Turkish baths in Ireland

Cork: South Mall

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

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The New Turkish Baths

The Turkish baths were sited next to the Bank of Ireland. Alf Jacobs's Cork Turkish Bath Company started planning the conversion of an already existing building in 1890. The main work was carried out by E & P O'Flynn to the design of the architect, Arthur Hill. The gas and general plumbing work was undertaken by M Barry, and the painting and decoration by J S M'Carthy. Because the bricks and tiles had to be manufactured specially for the project, there was considerable delay in completing the work.

But from what can still be seen of the building today, we must assume that Jacob thought the delay worthwhile when, on 17 October 1891, he was finally able to open for business.

The façade is deceptive because only the entrance on the left belonged to the Turkish baths. The large windows to the right belonged to offices which shared the other door with the Cork Stock Exchange upstairs.

The doorway to the baths opened onto a narrow tiled passage executed, as was all the tiling, by Nicholas Sisk. The passage is still in use today, and currently (2018) leads to Jacobs on the Mall, a restaurant named after the original managing director of the baths. It is interesting to see, in the enlarged versions of the plans, how the various rooms of the baths are used today.

Two photographs, one showing the outside of the Turkish baths and the other showing the shampooing room, graced one of the walls of the passage and enjoined prospective bathers to 'Come inside to enjoy them!'. It is not known when these were first displayed, but they were presented to today's restaurant proprietor, Michelle McCarthy, by the family of the last proprietor of the Turkish baths, and they hang there still 'In memory of Peg Buckley'.

At the end of the passage was the Turkish bath ticket office. After paying the admission charge, which was either one or two shillings according to the time of day,3 the bather left any valuables in one of a series of lockers and was given the key. Such lockers were not, as was claimed in the Irish Builder article, unique. But at that time they were still unusual enough in Ireland for it to be stressed that 'each key is different...so no one else can have access to the valuables'.

Progressing through an ante-room, where a toilet was available, bathers removed their boots and shoes, and no one was allowed beyond this point in outdoor footwear.

The first of the main rooms in the Turkish bath was a large 60x40 foot cooling-room, maintained at between 125°F and 140°F. During daylight hours, natural light filtered through softly tinted glass in the high ceiling. At the northern end of the room was a gallery set aside for smokers.

Around the cooling-room were individual cubicles, upholstered and screened, for bathers to undress and leave their clothes—enough, it was claimed, to cater for fifty bathers at a time.

Built in concrete and lined with glazed bricks, the plunge was surrounded by a marble coping with a two foot high guard 'to prevent the splashing of the “coolers” (who will be lying about on couches after their bath), by the “plungers” as they take their “headers”'. A surface spray kept the plunge pool constantly flushed so the water was 'in a constant state of change'.

There were three hot rooms, each lined with ornamental brickwork and tiling. The first, only slightly hotter than the cooling-room, was 24 foot by 32 foot. The second was in the shape of an elongated octagon, 12 foot by 30 foot, maintained at a temperature of 160°F to 180°F. Finally, there was an inner room where 'those who can stand it can breathe a temperature of from 250 to 300 degrees'.

The ceilings of the hot rooms were of a patented construction in which iron replaced the normal wooden laths, with the plaster backed by a composition material which retained the heat and resisted fire.

Unlike Barter's Turkish baths, in which the required room temperatures were maintained by hot air passing through an underfloor hypocaust, Jacob used what was known as the Bartholomew system. Fresh air was drawn into the building and then heated by being passed over a stove. It then passed directly through the hot rooms, starting with the hottest and cooling as it passed into the other rooms. One particular advantage of this system is that the floors are comparatively cool, pattens or clogs are not necessary, and there in no risk of burning oneself if one accidentally falls on a floor covered with extremely hot tiles.

The rooms were ventilated by grilles in the floor through which the vitiated air passed along a flue, out of the building. The fumes from the stove were separately carried to a 60 foot high chimney.

Between the cooling-room and the first hot room were shampooing slabs, douches, a needle bath, two separate washing compartments and two porcelain reclining baths with hot and cold water.

The establishment had its own laundry above the hot rooms. This was fully equipped with washing machine, mangles, wringers, and drying cupboards.

When the Turkish baths opened, all the indications were that it was designed for use by men only, or as many of their advertisements put it in the language of the time, 'Gentlemen only'. Dr Barter's Grenville Place Turkish baths, waking up perhaps to the new competition, made it clear that their baths were available for men and women. And just two weeks after the new baths opened, a somewhat teasing letter was published in the Cork Examiner.

