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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3. Dr Barter & the birth of the Victorian Turkish bath

The Basic facts concerning Dr Richard Barter (1802-70) can be found in the Dictionary of  national biography and in the Compendium of Irish biography.

A book of personal recollections was written anonymously after his death by a close friend, a writer of popular medical tracts (probably Mrs C G Donovan, who helped to pay for the building of the People’s Turkish Bath which Barter opened for the poor of Cork on 3 February 1863. This was intended as a ‘personal tribute’ providing useful (though occasionally inaccurate) background information on Barter’s life and work—he had a developed social conscience, not always approved of by the author. A better account of the man as a respected and much-liked hydropathist can be found in the tenth chapter of The rise and progress of hydropathy in England and Scotland by Richard Metcalfe, himself a renowned hydropathist with a veritable social conscience.

The rise of hydropathy—the water cure

Dr Barter first became interested in water as a therapeutic agent soon after the cholera epidemic of 1832. A decade later, he was converted to hydropathy after attending a lecture in Cork given by Captain Claridge, the popular advocate of Vincent Preissnitz's water cure. Barter then visited England to study the new system as practised at Malvern by Drs Wilson and Gully, and at Ben Rhydding in Ilkley, Yorkshire, by Stansfield.

Hydropathy, with its uncomfortably Spartan ‘cold water cure,’ was extremely fashionable at that time and is surely worthy of a modern history in its own right. A short, and amusing, account can be found in Turner. Most of the major practitioners, like those mentioned above, wrote, perhaps, for a captive readership: those among their patients who wished to know how to continue their treatment on returning home. Amongst other British practitioners may also be mentioned Smedley, Hunter, MacLeod, and Constantine. Most of the works in this category appear, in part, like advertisements for the patent medicines their authors so despised: lists of medical complaints cured, and testimonials from their patients.

Despite much opposition from his medical colleagues, Dr Barter opened his own hydropathic establishment, St Ann(e)’s, at Blarney in 1843. Always open to new ideas, he first installed a Russian bath and, in 1856, having read The Pillars of Hercules, invited Urquhart to visit St Anne’s to help him build a Turkish bath for his patients.

The beginnings of the Victorian Turkish bath

The first experimental bath stood in a ‘little beehive-shaped thatched building’ and failed due to its inability to heat the air sufficiently. Barter persevered having wisely sent his namesake, architect Mr Richard Barter, to Rome to study the ruins of the Roman baths, and on 5 June 1856, the Urquharts were among the 300 guests at the laying of the foundation stone for a new Turkish bath at St Ann’s.

Within a few months Urquhart was in Manchester where he helped William Potter, at that time secretary of the Manchester Foreign Affairs Committee (fac), to build the first Turkish bath in England which was open to the public. The exact opening date is not yet known but it was first announced in a letter to the editor of the Sheffield Free Press (later reprinted in its sister paper the Free Press, published in London).

It says much for Urquhart's advocacy of the new bath, and the publicity which he and his committees generated, that when Potter placed a quarter-page display advertisement (surely the first for a Turkish bath) in the following year's local directory, it was not considered necessary to describe what a Turkish bath actually was, or how it was to be taken.

Back at St Ann's, Barter soon realised that the baths in Turkey, as described by Urquhart, were but a debased form of their Roman original. Contemporary Turkish baths were too humid and, to be medically beneficial, the necessary heat could only be tolerated by the human body if it was dry heat. Barter successfully built a new bath which became known in the British Isles as the ‘improved Turkish bath’, and in 1859 he became the first to take out a patent relating to the construction of such baths. It is a tribute to him that even today in many parts of Europe—as, for example, in Baden-Baden—the Turkish bath is known as the Irish-Roman bath.

Other early Turkish baths in Ireland

Barter was soon either the owner of, or at least associated with, ten further establishments in Ireland, though none was so successful as St Ann's. His People's Bath in Cork was the first attempt in Europe to provide a Turkish bath for the working classes, and much prejudice and opposition had to be overcome in its establishment. It charged 3d. for men and women, and 2d. for children. Even so, it was not always profitable. Between 13 November 1871 and 2 November 1872, however, it provided 14,567 baths (over 45 per day on average) and made a profit for the year of Ł18.3.8

Most of the early Turkish baths in Ireland were purpose-built. Some, like the Saracenic edifice in Dublin's Lincoln Place, must have seemed exotic to those who, in the footsteps of Joyce's Bloom in Ulysses, 'walked cheerfully towards the mosque of the baths. Remind you of a mosque, redbaked bricks, the minarets'. But writers in the building journals of the day clearly seemed to approve, and were delighted that Irish builders were seen to be so capable of executing this unusual design.

