Towards a history of the Victorian Turkish bath:
a preliminary review of some of the available sources

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

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5. Controversy and problems

It seems as though there was no aspect of Turkish baths which was not controversial. As we have seen above (in 4: Some early publications) many proponents of the bath were avid pamphleteers and writers of letters to the press, often making personal attacks on each other as they argued over different aspects of the ‘ideal bath’.

Early in 1860, Dr Barter and his supporters became involved in a major controversy over the very important issue of whether a genuine Turkish bath should use hot air which was dry, or hot air which was humid. It started in the columns of the Irish medical press, spread immediately to the local newspapers (becoming also an attack on Barter’s baths), and soon occupied the correspondence columns of the newspapers, sporting papers and medical journals in England.

The dispute began with Dr (later Sir) Dominic Madden publishing an article supporting a colleague, Dr Corrigan, who had strongly criticised Dr Barter's Turkish baths. They first objected to Barter's practice of heating his 'Improved Turkish Bath' with dry air, claiming that real Turkish baths in Constantinople were humid. Consequently, they criticised a widely accepted definition of the Turkish bath which had appeared in a pamphlet, Life in a tub, by the pseudonymous author Διογένης (Diogenes). Finally, and foolishly, they criticised the ventilation of Barter's establishments, claiming that they were a health hazard.

The whole dispute, in which Barter was eventually vindicated, is related (with copious extracts from the original documents) in another pamphlet, The New Irish bath versus the old Turkish, or, pure air versus vapour: being an answer to the errors and mis-statements of Drs Madden and Corrigan edited by ‘Photophilus’. The arguments of Dr Corrigan were also comprehensively refuted in Durham Dunlop’s book, and the views expressed in these two publications help to explain the confusion between dry and humid baths which frequently still exists. (This correspondence is treated in more detail in The Hot air controversy elsewhere in the History Section of the website).

The 'correct' temperatures

Another question which occupied the minds of early correspondents concerned the air temperatures to be provided in each of the rooms of the bath. You can, in fact, still hear arguments about this subject in today's Turkish baths.

In 1861 a paragraph appeared in The Lancet from the Roman Bath Co Ltd asking for medical advice about the optimum temperature for the bath they were planning in Cambridge. It was answered by Dr Edward J Tilt, author of the best-selling Elements of health and principles of female hygiene, who supported Barter’s original recommendation of between 110-150°F, and deplored the fact that in London the hottest rooms were never less than 170°F, and in one public bath the temperature rose to 183°F.

Dr Wollaston, Physician to South Staffordshire Hospital, wrote agreeing with Tilt and stressing the importance of such observations,

as the baths are getting into the hands of ignorant quacks, thereby bringing into disrepute a mode of alleviating many complaints which the agency of medicines has failed to cure, or which cures them in a protracted and uncertain manner.

This view was not uniquely held. Even amongst those doctors who accepted the value of the Turkish bath in the alleviation of pain resulting from attacks of gout and neuralgia, there were many who jealously guarded what they considered their right to be the only dispensers of the treatment.

Henry Walter Kiallmark, late Surgeon of the Ottoman Medical Staff—who omitted to mention that he was a Director of the Roman Baths Co Ltd—agreed that no harm would come to the skin with a dry heat of 180°F, but if 120°F was adequate, why go higher?

The dispute was simultaneously sparked off in The British Medical Journal by another letter from Dr Wollaston, this time commenting on a report of the discussion at the end of Dr Thudichum’s lecture to the Medical Society. Wollaston wrote that he had taken his thermometer to various baths in Turkey where the hottest temperature was 150-160°F, although he thought 130°F perfectly adequate. But Dr Haughton, Manager of the Mulberry Street baths owned by the Oriental Bath Company of Liverpool, wrote that the temperatures he found in Turkey were still 20-30 degrees lower than those of Dr Wollaston, and that he had tested them with his thermometer.

These disputes continued intermittently throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, I G Douglas Kerr commenting 38 years later, in 1899, that,

A frequent source of error...springs from the habit of placing the thermometer in Turkish baths high above the bather’s head, where the hot air rising gives a false registration. One has only to stand up on the level of the thermometer to become painfully conscious of this fact.

Sunday opening

A controversy of a completely different kind occurred in 1864. Bury Council, which had just invested a considerable sum of public money in the provision of expensive bathing facilities, determined that it was important to ensure that they were available for use as much as possible. But when Members unanimously decided to open the Turkish bath for a few hours on Sunday mornings, the announcement caused a furore. Letters, mostly pseudonymous, were published in the Bury Times almost weekly during November and December. Support for the opening came from as far as Rochdale where they,

have a Turkish Bath…which is open on a Sunday, and the Christians here—who are I suppose as good as the Bury Christians—make no objection. And why should they? They are not compelled to go.

Over twenty years later, the owner of the Putney Turkish baths still had the same problem. He complained, when explaining why the baths were not better used, that merely having a cheaper entrance charge on Thursday afternoons would not solve his problem because,

Pressure from Church and Chapel prevented the baths from opening on Sunday—the only day the working classes had sufficient time.

Heating and ventilation

There were also considerable technical problems which had to be resolved and which gave rise to much controversy, particularly between proprietors of rival establishments. Much was written about how best to achieve the very high air temperatures thought to be necessary, and how to ensure—prior to the availability of an effective electric fan—that the baths were adequately ventilated. It was not merely that the hot rooms needed ventilation; many of the early heating systems failed to separate the clean hot air from the combustion fumes.

To exacerbate matters, until the end of the century almost all establishments were lit by gas, adding further to the ventilation problem. Almost thirty years were to elapse between the building of Barter's first bath and the opening to the public , in 1885, of the first Turkish bath open to the general public to be lit by electricity—the Savoy, just off London’s Strand.

While some of the first Turkish bath proprietors merely tried to re-invent the Roman wheel, others were gifted innovators. Joseph Constantine, who had run a vapour bath in Manchester since 1850, added his first Turkish bath seven years later. But like Thomas Whitaker (who ran his as an adjunct to The Whitaker Heating Apparatus Company of Bolton), Constantine had great difficulty finding a suitable air heater. Working together, however, they invented the ‘Convoluted Stove’, jointly taking out a patent on it in 1866. It was to become ‘the industry standard’ and was widely used to heat not only Turkish baths, but also churches, and many other large buildings (including the original Manchester Free Trade Hall.)

Some of the solutions to technical problems involved in the running of Turkish baths undoubtedly helped to move the boundaries of building technology forward. In 1879, for example, J L Bruce read an extremely technical paper before the Glasgow Philosophical Society in which he reported on his detailed comparison of the heating and ventilation systems of two local Turkish baths. The systems he compared were at the Victoria Baths Club (heated by Pennycook's Patent Caloric Multitubular Stove), and at the Arlington Club (still open and thriving today, but no longer heated by Constantine's Convoluted Stove.)

Before this date, few practical experiments seem to have been undertaken anywhere to compare the efficiency of different types of stove. This may also have been one of the first occasions that heat calculations had been used in the context of building design.

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Jones can't beleive it [sic] (A caricature)

Constantine's Convoluted Stove


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