realised that there were more people in favour of (a rather more expensive) swimming bath than a still relatively unknown Turkish bath. In the event she decided, possibly encouraged by Scott, that her husband’s memorial would more fittingly be a library feeding the mind than a bath cleansing the body. And so the Scott-gothic Fitzroy Memorial Library was built and opened to the public in 1862.

The baths and their usage

In the meantime, no less convinced of the value of a Turkish bath to the townspeople of Lewes, Godlee (as chairman) and six other subscribers set up a new company which they called the Lewes Bath Association Limited. This was duly incorporated on 5 October 1861 and had its Registered Office at 17 High Street. The following year, on 7 February, it took a 99 year lease from the Society of Friends on a 402 square yard parcel of land in Friar’s Walk, for which the rent was £9 per year. Here it proposed to construct ‘Hot Air and Hot and Cold Water Baths’.

The baths, designed by a local architect, Mr Parsons, and built by a local builder, Mr J Davey, were opened on Monday 30 June 1862, ‘with various rates of charges for both ladies and gentlemen, which are arranged upon a scale calculated to meet the requirements of all classes.’ They comprised a Turkish bath, warm and cold water baths, tepid and cold plunge baths, showers, and living accommodation to house an attendant.

The local paper considered that the baths had got off to a good start, reporting that,

The building is very conveniently fitted up with all modern improvements and the baths as well as the general arrangement seem to afford the greatest satisfaction.

During their first week, for example, the local paper reported that the baths were used by between sixty and seventy bathers. About one third of these were women, a much higher proportion than was normally the case in Turkish baths open to the general public.

Interestingly, there were also a number of women shareholders each of whom was described in the Register, quite unusually, as ‘Gentlewoman’—exactly matching the term ‘Gentleman’ invariably used for men of leisure; in most other companies, the terms used were restricted to ‘wife’, ‘widow’, or ‘spinster’.

The original share capital of £1,000 (divided into £10 shares) was fully taken up by the time of the company’s first AGM on Saturday 4 October 1862. But in order to cover an initial deficit incurred during the furnishing and fitting of the bath (so as to ensure the ‘comfort of the bathers’), the share capital was increased by a further fifty £10 shares, thirty of which were taken up by the directors themselves.

There was a good deal of commitment to the new facility, and even a gift of £50 from a Mr Thomas Whitfield. During the whole of the twenty year life of the company, the total number of shares allotted never varied from 126, held by between forty-five and forty-nine shareholders. They, in common with those of many contemporary Turkish bath companies, frequently saw themselves as providing a public service never expecting, and almost always never receiving, large dividends.

It was reported that in the twelve weeks since opening, the baths had ‘been patronised far beyond the expectations of its projectors’. There had been more than 1500 bathers and they had taken £56.12s.10d. for tickets and a further £38.17s.0d. for annual season tickets. Henry Norman and his wife, who had been appointed superintendents had been ‘very attentive and obliging.’ Norman was later to become the Baths Manager.

Little is so far known about the use made of the Turkish bath during the decade after it opened, except that the income seemed to fall progressively and that there was a slight drop in usage after the opening, in 1868, of the much larger Brighton Turkish Baths. Reporting on the 1872 AGM, held on 27 August, the Advertiser noted that it seemed that a town like Lewes (with a population of around 10,000) was not sufficiently large to maintain a Turkish Bath. The income for the previous years was reported to have been:

Year 1863 1864 1865 1866 1867 1868 1869 1870 1871 1872
Income £ 264 254 235 222 221 212 197 165 159 143

According to the report, a decision was made to close the Baths and ensure the best use of the building for the good of the town. However, this does not seem to have been acted on. The Turkish bath was almost certainly still open in 1881, and probably remained open while the Association tried to interest Lewes Corporation in taking it over.

On 13 January 1882, the year in which the Corporation adopted the Baths and Wash-houses Acts, the shareholders resolved upon a voluntary winding-up of the Lewes Bath Association and appointed Frederick Colvin as Liquidator. It seemed quite appropriate, therefore, for the Corporation to ask the Highways and Works Committee,

to consider the possibility of adapting the building in Friar’s Walk formerly used as a Turkish Bath for the purposes of Public Baths and Wash-houses and if thought advisable to confer with the owners of such building as to the terms on which they would be willing to dispose thereof to the Corporation for such purpose.

Arthur Holt, the Borough Surveyor, reported in March that the premises were small and ‘in a very dilapidated condition’. Alterations would cost around £500. While there was no room for wash-houses, his enquiries had led him to believe there was no demand for such. So, for the purposes of the Public Baths, he estimated the value of the buildings at £350.

The committee thought the building was capable of being converted into Public Baths and it contacted Frederick Colvin who, as Liquidator, asked £600 for the premises. There seems to have been no reply because a couple of weeks later, on 20 April, Colvin wrote again to say that he had received an offer for the Baths for use as business premises.

However, he continued, when the shareholders had resolved to voluntarily wind up their company, they had ‘expressed a strong feeling that the Baths should be offered to the Corporation’. Accordingly he was now writing to offer it to them for five hundred pounds, which was lower than the sum he had already been offered but was ‘as low as I feel justified as Liquidator of the Company in accepting.’

The committee, however, stuck to its guns feeling that the site, being basically unsuitable for their real needs, was not worth more than £350 and they decided to proceed no further with the purchase.

The baths today

And so, in 1882, the building had finally come to the end of its days as a Turkish bath.

Yet even though long closed, the building continues to interest, and even inspire, those who pass it by, or who traverse Brooman's Lane—the Sussex twitten immediately to the right of the baths.

Rachel Playforth writes that she has 'always loved the building, and looking at the plaque on its wall gave me the perfect way in when looking for an angle to write about Brooman’s Lane', one of paths which feature in her Twitten sequence of twelve poems. Frequently walking up and down the twitten, says Rachel, she finds that 'the meditative route is perfect for composing poetry'.

She precedes her poem with what I think is the best nineteenth century definition of the Victorian Turkish bath, concisely and accurately distinguishing it from the vapourous and often steamy Islamic hammam.

Brooman's Lane (from 'Twitten')

It is not wet air, nor moist air, nor vapoury air; it is not vapour in any shape or form whatever.  It is an immersion of the whole body in hot common air.

–— Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Thudichum (1861), on the Victorian Turkish bath


A tinderbox of breath
a tender oven
blood rising under skin
throats red as roses.

You inhale
your neighbour’s voice
your sister’s sigh
your lover’s secret

the hot common air.

© Rachel Playforth

Thank you icon

Philip Bye of the East Sussex County Record Office

Graham Mayhew and Philip Taylor

Simon Harriyott for permission to use his photo

Peter Duxbury for permission to quote from Turkish baths: a curious address

Judy Mackerras for help in obtaining images and in updating the page

Rachel Playforth for permission to use her evocative poem

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

Friar's Walk Turkish bath: two present-day views

Plaque commemorating the site of the baths

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For readers of the book

Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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