Constantine's Convoluted Stove

Nothing but a load of hot air:
some problems, conflicts, and controversies
arising during the development
of the Victorian Turkish bath

You are here     2: Technology and attitudes
3: Technological issues     4: Cleanliness
5: Doctors' attitudes     6: Class
7: Charges of indolence and effeminacy     8: Shampooing and nakedness
9: Terminology and architectural style     10: Coda and Postscript

This is a slightly extended version of the paper given
on Friday 5 September 2003 at the
British Association for Victorian Studies Conference
The Age of experiments, 1800-1900
at the University of Wales Aberystwyth

1. Introduction You can print this page -- Click for printer-friendly version


From our twenty-first century viewpoint it might seem surprising that the first Victorian Turkish baths should have caused so much controversy, or presented so many practical problems.

Eski Kaplıca in the late 19th centuryAfter all, vapour baths (whether or not medicated in some way) had been around for a considerable time. Hard facts are difficult to come by, but some take the view that returning Crusaders opened ‘hummums’ in London, having discovered the Islamic hammam while in the Levant.

Mahomed's baths, BrightonAlthough by the middle of the seventeenth century, most of them had turned into bagnios of ill repute, there were a few, such as those of Sake Deen Mohamed and his son Horatio, where the more acceptable vapour bath tradition was maintained.1

Click for an ad in Yiddish and a picture of Schewzik's BathsAnd this tradition received a considerable boost at the end of the nineteenth century when immigrant Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms set up new baths in areas where they settled, the most notable being, perhaps, Schewzik’s in the East End of London.2

Plan of the Turkish baths in the Old Kent Road BathsAt first glance, the only immediately noticeable difference between the established vapour, steam, or Russian bath on the one hand, and the so-called Turkish bath on the other, is that in a Russian bath, sweat is produced by bathing in a room full of hot vapour, while in a Turkish bath, sweat is produced by bathing in a room—or series of rooms—heated by hot dry air.

Why then were there so many issues to be resolved?

The first experimental hot air bath to be built in the British Isles since Roman times was constructed in 1856 at St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, by David Urquhart (sometime mp for Stafford) and Dr Richard Barter, owner of the hydro.3

David Urquhart     St. Anne's, Blarney, Co..Cork, Ireland      Dr Richard Barter


St Ann's Hydro, Blarney


However, their friendship and co-operation did not last long. Barter was mainly influenced by therapeutic considerations—how to obtain the highest, driest heat possible. While this was also important to Urquhart, he had, in addition, a political agenda—to introduce Turkish culture to Britain in an attempt to encourage a more pro-Turkish, anti-Russian foreign policy.

If these two men, who had initially co-operated so closely, went their separate ways so soon, it is hardly surprising that the Turkish bath generated controversy among those not so committed to its benefits.

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