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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline
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4: The Subscribers’ meeting
The ventilation and hygiene of the first London establishments left much to be desired. Urquhart worried that this would give Turkish baths a bad name. A series of letters, seemingly orchestrated in typical Urquhart fashion by his friends, appeared in a number of papers. One in
The Field from Francis Francis, its angling editor, describing the benefits of the bath was soon followed by an editorial criticising London’s existing baths and demanding ‘a bath constructed and conducted in a proper manner’.
Urquhart talked with friends such as George Witt and Erasmus Wilson, and later with such stalwart committee supporters as Stewart Rolland and the ironmaster, George Crawshay, about the possibility of opening an establishment which would serve as a model.
The baths would need to be big, clean and ‘authentic’—authenticity oddly implying the dry bath of the Romans, located in a traditional 17th or 18th century Islamic style building,
an following contemporary Turkish practice in the provision of shampooing, pipes and narghilles, sherbet, coffee and refreshments.
Urquhart, whose annual income in 1854 was less than £600 per year, realised that the bath would have to be built and operated by a joint stock company, but he was in principle opposed to such companies with their inescapable need to pay dividends to their shareholders.
This, and a number of other factors, complicated the setting up of the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co Ltd on 19 November 1860. Just days before a ‘disastrous’ first meeting of subscribers, Urquhart had a permanent falling-out with George Witt, a Fellow of the Royal Society and personal friend of 20 years standing. who had been a major supporter of the proposal.
Though not a subscriber, Urquhart ‘attended’ the meeting as expert, and in his speech indicated clearly where he stood:
…It should be on the threshold understood that the object of the association is not to be so much profit (though a fair return for the capital will certainly be returned), as to supply a model bath, and to guard the institution from the innovations of the ignorant, the presumptuous, and the greedy…
Despite this, ten days later he was made an ‘Honorary Director’ to allow his participation at Board Meetings.
A hopelessly over-optimistic prospectus for £100,000 worth of £5 shares was issued, but one year later, by 9 December 1861, only 1,633 shares had been issued to a total of 31 shareholders. And while these included such personalities as Sir John Fife, Francis Francis, Dr J L W Thudichum, and Erasmus Wilson, two thirds of the shares were subscribed by only three people: Crawshay, Rolland and Harriet Ann Curtis, already major supporters of Urquhart’s foreign affairs committees.
The company was, therefore, under-capitalised from the start, and this was to affect its pricing policy and turn it into an establishment beloved by Royalty but unaffordable by many middle class bathers, let alone the working classes.