Wet air or dry?
The hot air controversy

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

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1.Background to the controversy

The discovery that was lost and has been found again, is this, in the fewest possible words: The application of hot air to the human body. It is not wet air, nor moist air, nor vapoury air; it is not vapour in any shape or form whatever. It is an immersion of the whole body in hot common air.

When Dr J L W Thudichum thus described the Turkish bath to members of the Medical Society, in London on 28 January 1861, he may, to some, have seemed to be unduly stressing its dryness.

But while the hot air bath, newly arrived in London, was fashionably known as a Turkish bath—the subject of his lecture—Thudichum was reminding his listeners that in reality it was derived, though altered by passage of time and change of purpose, from the hot air bath of the Romans.

He was also providing support for Dr Richard Barter who, in Ireland, had been under attack by enemies of the type of hot air bath that he was then building across the island. For, once converted to the value of the Turkish bath by David Urquhart's The Pillars of Hercules, Barter immediately set about the task of solving the technical problems necessary to provide them effectively.

To this end he sent his architect namesake, Mr Richard Barter, to Rome to look at the remains of the early Roman baths and report back. Because he went back to first principles, Dr Barter wished to emphasise the Roman origins of his hot-air baths and advertised them as 'The Improved Turkish, Or Roman Baths'.

Urquhart knew, of course, that the bath dated from the time of the Romans (or even earlier). But he had discovered it as a living institution in north Africa and in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, it was a perfect example of living Turkish culture—an attitude to cleanliness far superior to contemporary western practice—which he could add to his armoury of weapons aimed at helping change British governmental attitudes to Turkey and garner political support for it at the expense of Russia.

Urquhart was a man of limited financial means pursuing, at this time, joint goals of changing British foreign policy and preaching the value of the Turkish bath. The two goals were brought together by his encouraging members of his foreign affairs committees to build and run (small) Turkish baths.

He hoped by this means to enable them to support their families while giving them more time for political work, and a place to hold political meetings. Not until 1862 was he able to gather enough support to build a major Turkish bath in Jermyn Street—the London Hammam.

Barter, on the other hand, already had a successful hydropathic establishment providing, with his estate, a good income. The energy and speed with which he solved many of the technical problems of the bath, and the number of Turkish baths he built round Ireland between 1857 and 1860, contrasted sharply with the practical results which Urquhart had been able to achieve.

But if Urquhart had numerous political opponents with whom he continually crossed swords, Barter, with less reason, soon found his success gave rise to jealousy and bitter attacks. Some of these came from 'traditional' hydropathists for whom the cold water cure of Priessnitz was the be all and end all of hydropathy. Barter was no less a hydropathist, but believed that the cold water cure was not always the most effective treatment and had earlier roused the ire of the traditionalists by installing a vapour bath at St Ann's.

So it was that at the start of the year 1860, Dr Barter and his supporters became involved in a major controversy over the 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, and soon occupied the correspondence columns of newspapers, sporting papers and medical journals in England.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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Dr J L W Thudichum

Advertisement for the Improved Turkish or Roman Baths

David Urquhart, soon after his marriage in 1854

Dr Richard Barter

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