Leopold Bloom, incidentally, did not enter the Lincoln Place establishment—at least, not on 16 June 1904 (Bloomsday). Instead he paid 1s.6d. for a bath at the Turkish and Warm Baths at nearby 11 Leinster Street; the 'mosque of the baths' had closed five years earlier in 1899. The building itself, however, was not demolished for another seventy or so years, and must have retained its balneological association in the minds of Dubliners for many years after the baths closed.

Early Turkish baths in England

In England the Turkish bath spread most rapidly around the industrial areas of the north, especially in those towns where there was an fac. London, however, did not have one until 1860 when Roger Evans opened a small establishment in Bell Street, just off the Edgware Road.  

Initially at least, baths in England tended to be conversions of spare rooms or basements in a proprietor’s own house or shop, as at 182-4 Euston Road, London, where John Maxfield had a basement and ground floor converted to baths, while the upper floors housed a private hotel. But soon, specially designed baths also began to be erected. Provision ranged from the ultimate in internal luxury and exterior magnificence considered appropriate for Regency Brighton to such basic facilities as those designed by James Shotton, at 4 Cecil Street for the North Shields Turkish Bath Company Ltd.

Some buildings, like the magnificent Roman Baths in Jesus Lane, Cambridge, probably designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt and still standing (though now a restaurant), seem to have been built without too much thought. The directors sought advice as to how high the hot-room temperatures should be (see 'Pt.5: Controversy and problems' below), but did no research to determine if there was anyone in Cambridge who would patronise them.

The Roman Baths closed within two years; their ‘Marble Top and Linen Press’, their ‘Patent Weighing Machine and Patent Machine for Washing, Wringing, and Mangling’, their ‘India Matting’ and ‘38 Dozen of Turkish and Bath Towels’, were all to be sold at auction by Charles Wisbey on Tuesday 17 May 1864.

The first Turkish baths in Wales and Scotland

While there is ample evidence to indicate which were the first Victorian Turkish baths in Ireland, England, and Wales, it is, at present, by no means clear which was the first such establishment to open in Scotland.

The first in Wales was opened in April 1864 by the Neath Bath Co Ltd at Church Place, just preceding that in Llandudno by about four months.

The situation in Scotland is confusing. An advertisement published in 1863 for Peter Jack's Reformed Roman or Oriental Baths at 366 Argyle Street, Glasgow, claimed that this was 'the first HOT AIR BATH in Scotland'. But in another advertisement, which appeared the following year, Jack merely claimed that this was the 'largest, most complete, and best ventilated' Turkish bath, and that it was 'Unequalled in Scotland.'

In a directory published four years earlier, this establishment had been referred to as the Argyle Vapour Baths and Jack may merely have been suggesting that it was the vapour bath for which he was claiming a first. However, the wording of the advertisement (in the form of an announcement that the first hot air bath in Scotland had just been completed) makes this possibility seem unlikely.

Earlier, two hydropathic establishments had opened Turkish baths within months of each other. Alexander Monro and T H Meikle, whose Lochhead Hydropathic Establishment in Aberdeen already had a variety of baths, opened a large architect- designed Turkish bath possibly during the first week in January 1860, but more probably some time towards the end of the previous month.

But Monro's own Aberdeen Water Cure Journal had already reprinted a notice from the Scottish press of 11 October 1859 to the effect that the Dr James Lawrie's Sciennes Hill Hydropathic Establishment at Newington, Edinburgh, had been 'open but a few weeks' and had 'an almost endless variety of baths.' This would suggest a date somewhere around the end of September 1859 if the 'endless variety' included a Turkish bath. Although this was not specifically stated, it does seem most likely. Lawrie, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh with Barter, visited him at St Ann's in 1857 (where he also met Urquhart) and modelled his own Turkish bath on Barter's. It is hardly conceivable that he would have opened his establishment before the Turkish bath was completed.

Nevertheless, we still have no direct evidence that this was the first Turkish bath in Scotland because Lawrie, in his own 1864 book on the Turkish bath, only claims that his was the first in Edinburgh. There is clearly scope here for further research.

Contemporary building journals, especially The Builder and Building News, often included illustrated accounts of Turkish baths which had just been completed, or the plans of those about to be built. Fortunately, many of these accounts are extremely detailed, not only with regard to the construction of a building, but also in their description of its furnishings and equipment. Together, they help paint a comprehensive picture of the Victorian Turkish bath, its facilities, and (perhaps surprisingly) the procedures followed by its bathers.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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Dr Alastair Durie Senior Lecturer, Dept of Economic & Social History, Glasgow University,

for information about Lochhead Hydropathic Establishment

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Dr Richard Barter

Smedley's Hydro, Matlock Bank, Derbyshire

First display advertisement for a Victorian Turkish bath

Advertisement for the 'People's Bath' in Cork, Ireland

The Roman Baths, Jesus Lane, Cambridge

Display advertisement for (probably) the first Victorian Turkish bath in Scotland

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