First Victorian Turkish baths to open to the public in England

'The Poplars', 24 Broughton Lane, Manchester

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

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The first Victorian Turkish bath in England

These baths were originally built for the Manchester Foreign Affairs Committee, with advice and financial assistance from David Urquhart. Benjamin Bishop of the Winchester Foreign Affairs Committee had written to tell Urquhart that the his own committee had decided to have a bath constructed. Urquhart replied the following day,

I am beyond measure delighted with your project about the Bath. It is going to be taken up here [in Manchester], and I have arranged with a builder for the construction of a small one as a model. It has long been an idea of mine, to associate with each committee a proprietary Bath; for the cleaning of the mind and body go hand in hand.

The 'model bath' was added to the house of William Potter, long-time member of several of the committees in turn, and in 1857 secretary of the Manchester Committee.

In a justifiably enthusiastic letter to the Editor of the Sheffield Free Press dated 13 July (published on 18 July and reprinted in the Free Press a few days later), Potter wrote,

Sir,--I am glad to tell you that we have started a Turkish Bath in Manchester, on a small and moderate scale. Our space for bath and ante-room is twelve feet by six; this is cut in two by a nine-inch wall, giving us two rooms six feet square.

The inner room is heated from the cellar, by means of a furnace and three flues, the smoke being carried into the ordinary kitchen chimney. I have tried it today for the first time...after which I felt like a new man. The sensation during the process was of the most delightful character; beyond this indefinable, but certainly of an entirely different kind to any I had before experienced ...'

In the evening Mr ---- came in wearied and apparently worn out from overwork and a journey of nearly 200 miles without having broken his fast. Fortunately I had kept the fire in, and he took a bath at once; and after being in an hour and a half came out with all traces of weariness entirely removed, enjoyed his dinner, and surprised us all by the extraordinary change which had been, as it were, worked by enchantment.

In a postscript to the letter Potter offered to provide full details of its construction to anyone who was interested, and who came to the rooms of the Manchester Foreign Affairs Committee at 26 Market Street.

This was an exciting moment for members of the Foreign Affairs Committees around the country. Two days after Potter wrote to the Sheffield Free Press, Samuel Seal, a member of the Wakefield Committee who was visiting Urquhart at the time, wrote to John Enraght Scriven, a friend of Urquhart's who lived in Ireland:

I was in the Bath this morning with Mr Urquhart and the eldest boy. The reason of my coming here was to get the plan for a Bath which I intend to construct at Wakefield, in consequence of the effects I have seen produced in my daughter, who has been under the charge of Mr Urquhart for a month, after her case had been considered hopeless by physicians. It is [?]. I go to-night to Manchester to examine the Turkish bath constructed there by Mr Urquhart of which I hear wonderful accounts. I need not add I shall be pleased with any suggestions which you may afford me; it is now a race of competition which shall get baths soonest and cheapest.

From this letter, and a number of other later accounts, it seems that Potter had not given Urquhart due credit for the full extent of his contribution to the project, and three weeks later he wrote a second letter to the Sheffield Free Press (in answer to a request from a reader for more details) in which he belatedly made clear that he had received much help in his undertaking.

In reference to the letter of your correspondent, I have to state, that the Turkish Bath I spoke of is erected at my house, through the liberality of Mr Urquhart, and in consequence of his desire to see them established publicly. It is intended as a model, and with the hope that the committee here would make use of it, and so discover the virtues, and make them known to others.

The cost of it will not be under £40, including the building of the two chambers, fitting up ditto and fitting up an ante-room, or outer room, with couches, etc.

I believe a very simple and inexpensive one could be built by means of a few fire bricks for the furnace and floor of the inner room, turf for the walls, and felt for the roof; covered outwardly by brown paper prepared in oil. By using these materials and doing some of the work, the bath would not cost more than a few pounds. I may state that turf for the walls is far better for retaining the heat than any other material. The door for the inner room should only be large enough for a person to creep in at.

The two rooms are [each] six foot square.

The best course would be a personal inspection.

Initially, Potter was the manager of the baths, while his wife, Elizabeth, looked after the bath on women's days. In circumstances which are still not entirely clear, and are discussed elsewhere on the site, Potter became the proprietor of the baths almost immediately after they opened.

A local directory for the year 1858 includes what is one of the first, if not the very first, display advertisement for a Victorian Turkish bath to appear in an annual directory. Since directories were normally issued prior to, or at least very soon after, the beginning of the date year, Potter must have written the advertisement naming himself as proprietor, very soon after the bath opened.

Though cleansing of the skin is mentioned as the third of the bath's benefits, Potter seems to emphasize the health aspects of the bath and, though this was quite normal at the time,  unwisely suggests that the bath could cure any of the diseases he mentions.

More significant, though, is that there were always separate times for women to use the bath. In December 1858, for example, we know from an advertisement in the Halifax Courier that the baths were open for 'Ladies Monday and Wednesday mornings'

Although Halifax was nearly 33 miles from Potter's bath, his experience as a commission agent had given him a good business sense; he placed this ad after the closure of Joshua Waddington's short-lived establishment in Boddy's Buildings in an attempt--how successful is not known--to woo some of Waddington's clients.

And he made certain that he advertised in any locality where a new establishment was proposed which might take some of his customers away, as he did the following year when the Rochdale Pioneers were about to start their co-operative Turkish bath society.

In April 1859, Potter announced the forthcoming publication of his booklet on the Turkish bath, styling himself 'proprietor of the original Turkish Bath, Manchester.' When published, it included, among a batch of testimonials at the end, one of special interest from the social reformer, George Jacob Holyoake, who wrote,

On my way to Nottingham I found time to visit Mr Potter's Turkish bath, in Broughton Lane, Manchester. It has three chambers, besides two elegant cooling rooms. Excepting Mahomed's baths, Jermyn Street, London, I have been in no Turkish baths so complete and admirably attended as Mr Potter's. It is worth a journey to Manchester to spend a couple of hours in them.

Mahomed's baths were, as Holyoake suggested, excellent, but they do not seem to have included Turkish baths. Members of the Mahomed family ran more than one first class establishment, each of which provided massage and included vapour baths and medicated baths of various types. Holyoake may not have been fully aware at this time of the distinction between vapour and dry air, being not alone in referring to both as Turkish.

Comparing Holyoake's description of an establishment having five rooms with that in Potter's original letter to the Free Press papers, it is clear that the bath was enlarged almost as soon as it opened. Such success must have encouraged Potter to feel that there would be enough potential customers for him to open a second establishment, and a label was affixed to the last page of his booklet indicating that he was 'about to open a suite of baths on the premises recently occupied by the Albert Club  in Clifford Street.'

Potter ran both establishments until some time between 1863 and 1864 when he sold his new baths to Matthew Taylor. The original baths were kept in good condition and shortly after the Clifford Street baths closed in 1868 to make room for an extension to the Manchester Southern Hospital for Women and Children, he again enlarged the original baths.

They were still open in 1876, but Potter must by now have been in his sixties and it is not known when the baths closed.

This account should be treated as work in progress. Further research is needed to find out about how the baths were used.

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First display advertisement for a Turkish bath
Part of a letter from Samuel Seal to John Enraght Scriven

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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