The compulsory wearing of costumes in local authority baths


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

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The wearing of costumes in local authority baths

Women's day at York Hall

Hot room, York Hall, London, 1990

"Ironmonger Row obviously succeeds in ensuring that it is easy to feel at home with friends and to be able to relax freely in a state of nakedness. This is important since it is a pointless exercise to enter a Turkish bath in order to generate a cleansing sweat while clad in a clinging costume. The generation gap here sometimes shows itself in an unexpected way. As one woman put it, 'It spoils it when the younger ones wear swimming costumes …It makes you feel uncomfortable.' For many bathers, the ability to relax without a stitch on in the company of others is clearly an essential part of the Turkish bath."

Victorian Turkish Baths website 15 March 2004

On 29 January 2013 I received an email from Kate who had visited the newly refurbished 1930s Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row, London. It reminded me of the criticisms on various blogs about the situation in the newly refurbished baths at York Hall, run on behalf of the local council by Greenwich Leisure, a company which seems to be operating an increasing number of facilities for councils who are, in effect, privatizing them, directly or indirectly.
Although this website does not normally cover controversial issues, it being a non-commercial educational site, I felt it appropriate to publish Kate's email as she was keen to let people know about the change before making a fruitless journey. Her email is printed below, together with a second one which arrived soon afterwards. If there is a general agreement that this is a problem shared by many, I will bring it to the attention of the appropriate council committees, though I fear they may have signed away their ability to influence policy.
I was actually one of a group invited to discuss the refurbishment before work started, and I repeatedly made the point that it was important that the baths should remain costumes-optional in the single sex sessions. Unfortunately, this seems to have been a consultation about the geography of the facilities themselves, rather than being also about the ambience and the way in which they should be used. Unsurprisingly my recommendation was completely ignored.
Email from Kate:

Kate's email


I was just looking at your very useful website and want to add a comment about Ironmonger Row in London. You have a beautiful picture on your site of women relaxing in the steam rooms but unfortunately this sort of scene is no longer possible.

For many years when I lived in London in the 80's and 90's I visited both Ironmonger Row and Porchester Row baths regularly. When I returned to Ironmonger Row bathes recently, after the 'improvements' I found that it is no longer permitted to enjoy the baths naked. On the day that is for women you are required to wear a bathing costume at all times. As my friend and I did not know this we were made to feel quite uncomfortable and embarassed when an attendant told us to wrap out towels around us rather than walk naked.

For me this change of policy has ruined the experience of the bathes which I now see are more of a Spa. The atmosphere of relaxation and freedom from the everyday need to be clothed has gone. Now the young women in bikinis are comfortable and those who are older or fatter are back in the familiar feeling of not being quite good enough.

I think perhaps other people who have known and loved these Turkish baths might want to know about the change.

Yours with best wishes


And here's one from Janet, posted the same day, about what is surely an completely unacceptable situation with regard to a woman with a mastectomy:

I wonder if you have some clout with the people at Ironmonger Row baths.

I went there recently and was amazed at two things. First of all, when I asked if my friend with a mastectomy would feel comfortable there, the receptionist told me that she would need a 'carer' with her. Really? How can that not be discriminatory?

But when I was in the baths we were told to put on bathers. I had come from outside London and didn't have any. Afterwards they said it was in the leaflet. A leaflet. I hadn't read anything. I've been going there for decades.

The beauty of steam baths is that people of all shapes and sizes look fine and feel comfortable. Everyone looks ok until they put bathers or a bikini on and then you end up feeling just not gorgeous enough. And how are you supposed to clean yourself when you are dressed?

In the past the baths were full. And full of women of all ages and a total ethnic mix. There just four white women in the baths when I was there. And three others as I left. Lovely facility, totally spoiled by the petty rules. It will not become a diverse meeting place again with these rules. If I wanted staff to tip toe passed me and call me madam I'd go to The Sanctuary.

if you are not the person to address these questions to, I wonder if you know who is.

Long-time male users of the baths are also unhappy. Here's another email:

As a former customer of both Ironmonger Row and York Hall Turkish Baths I would like to ask the respective Councils and management why it is now compulsory to wear bathing costumes during single gender sessions.

I also patronise Turkish Bath and Spa complexes in Germany and across the Continent and at every single one the wearing of costumes is BANNED / VERBOTEN.

The reasons are simple. In the heat bathing costumes trap bacteria and germs which are then deposited upon the sitting surfaces and in the water of the facilities. Also the costumes being usually made of man-made fabrics and coloured by artificial agents can leach chemicals and colouring into the waters. THIS PUTS EVERYONE'S HEALTH AT RISK.

So why are costumes compulsory at York Hall and Ironmonger Row? Why are the managements of these places putting their customers health at risk, especially when costumes are banned on the Continent?

Not good.

Chris B

And one from Richard which arrived a few days before Kate's:

Dear Malcolm,

Thank you for your excellent website. I use it regularly.

I started going to turkish baths when I lived next to York Hall in Bethnal Green as a student from 1973-6. Whenever I was in London I returned there, but feel that the refurbishment some years ago took away all its character. I have recently discovered the turkish baths at Canning Town, which to my delight was just like the turkish baths once to be found in each London Borough - indeed I met many of the old-timers I used to know in York Hall. Its website is

I commend it to you as a baths which has more of the criteria of a traditional turkish than some that are listed.

Thanks once again,


Until local authority baths were outsourced or privatized it was normal that single sex sessions were 'costumes-optional'. The point of a Turkish bath, sauna, or steam room is to allow the hot air to reach a bather's skin. Covering it in a costume totally negates the purpose of the bath. You might just as well try skating on an ice rink in roller skates; it's possible, but hardly satisfactory.

Please let us know what you think, and whether or not you prefer the baths as they are now.

This page reformatted 14 January 2021

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