Nothing but a load of hot air:
some problems, conflicts, and controversies
arising during the development
of the Victorian Turkish bath

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

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This is a slightly extended version of the paper given
on Friday 5 September 2003 at the
British Association for Victorian Studies Conference
The Age of experiments, 1800-1900
at the University of Wales Aberystwyth

1. Introduction

From our twenty-first century viewpoint it might seem surprising that the first Victorian Turkish baths should have caused so much controversy, or presented so many practical problems.

After all, vapour baths (whether or not medicated in some way) had been around for a considerable time. Hard facts are difficult to come by, but some take the view that returning Crusaders opened ‘hummums’ in London, having discovered the Islamic hammam while in the Levant. Although by the middle of the seventeenth century, most of them had turned into bagnios of ill repute, there were a few, such as those of Sake Deen Mohamed and his son Horatio, where the more acceptable vapour bath tradition was maintained.

And this tradition received a considerable boost at the end of the nineteenth century when immigrant Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms set up new baths in areas where they settled, the most notable being, perhaps, Schewzik’s in the East End of London.

At first glance, the only immediately noticeable difference between the established vapour, steam, or Russian bath on the one hand, and the so-called Turkish bath on the other, is that in a Russian bath, sweat is produced by bathing in a room full of hot vapour, while in a Turkish bath, sweat is produced by bathing in a room—or series of rooms—heated by hot dry air.

Why then were there so many issues to be resolved?

The first experimental hot air bath to be built in the British Isles since Roman times was constructed in 1856 at St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, by David Urquhart (sometime mp for Stafford) and Dr Richard Barter, owner of the hydro.

However, their friendship and co-operation did not last long. Barter was mainly influenced by therapeutic considerations—how to obtain the highest, driest heat possible. While this was also important to Urquhart, he had, in addition, a political agenda—to introduce Turkish culture to Britain in an attempt to encourage a more pro-Turkish, anti-Russian foreign policy.

If these two men, who had initially co-operated so closely, went their separate ways so soon, it is hardly surprising that the Turkish bath generated controversy among those not so committed to its benefits.

This page revised and reformatted 14 January 2022

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.

Eski Kaplıca in the 19th and 20th centuries

Glowcock's bagnio

Sake Deen Mahomed

Mahomed's baths, Brighton

Schewzik's Baths: enamel sign and exterior view

Plan of the Turkish baths at Old Kent Road, Camberwell

David Urquhart

St. Ann's, Blarney, Co..Cork, Ireland

Dr Richard Barter

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