Sexual activity in the Jermyn Street Hammam
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:
some problems arising from the use of fiction as a
source of evidence in literary and historical studies

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

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Part of this article is based on
part of Chapter 27 of my book
Victorian Turkish baths
which also has a section on the later twentieth century

1: Introduction

London and New York in the early 1900s

In a chapter on London’s Turkish baths in his meticulously researched book Queer London: perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918– 1957, Matt Houlbrook refers to London’s Turkish baths as affirmative ‘sites of sex and sociability’

The book focuses on the period between the end of World War I and the publication of the influential report on homosexual offences and prostitution, chaired by John (later Lord) Wolfenden. The Wolfenden Report, as it was generally known, led—but only after a further 10 years—to the decriminalising of homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private, though it had no relevance to their behaviour within public spaces such as Turkish baths.

Houlbrook’s chapter, ‘The Baths’, is based on a wide range of sources including biographical material, reports, committee minutes, guide books, newspaper reports, and excerpts from interviews with a number of gay men.

He concludes that during this period, gay men began to feel increasingly secure, and more or less safe from prosecution in several of London’s commercial Turkish baths, and even in some of those run by local authorities. In such surroundings many men who were worried or uncertain about their sexuality were able to discover that they were not unique, and that there was a lively community to which they could belong.

Matt Cook's London and the culture of homosexuality, 1885–1914, is the outcome of his research into the period immediately before Houlbrook’s, yet there are only two references to Turkish baths in his index, and neither is to a Turkish bath in London—indeed, one is in Paris.

This lack of information might seem surprising, since in New York, according to George Chauncey, this period, just after the turn of the century, was the time when many of that city’s Turkish baths first became more gay-friendly, and increasingly tolerated overt sexual activity. This led, around the 1920s and 1930s, to the appearance of the first exclusively gay bathhouses—most of which were actually Russian steam baths. Consequently, the word bathhouse came to have a more sexual connotation in the United States than it has in Britain, where it is now less frequently heard in general use.

Chauncey’s chapter on New York’s gay bathhouses presents an informed and highly readable view of how the bathhouse moved from a time when it was intermittently raided by the police to a time when it became more widely accepted as part of the New York scene.

Why, then, is there no similar London scenario described in that part of Cook’s study which deals with the same period?

Available and unavailable evidence

One undoubted reason is that it is difficult to find any real evidence to show how any similar transformation might have taken place, either in London or elsewhere in the British Isles. This is only to be expected of a way of life which was not only illegal at the time, but was subject to extremely harsh punishment when defendants were unsuccessful in court.

Matt Houlbrook, referring to the period between 1918 and 1957, writes that for an institution which occupies such ‘a prominent place in the contemporary queer imagination…[the baths] have left relatively few traces in the historical record.’ He continues,

The legal sources on which much of my work draws are scant in this respect since the baths were simply beyond the knowledge of most Londoners—including the [Metropolitan Police and the London County Council] for long periods of time. This is, in itself, a remarkable testament to the security the baths offered: this was a commercial space in which men felt safe enough to have sex relatively openly—a public space which was, in effect, private.

As a result of his research, Houlbrook manages to paint a remarkably detailed picture of the gay scene in some of London’s Turkish baths at that time. But it is, by design, a picture of the first half of the twentieth century.

Although this is now beginning to change, we know almost nothing about the situation in the Victorian era, except that in any group of people, at any time, there will generally be a relatively small but highly significant proportion of people who prefer sexual activity with a person of the same sex.

So it would be nonsensical to suggest that, even in the early Victorian Turkish baths (where the sexes were invariably separated), there were not some bathers who enjoyed looking at the bodies of others, exchanging meaningful glances, feeling attraction, or even desiring physical contact. But that is quite different from suggesting that there was overt sexual activity, and that this was generally accepted.

The lack of any perceptible evidence as to the existence of such overt activity at this time has led some scholars to adopt a fresh research approach.

Reading the early Victorian Turkish baths

This is not the place to examine in any detail the important work on sexuality which was begun nearly 40 years ago by a new generation of historians—historians whose research, like that of Houlbrook and Cook, is unencumbered by secrecy or the baggage of the past. Yet as soon as one examines the history of the Turkish bath prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, these new approaches inescapably demand our attention because of this absence of clearly perceptible evidence.

Especially is this so in the light of research inspired by that part of the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault which asks what it is that has made us believe that sex is something which needs to be hidden, and about which we must be silent.

‘Answering, or re-posing this question is the principal theme’ of Nameless offences: homosexual desire in the 19th century by H G Cocks. In his introduction, Cocks refers to another of Foucault’s ideas—that when authority seeks to identify objects for investigation and control, the result is not repression or censorship, but the emergence of new ways of representing them.

While the law, and its language, has been the focus of historians, queer theorists and literary scholars have devoted themselves to disinterring the hidden meanings and evasions of Victorian literature. Queer theory in particular has encouraged practices of reading which seek to draw out the homosexual undercurrent in texts which, because of their historical location, could not explicitly identify or name their desire. Therefore this body of work adopts the suggestion that silence about sex does not produce an absence, but merely incites other, richer languages of description.

Clearly, when the texts being examined are, for example, contemporary histories or factual travel writing, such an approach can be a powerful tool.

But great rigour is required when deriving ‘evidence’ from fiction in order to substantiate an intuited theory, whether in literary criticism, or in revealing previously hidden history.

For, even when the setting of a narrative is stated to be an identifiable, named location, there is a real danger that, in teasing out hidden meanings, there can be a failure to distinguish clearly between actuality and artistic licence.

This page first published 24 January 2019

Thank you icon

Deborah Denenholz Morse for her helpful comments on an early draft

Matt Houlbrook for helpful comments on a first draft and much useful information

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