Detail: exterior of the Roman Baths, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, 2004

Roman? Turkish? Middle class?

'Classical porticos'

and 'touches of eastern splendour':

the appearance of the Victorian Turkish bath

  2: The Turkish bath as a facility
3: Roman bath or Turkish bath?   4: A working class movement

Adapted from a paper given at the conference on
Victorian visions

held at Clare College, University of Cambridge
with The British Association of Victorian Studies
on Friday 1 October 2004

1. The Turkish bath as a procedure

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This paper looks, briefly, at a few examples of how today’s view of the Victorian Turkish bath is being changed so that it already differs from how it was seen by the Victorians; at how the largely unfulfilled visions of those who reintroduced it to the British Isles are nowhere to be seen; and at how a new view of this fast-vanishing Victorian institution is being constructed.

People see a variety of different images when the words Victorian Turkish baths are uttered. It seems important, therefore, to start by indicating what is meant—and what the Victorians meant—by the term Turkish bath.

The Victorian Turkish bath, then, is a type of bath in which bathers spend time in a series of rooms, usually two or three, each one hotter than the previous one, until they sweat profusely.                            

The three hot rooms in the Turkish baths suite
in the Old Kent Road Baths, Camberwell, London.
The layout can be seen more clearly on the
enlarged plan

Plan of the Turkish baths at the Old Kent Road Baths, London

Shampooing at York Hall in the 1920s

After a scrub and massage—together called shampooing…

Cooling Room at GWR Medical Fund Turkish baths, Swindon

…they gently relax with a coffee in the cooling-room.

London's York Hall
in the 1920s


cooling-room at the
Great Western Railway Medical Fund
Turkish baths at Swindon

In the British Isles today, most so-called Turkish baths are actually vapour baths, or Russian steam rooms. But the distinguishing feature of the Victorian Turkish bath is that the hot rooms are heated by air which is DRY.

The author in a steam room   Women's day in the hot room, York Hall, London, 1990
Vapour bath   Turkish bath hot room (dry heat)

2000 years ago, the Romans, and later the Ottoman Turks, used an underfloor hypocaust which heated the air in each room to a level dependent on its distance from the furnace.

Trier: tunnel to hypocaust   Hypocaust in the Roman baths at Bath
Trier   City of Bath

The hypocaust was also used in many early Victorian baths, while others used flues or pipes behind the walls, or a central radiator.

Plan of Erasmus Wilson's bath at Richmond Hill, showing underseat flues   Central radiator at Alloa

Underseat flue


Alloa: radiator

In a later development, a continuous stream of air was heated as it flowed around the furnace, before passing through each room in turn, cooling as it went.

 Inside Constantine's Convoluted StoveExterior view of Constantine's Convoluted Stove
Constantine' Convoluted Stove

This method of heating the rooms is still considered the most satisfactory because the freshly heated air continuously replaces air which has become stale and sweat-laden.

Air flow
 Air flow through a Turkish bath

The Turkish baths which remain open in the British Isles all use one or other of these methods to ensure that the hot air is dry.

Two men in hot room at Glossop Road, Sheffield  So bathing in varying degrees of dry heat,  
  Royal Turkish Baths, Harrogate: shampooing room  followed by shampooing, and
  Cooling room at Drumsheugh Baths Club, Edinburgh  a final period of relaxation in a cooling-room,

is what Victorian bathers understood by the phrase Turkish bath when used to describe a process, or set of procedures.


Thanks are due to Doug Corrance for permission to reproduce his painting of the Drumsheugh cooling-room


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  2: The Turkish bath as a facility
3: Roman bath or Turkish bath?   4: A working class movement