Dear Sir, Into your telephonic ear I pop the question—Are the 'Lords of Creation' going to keep all the days of the week to themselves in the New Baths? Will they not part with one day to give the daughters of Eve a share in its splendours and its benefits.
One of the Daughters.

While the letter was not immediately successful in effecting a change, by 16 December, the company was advertising that the baths would be 'Reserved for ladies on Tuesdays, 12 Noon till 8 pm. This must have paid off financially because at the beginning of September 1903, as a two week experiment, the women were allocated a second session on Tuesday mornings from 10 am till 2.00 pm, and by December the following year, the second session seems to have become normal.

Jewish women were catered for very early on, possibly even while the Turkish baths were still designated for men only. A close look at Goad's 1897 fire insurance map for the baths shows that in the courtyard, behind the hot rooms, there was a room labelled 'Private Jewish Bath'. This was a mikveh, a pool of running water used by religious Jewish women, and less frequently by Jewish men, for ritual cleansing. Such baths could be found in a number of Turkish bath establishments, commercial and municipal, in areas such as Leeds or, more recently, Bournemouth, where there was a sizable Jewish community.

Those requiring to use the mikveh would make an appointment and, since the most frequent use was by women, access would be need to be provided which did not require the bather to pass through the men's bath. Here in Cork, there was an entrance through a covered way (arrowed in the diagram) just to the right of Number 7 Charlotte Quay (now Fr Mathew Quay).

Questions remain about aspects of the history these baths which have yet to be definitely resolved and need further research. The first relates to their ownership, and the second to the date when they closed.

Local directories have well recognised limitations relating to their accuracy in both these areas as they are usually dated some time after their actual publication to make them appear, like today's popular magazines, more up-to-date. And often, even more difficult to spot, not all entries are updated for each new edition.

In the case of these baths, Slater's Directory of Ireland records the Cork Turkish Bath Co Ltd as proprietors, with Alf Jacob as Managing Director, between 1891 when the baths opened, and 1894. The company's ownership continues to be found in the Cork and Munster Trades Directory from 1912 to 1938, but without naming the Managing Director. But by 1938, Mrs Peg Buckley is named as sole proprietor, following on from the 1930 Guy's Directory of Cork, which states that the directors were John and TC Buckley. So we do not yet know when the Buckleys took over the company, or when Mrs Buckley became its sole proprietor.

Nor has any really positive evidence yet been found to indicate when the baths closed. An earlier version of this page suggested that they closed in 1943, following research by the owner of the restaurant which currently occupies the site. She had searched the local libraries, and spoken also to some of her customers who suggested that the baths closed after a polio epidemic in that year.

However, subsequent research by Roger Herlihy has not been able to trace a polio epidemic in Cork in 1943. He also points out that the five Goad fire insurance maps published between 1943 and 1957 continued to show the premises as Turkish baths rather than any other business. Neither did they show them as being vacant, which it was their normal practice to do.

Herlihy also argues, incontrovertibly, that it would be highly unlikely for large premises in such a major thoroughfare, to remain empty for more than twelve years; it just would not make sense financially. So we must assume that the baths remained open until at least 1957.

But Cork was hit by a polio epidemic in the summer of 1956, and shortly afterwards the building was converted into an aftercare centre known as the 'Polio Clinic'. New equipment was installed and physiotherapy and swimming facilities were made available to help rehabilitate those who had suffered during the last years before the discovery by Jonas Salk of the first polio vaccine.

This page slightly revised 07 January 2019

Thank you icon

Marie Gethins for much help and encouragement; Clare Lynch for help with the entry;

Seamus Gethins for his photographs of the pictures in the passage;

Roger Herlihy for the opening date, his lead to the 1896 plan, and much else;

Michelle McCarthy of Jacobs on the Mall for permission to reproduce her historic photos.

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

Façade, 1891

Façade, 2006

Entrance to the passage

Tiled floor in the passage

1897 plan of the baths

2000 plan of the restaurant

The pictures in the passage

The cooling-room in 1891

Cooling room roof, 2006

Smokers' gallery, 2006

The first hot room when the baths opened

The shampooing room

Mikveh entrance

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Other Turkish baths in Ireland


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

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