'Semi-success' in London:
David Urquhart, the London Hammam, and
the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co Ltd

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

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6. Plan, reality, and conclusion

On 9 February 1861 Urquhart wrote a long letter to an unknown recipient, (possibly long-time supporter Harriet Ann Curtis who, two months later, was to buy 400 shares in the company). It showed very clearly how he saw the future of the new Hammam, and it could almost be considered as a 'business plan' for the company.

In describing the existing building and how it would be developed, Urquhart seems already to have accepted some separation between the classes as he indicates that there would be an ‘entrance for the cheaper class of bathers’ at basement level. In the event, this was never constructed and may only have referred to an internal entrance because, when talking about access for women, he uses the phrase ‘a second entrance from the street’.

It is difficult to know how much the directors accepted Urquhart’s unrealistic approach to calculating potential income. Instead of assessing what demand there might be for The Hammam, he calculated how many bathers could simultaneously use the various areas of the bath—300 on the men’s side and 70 on the women’s—multiplying this by the number of hours the bath would be open—12 to 13—and dividing by the duration of the bathing process—5 operations at 15 minutes each. Allowing the possibility that ‘the bath is filled but twice during the day’ at an average charge of 1/6d, he calculated the gross returns at £15,000 a year with fixed expenses of £2,400 a year.

Urquhart’s approach to possible competition was equally idiosyncratic. If Constantinople, with a mixed population of 600,000, can support 300 large public baths and 2,000 private ones, then London’s population would need 900 public baths and 6,000 private ones.

Reality was, of course, quite different.

First, when the Hammam opened on 17 July 1862 there were no separate women’s baths; instead, ‘Ladies’ sessions’ were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8.00 in the morning till 2.00 in the afternoon.

Second, irrespective of the number of entrances planned, it was difficult, though not impossible, for the classes to mix because the cheaper entrance charge was only available after 7.00 in the evening. Only if those bathing earlier chose to stay on after this time—unlikely—was there any possibility of the classes mixing.

Third, while Urquhart writes of an average charge of 1/6d, in practice it cost 3/6d during the day and as much as 2/- in the evening. Needless to say, no working class bathers could afford such a sum. Incredibly, women were charged 5/- and it will only be surprising that the facility lasted as long as nine years.

Without a director’s vote, Urquhart had no real say in the charging policies of the Board. And while his approach to company finance was rightly ignored, some way of providing for the less well off might have been engineered if the Board had had any sympathy with his views.

Urquhart, though by now retired in Switzerland, protested in 1871 when the baths were closed to women, and again, ‘as a shareholder’, in 1873 when the daytime charge was raised to 4/-.

We must conclude that Urquhart was neither successful in directly providing inexpensive baths for the working class, nor in using the Turkish bath as a means of breaking down class barriers.

But we must ask how feasible were such personal objectives?

Few others achieved more than a limited success in achieving such aims:

Urquhart, with his foreign affairs committees, undoubtedly re-introduced the Turkish bath into England. And as a result of his influence on Richard Barter and others, the Victorian Turkish bath was reintroduced into the whole of the British Isles, the empire, several western European countries, and even the United States of America.

Despite his inability to affect the charging policy at the London Hammam, or smash the English class barriers, that is success enough—in my book.

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Betowelled patron of the London Hammam

The first hot room at the London Hammam, c.1862

The Meshlakh, or cooling-room at the London Hammam in 1862

The Urquharts' chalet near Geneva

The 'People's Bath', Cork

The cooling-room at the GWR Turkish bath

Richard Metcalfe, hydropathist

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