Turkish baths in provincial England

St Leonards-on-Sea: 8 West Hill

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

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The St Leonards Turkish Baths

The baths

A fire was responsible for the opening of a Turkish bath in St Leonards-on-Sea.

After the accidental burning down of Mr Groslobb's Russian Bath on the West Hill, there were many expressions of regret that St Leonards should have been thus deprived of so valuable adjunct to its health restoring characteristics.

In order to rectify this deficiency, a company was set up to build a Turkish bath on the same site. This was designed by Mr J Burton, a London architect,  and Mr Groslobb was appointed Manager. It is not known whether the architect was related to Decimus Burton who was a shareholder in the company.

The design went out to tender and the builders' quotations were included in Brett's History, a multi-volume manuscript history of Hastings and St Leonards now in the Hastings Local History Library. The contract went to Mr Palmer, a local builder, whose quotation at £997, was the lowest. The overall cost including the land and the existing property was around £2,500.

A reporter, visiting the baths a few days before they opened, described what a bather would see when paying a visit and thereby enabled us to discover how the building was arranged.

Passing through the main entrance, the Manager's office and a Gentlemen's waiting room were on the left, while a waiting room for Ladies was on the right. The carpeted cooling-room had a row of five changing cubicles along one side, each fitted with crimson curtains and cushions, with the temperature maintained at between 80°F and 90°F.

The building was relatively small, and there was only one hot room (caldarium). This was heated by means of hot air passing through ducts under the floor. Three levels of bench seating, along one side of the room, allowed bathers to experience different air temperatures. At the lowest level, this would be about 120°F to 130°F, and each of the upper levels gave a rise in temperature of about 5°F.

While not unique in a Victorian Turkish bath, this method of achieving hot areas at different temperatures is relatively unusual. The architect has adopted the arrangement common in a Russian banya, or steam bath, which was probably how Mr Groslobb's earlier Russian baths had been arranged.

A tepidarium, maintained at 100°F, was provided for those who preferred a lower temperature, or those who wished to cool down gradually. There was a separate shampooing room, and a washing area with needle shower, douche bath, and a shower bath,

in connection with which Mr Groslobb has introduced an invention of his own, whereby the water can be instantly made hot, tepid, or cold.

While there were no separate first and second class baths, Mr Groslobb did provide a private bath for invalids (and also, presumably, for his more reserved patrons).

Patients can drive up to the door and be at once conveyed to the private dressing room, which communicates directly with the private caldarium and water rooms, without coming into contact with the public rooms.

Also hidden from public view, the boiler (and its ancillary equipment) was housed in the basement.

Interestingly, an open space was retained at the rear of the building for the intended installation, at a later date, of a swimming pool—a facility which was not added until the baths had closed, and the building had been purchased by Uplands School.

The baths seem to have been very expensive. Advertisements placed in the local papers when they opened tell us that 'Ladies only' would be admitted on Tuesdays and Fridays from 8.00 am till 4.00 pm at a charge of five shillings each. This was reduced to 2/6d from 4.00 in the afternoon till 8.00 in the evening.

Unusually, the entrance charge was cheaper for men. They could bathe from noon till 6.00 pm for 3/6d., while there were two less expensive sessions: from 8.00 am till noon for 2/6d., and from 6 pm till 8.00 pm for only 1/6d. But even these prices were high and there did not appear to be any reductions for purchasing several tickets at a time.

All these prices included the use of two towels and a sheet for each bather. But if this was not sufficient, additional towels were available at 1½d each and extra sheets at 3d each.

Suggesting, perhaps, that the company was unsure how much use would be made of the baths at each of the various sessions, the advertisement concluded that,

The Company does not bind itself to keep the baths open permanently on the day or hours above specified but due notice will be given of any alteration.

Such doubts were only too well founded. The directors appear to have overestimated how many potential bathers were wealthy enough, even in St Leonards, to be able to use the baths regularly enough to support their continued existence. The company went into liquidation in 1879 and the baths were closed.

The building

The building was sold to nearby Uplands School, and an indoor swimming pool built at the rear. A card posted in 1909, but with an older photograph, shows how the building looked soon after it was purchased by the school in 1871.

The chimney at the back of the building is part of a boiler house built to heat the water in the swimming pool. The chimney at the front is part of the original building, and was built to extract the smoke from the boiler heating the air for the Turkish bath.

What is intriguing, is that no attempt was made to match the appearance of the two chimneys.

Yet the design of the Turkish bath chimney seems in a strange way to echo the minaret-type protuberances at the corners of the roof and over the doorway. While another oddity is the way in which the apex of the doorway breaks through the dentil which runs the whole length of the building.

Would the four minarets, the broken dentil, and the top of the Turkish bath chimney be enough to support a hypothesis that the original building was more 'Saracenic' in appearance with, perhaps, ogee windows and door? Would it be very far-fetched to suggest that this façade was too Islamic for the Christian Ladies College which purchased the building? That when the swimming pool was built, and the central balustrade blocked in, the shapes of the windows and door were altered to make them more Christian in appearance?

After the end of its use by the school, the building had, until recently, a chequered existence, sometimes vacant, sometimes occupied. Towards the end of World War II it was a temporary church, and since then has been a factory, a workshop, and empty again. Both chimneys have long since disappeared, the balustrades replaced with crude blocks, and the original decorative brickwork on the façade, painted white.

At the beginning of this century, there was some doubt among local historians as to whether this was indeed the old Turkish bath building. However, thanks in large part to research undertaken for this website, its identification has now been accepted.

Happily, on 27 November 2006, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport listed the baths as being one of the buildings of special architectural or historic interest situated in the Borough of Hastings. The building has now been sympathetically restored and converted into a private family home.

This page last revised 30 September 2020

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

Thank you icon

Ion Castro for helpful information and permission to use his postcard image.

The staff at Hastings Local History Library (East Sussex County Council) for

much help during several visits.

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

Postcard showing outside of the baths, 1870s

Advertisement for the baths when they opened

Four details showing chimney and 'minarets'

Exterior of the baths building, 1906

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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