Turkish baths in provincial England

Whitehaven: Duke Street

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

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Whitehaven Turkish Baths

Originally built as a commercial venture

The Whitehaven Baths Company Limited was set up on 13 October 1882 to build and operate a swimming pool, public wash-houses, and a 'Turkish bath, replete with comfort and luxury.' The word 'luxury' would come to be regretted after 1902 when the baths were taken over by a Corporation determined to price the Turkish bath as a luxury and, in doing so, priced it out of existence.

The initial share offer was not wholly successful and the company immediately had to consider whether it might be more prudent to cut back on the cost of the building by omitting the Turkish baths. Happily there was little support for this option.

The Turkish bath seems to have been the last part of the building to be completed before it was formally opened on Friday 5 September, the swimming pool and wash-houses having been already in use for some time.

The main entrance, a Roman-style portico, is on the Duke Street elevation of the building, behind which was the Turkish baths suite. Inside the carpeted entrance, a ticket office and waiting room also served the swimming pool and private baths. To the right of the entrance was the Moorish-style cooling-room, the multi-tinted glass octagonal lantern of which can be seen in the architect's drawing. In each corner was a curtained dressing cubicle, with seat and a hanging space for clothing.

There were couches between the dressing rooms and, in the centre, a circular ottoman, with a central circular pillow, in which a palm or fern could be placed. All round the room were various ornaments—tear bottles,*  sake bottles, and some specimens of Indian brassware from Benares. Every effort seems to have been made to create a Turkish ambience.

The first commercial Turkish bath to be lit by electricity

Local architect Thomas Lewis Banks lived less than 100 miles from Lord Armstrong's residence at Cragside, Northumberland. He would have been familiar with Armstrong's innovative use of his own hydroelectric power station to light his house with his friend Joseph Swan's newly perfected 'incandescent lamp', or light bulb. Cragside was already using these by 1880, and Banks was clearly inspired by this to instal similar lighting in the Whitehaven baths, making then the first commercial Turkish baths to be lit by electricity and, opening in 1884, a year ahead of architect Charles John Phipps, whose Savoy Hill Turkish Baths were the first such baths in London.

Contemporary accounts of the official opening described almost every light fitting in the building with justifiable civic pride.

Above the beautiful windows the dome is draped with an ornamental fabric in terra-cotta, from the centre of which depends a very handsome brass electolier, with three branches. These are fitted with incandescent lamps supplied from a Hammond dynamo machine of 20-candle power, situate in another part of the building. For the comfort of loungers the walls all throughout are padded with felt nearly an inch in thickness, making the room most thoroughly comfortable.

Continuing to read the Whitehaven News reporter's description of the new Turkish bath in this small town, and how it was to be used, one gets a good idea of how effectively Urquhart's message had borne fruit twenty years after the building of the Jermyn Street Hammam.

The operational part of the Turkish baths, reached from the cooling-room down a felt-covered staircase, was a little below ground level:

First, there are three hot chambers, gradually increasing in temperature, so as to accustom the bather to the process and render it less trying to the system. In some baths there is only one hot chamber, which is objectionable, on account of the sudden change. The first hot room is simply seated round about, the floor being covered with felt, and there is one electric light. The second room is hotter, and here there are swing-hammocks and lounges in which to undergo the increased temperature. Here there are two very handsome electric lights. If the bather so desires, he or she need go no further, and be content with a bath, the sudorific effects of which are mild and gentle. To complete the process, however, the bather must go into the inner chamber, the hottest of the three. A very short stay there suffices, and then a return is made through the other two rooms into the shampooing-room, which is on the same level, slightly under ground. This also is lighted by electric light. Of course in these underground apartments, although the ventilation is thorough, it is of the greatest importance to preserve a pure atmosphere, and this is accomplished with the electric light, while it could not be so with gas. The shampooing-room is fitted in a superior fashion. The floor is tiled. Coming out of the hot rooms the bather feels very grateful at the refreshing coolness of the place. A marble couch is warmed with a spray of hot water, and he reclines on it, and is operated upon by the shampooer, who rubs and gently kneads the whole of the trunk and the limbs of the body, a lady and gentleman being specially retained for this service. The body, having been thoroughly soaped, the bather is treated to a spray, at first warm, then gradually cooling until it is quite cold. At option he may then have a shower bath, a needle bath, a downward douche, or any of these combined, followed by a plunge in a salt water bath adjoining, also lighted by electric light.

The bather was then positively encouraged to return to the cooling-room where, reclining in sheets or blankets, the body was returned to its normal condition. It was seen as an essential condition of the Turkish bath that it should be taken—to be safe and thoroughly enjoyable—in a leisurely manner. This implied a period of an hour-and-a-half or two hours relaxing 'in a very happy frame of mind and body, to indulge in day dreams that are quite as enjoyable, without any of the deteriorating effects as those of De Quincey'.

Perhaps the narghile was absent, but a couple of inlaid mother-of-pearl and sandalwood tables of Turkish design were conveniently placed to aid the bather's 'indulgence in a cup of Mocha and a cigar'. All the most relaxing aspects of the bath appeared in their early advertisements.

Lighted by Swan’s Incandescent Electric Lamps, the Oriental Cooling-room, supplied with newspapers, chess and draughts, aerated waters, coffee, and cigars.

In effect the bathers were divided by admission charge into two classes. From 10.00 am till 4.00 pm, a bath cost 2s 6d; from 4.00 till 9.00 the charge was reduced to 1s 6d. Typically, women bathers were disadvantaged, being admitted on Tuesdays and Fridays only, from 10.00 am till 1.00 pm, and at the higher charge of 2s 6d.

It seems hardly surprising, therefore, that the Turkish baths were not as successful as they should have been. In many other towns admission charges were between 1s 6d and 6d. Yet by 1914, not only was the higher charge still 2s 6d, but the lower charge had been raised to 2s 0d.

The Turkish baths were closed some time between 1918 and 1936 when the building was renovated. The remaining baths closed in 1950, and in 2004 the building was a night club, The Park.

* In Victorian usage, tear bottles, or lachrymals, were little bottles used to collect tears, usually from a funeral, and kept as a keepsake or mourning souvenir (Deborah McMillion) [Back again]

Thank you icon

Helen and Malcolm Farrar, for research results included in the entry

Ralph Lewthwaite, Whitehaven & District Local History Society, for his photographs of the baths

Leslie Ambedian and Deborah McMillion for information on Benares ware and tear bottles

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Whitehaven Turkish Baths front elevation, 1884

Part of the building in 2001

A circular ottoman

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Other Turkish baths in the provinces


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

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