Turkish baths in provincial England

Caroline Street, Saltaire

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

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The Turkish baths at Saltaire

Unlike the two railway towns, Swindon and Crewe, Saltaire was more a village. And while the towns were built by companies each responsible to a board of directors, Saltaire, on the banks of the River Aire, was the creation of an single entrepreneur, Titus (later, Sir Titus) Salt.

After working for a number of years in the family woolstapling business, Salt set up on his own in the centre of Bradford, spinning and weaving alpaca wool. Long concerned about the squalid conditions in which his workforce lived, in 1853 he relocated to a purpose-built mill near Shipley, constructing a village next to it to house his workers.

In addition to housing them, Salt provided for their education (schools, a library, and reading rooms), for their souls (a congregational church), for their leisure (a billiards room and gym), for their health (a cottage hospital), and for their cleanliness (a clothes wash-house, slipper baths, and a Turkish bath). There were no public houses.

The Saltaire Baths and Wash-house opened in Caroline Street on 6 July 1863. Like the rest of the buildings in the village, the baths were designed by architects Lockwood & Mawson, who went on to design the baths in Albert Street, Keighley, some years later. The Saltaire baths and wash-house together cost Salt £7,000. The wash-house was equipped with six washing machines, together with drying and ironing facilities, so it would not be easy to discover the cost of the Turkish baths alone.

We do not know precisely what facilities were provided in the baths or how they were arranged. But although a complete set of drawings no longer exists, the local archive does have a plan of the 'basement'—we would now consider this a cellar—and a cross-section through the centre of the building.

There were separate ground floor entrances for women (on the left side) and men (on the right). These were on either side of a central ticket office. There was also a plunge bath (possibly slightly warmed) on each side. On the men's side there were enclosed steps leading down to the Turkish bath furnace and coal store.

On the first floor there were twelve slipper baths on each corresponding side, and sandwiched between them was the Turkish bath. This was used by men and women on different days, probably reached through the appropriate slipper baths entrance.

As far as one can tell, the baths themselves comprised one, or probably two hot rooms, with internal dome ceiling(s),  and a much larger cooling-room. The hot room(s) were at a higher level than the cooling room, entered through an air lock entrance, possibly doors, but more likely heavy curtains, at the top of three steps. The difference in height allowed hot air to travel beneath the hot room floor(s), probably through ducts, so that bathers would need to have worn pattens.

Initially, the baths were open every day except Sunday between 8.00 am and 8.00 pm. But in 1870, only seven years after they opened, it was reported that ‘the luxury of an excellent Turkish bath’ seemed, at a cost of sixpence, ‘to be hardly appreciated by the workmen’. When Charles Dickens Jnr wrote about the village the following year in All the year round he reported that the bath 'as I was told, is extensively patronised by the operatives', which sounds like a gross exaggeration, or a plug.

In 1878, when Seth Bentley was manager, they were only open two days in each month. It is not known when they finally closed, but they were probably still open, with the same manager, as late as 1887. The mill and most of the village still stand as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though the baths building was demolished some time around 1889 when planning permission was given for ten houses to be built on the site. These too were demolished in 1935.

Turkish baths were well used in nearby Bradford, where many of the mill workers originally came from. So why were these baths so much less popular than those provided for workers in the railway towns? Perhaps the rules ‘available from the manager’ put bathers off. Or perhaps the whole approach was too paternalistic, a failing which people can better tolerate from an anonymous company than from a man whose presence was all around them. Without further evidence it is difficult to tell.

Thank you icon

Roger Clarke, Andrée Freeman, David King, Craig McHugh,

Sandi Moore, Dave Shaw, Ian Watson, and Julie Woodward,

a wonderful group of historian-detectives from Saltaire. Really great!

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Sir Titus Salt

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