It is difficult
to analyse women’s ownership of Turkish baths with any
accuracy as information is not easy to find in any methodical way. We
don’t know how many Turkish baths there were, and I have almost
certainly underestimated the number open to women, but one can only take
a view on the basis of the information available.
Turkish baths were considered quite respectable and their growing popularity coincided with the rise of the Joint Stock Company. So it is worth noting that women were among the shareholders in many of the 100 or so companies whose records survive.
Of our hundred-and-four baths, 38 provided totally separate facilities, in the same building, but with separate entrances, and 64 provided separate sessions for women on specific days, or at stated times (see Table).
Advertisements for separate women’s facilities, perhaps surprisingly, often emphasised that they were ‘under the supervision of Females’13 or, if shared, that ‘none but females (specially instructed) are in attendance.’14
So either proprietors felt it necessary to distance their establishments from the disreputable bagnios and hummums of the recent past, or they wished to stress that the therapeutic Turkish bath would be a comfortable experience; that women had no cause to fear the intrusions on their privacy suffered during visits to their male doctors.
Intrusions of a different kind clearly prompted an advertisement, in 1863, for the residential Matlock Bank Hydro which warned of a 10/6d fine for ‘Any gentleman entering the ladies’ bath-room.’15
Only two Turkish baths catered solely for women, one near the Female School of Art in London’s Queen Square, about which very little is known, and the other, opened by Bradford Corporation in 1883, and closed thirteen years later through lack of use.16
Many establishments, even those open to both sexes, were quite simple—a converted house or a shop; but a few were purpose-built, and rather more luxurious.
The women’s baths on the first floor were smaller, had a separate entrance, and a large cooling-room which was elaborately decorated and furnished, ‘feminine taste and elegance of disposition being, of course, considered and provided for.’
But elsewhere, pretty curtains and a dressing table were often intended to divert attention from the smaller size of the women’s baths, and the fact that not all the men’s facilities were matched in the women’s baths.
Air temperatures varied from establishment to establishment. Men’s hot rooms ranged from 120ºF to 230ºF. This might seem high, but the body can easily cope, provided the air is dry. Matilda Ellrington, a young servant who looked after Urquhart’s children, testified on oath that she had happily spent half an hour at 180ºf in the Turkish bath at his Riverside home.18