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

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6. The bath's rise

If one excludes those Turkish baths which were added to existing hydros or hotels, then of approximately 450 individual Victorian establishments which I have so far identified, 62% were owned by individuals or partners, 19.5% by joint stock (ie, limited liability) companies, and just over 15.5% were managed by elected local governmental bodies.

Initially, most of the establishments were identified by reference to classified city and town directories. Although this method was very productive, there are a number of serious disadvantages which militate against any notion of comprehensiveness or accuracy.

The usual difficulties encountered in this approach have been noted by Shaw and Tipper and are well-known to local historians. In addition, the two major problems affecting this research were the large proportion of early directories which were unclassified (making it unrealistic to attempt to access the information needed), and the difficulty of assessing accurate start and finish dates for the baths.

There is also a particular problem in that many directories either did not indicate the existence of Turkish baths separately from any other type of bathing establishment, or else they did so inconsistently. It hardly needs saying that it is quite impossible to identify every Turkish bath which opened during the Victorian era nor, of course, would there necessarily be any significant additional benefit from attempting to do so.

In the early days most proprietors started or bought their Turkish baths without any previous experience. They saw what they perceived as a good opportunity and hoped that there was a living to be made. Often they came to the bath through their close involvement with one of the facs, or else they had themselves been bathers in someone else's establishment.

Most proprietors owned only a single establishment, but there were a few who, like Barter, owned more than half a dozen. Charles Bartholomew, for example, several years before the arrival of the ubiquitous chain store, built up a group of Turkish baths in seven different towns. Taking advantage of the burgeoning railway system to maintain his personal control over them, he claimed that he was, by the late 1880s, travelling 700 miles by train during the course of each of his weekly rounds of inspection.

Only the Neville family (dropping the final 'e' of their surname, owning  seven branches), William Cooper (eight) and Jonathan Hurn Faulkner (also eight) belonged to this elite group and (unlike Barter and Bartholomew) all their branches were in a single city—London.

The limited liability company

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the rise of the limited liability company (offering shares to ordinary members of the public) more or less coincided with the rise of the Turkish bath. Nearly 100 joint stock companies based in England and Wales have been identified, mostly by reference to the files of discontinued companies (BT31) at the PRO (the Public Record Office—now The National Archives). Of these, around 10% either never went to allotment, or never succeeded in their intention of running a Turkish bath. Records for Scotland and (especially) Ireland are more difficult to come by.

Even at the PRO, many important files have been destroyed as a result of a policy of random weeding. This was, unfortunately, the case with the papers of Savoy Turkish Baths Limited, a company whose story would undoubtedly have contributed much to the history of the Turkish bath in London and a company whose origins we may never now discover. Such files importantly provide a key to the aims and history of a company, listing also its directors and shareholders; providing a more accurate dating of a company’s life; and in the later files, annual reports and company accounts. Yet even so, files are retained only for every fifth year, so that economic constraints determine that there is a four-to-one chance of data critical to a proper understanding of a company's past being destroyed—data usually unobtainable from any other source.

The information in company records provides dates which make searching through appropriate contemporary newspapers more productive.

Nineteenth century newspaper reports are often extremely detailed. Their accounts of meetings, and advertisements which show an establishment’s facilities, hours and prices enable us to build a more comprehensive picture of the national Turkish bath scene.

In 1860, the extremely important and influential London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company Limited was set up under the auspices of David Urquhart to build and operate the celebrated Hammam in Jermyn Street. A totally unique establishment, often patronised by Royalty, it survived until just before the end of 1940, closing only months before the building was destroyed on 17 April 1941 during the London Blitz.

While Urquhart's correspondence, most of it unpublished, includes letters which tell of difficulties experienced during the setting up of the company, the most valuable information about the early years at 76 Jermyn Street comes from a different source.

One of Urquhart’s closest friends, the fac troubleshooter Major Robert Poore, early became a shareholder in the company, and both he, and his family afterwards, permanently retained a strong financial interest in it. It is particularly fortunate, therefore, that the company’s very detailed first minutes book has survived and is housed, together with other company documents and memorabilia, with the Poore family papers at the Wiltshire County Record Office, Trowbridge.

These documents, and the journals and correspondence of Major Poore, together paint a fascinating picture of the day-to-day running of certainly the most important of all Victorian Turkish baths. They also provide an insight into the personalities of many of the company directors, some of whom, like Thomas Gibson Bowles (founder of Vanity Fair and The Lady and grandfather of the Mitford sisters) and Francis Francis (angling correspondent of The Field and author of Diplomatic history of the Greek war ), were no less idiosyncratic and argumentative than Urquhart.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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London Hammam destroyed in the blitz, 17 April 1941

Wall-mounted advertisement for Savoy Turkish Baths

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