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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2: A case study in literary criticism

The London Hammam at 76 Jermyn Street

A relevant example of artistic licence in twentieth century fiction can be found in Neil Bartlett’s stylish Mr Clive & Mr Page (published in the United States as The house on Brooke Street). Mr Page is said to meet Mr Clive outside the Jermyn Street baths referred to in the book as ‘the London and Provincial at number seventy-six’.

But the actual location which Bartlett had in mind was further down Jermyn Street—the baths ‘where Rock Hudson was thrown out for importuning in 1952’. These were the Savoy Turkish baths, opened in 1910, at 92 Jermyn Street. This all-male establishment was one of three London baths which were open all night, and were widely known to be much frequented by gays.

Nevertheless, Bartlett explained, ‘the name “London and Provincial” felt exactly right for the sort of place a queen like my Mr Page would go’, even though it was actually the name of the company which had owned The London Hammam further up the road.

By the time of the Rock Hudson incident at the Savoy, The Hammam had been closed for 12 years. But this has not stopped one writer from linking it to some of the later incidents in Bartlett’s novel, and commenting that it ‘offered steam rooms, plunge pools and massage parlours.’

Quite apart from artistic licence in works of fiction, the mere existence of two separate Turkish baths in Jermyn Street has caused much confusion, even in such standard reference works as The Survey of London, where three of the seven references to Turkish baths have factual errors.

There are several works of fiction which do have scenes set in The London Hammam, situated at 76 Jermyn Street. The Hammam was built to the design of architect George Somers Clarke working in conjunction with David Urquhart who, earlier, had reintroduced the Turkish bath into the British Isles.

Probably the most significant of these fictional works is Anthony Trollope’s short story The Turkish bath. This first appeared in the monthly St Paul’s Magazine in 1869, seven years after the baths opened, and was republished the following year, with five other stories, in his book An editor’s tales.

The Turkish bath (which can be read here on the Wayback Machine) tells of how a magazine editor is fooled into reading a manuscript written by a man who has followed him into the baths. Wrapped only in towels, the editor allows himself to be engaged in conversation with someone whose clothing and general appearance, away from the baths, would have warned against such an encounter.

In the first part of the story, Trollope describes the baths and the bathing procedure, combining straightforward description with gentle tongue-in-cheek humour, for example, when describing the ritual of the towels, the clapping of the hands, the hardness of the marble, and the avoidance of conversation. The second part relates the actual encounter in the baths, and the third brings the story to a close in the home of the would-be author.

Mark Turner, in a ground-breaking analysis, suggests that the stories in An editor’s tales use ‘some of the conventions of porn (coded for a male reader) and so approach a veiled form of pornography intended to appeal to his male audience’, or, as one critic summarised part of Turner’s argument, The Turkish bath is a ‘soft porn story of gay cruising.’

It is unnecessary to embark on an in-depth discussion on the validity of Turner’s interpretation of Trollope’s underlying meaning to suggest that it is, of course, impossible to determine what was actually going on in Trollope’s mind when he wrote the story, or to be absolutely certain about his intentions. But Turner’s arguments are the result of intensive study and have been well received by other scholars.

What should concern us here is that while critics are entitled to use any part of a text, or even the teased-out meaning of a text, in a critical analysis of a work of literature, they need constantly to bear in mind that their analysis is of a work of fiction. So even though a setting might be specifically identified with a real place, this does not necessarily mean that every single part of that description is totally factual, or was ever intended to be.

Trollope himself remarked, referring to this and other stories from St Paul’s Magazine,

I do not think there is a single incident in [An editor’s tales] which could bring back to any one concerned the memory of a past event. And yet there is not an incident in the outline of which was not presented to my mind by remembrance of some fact …

Turner is well aware of this, commenting,

The stories were not intended to be exact memories, and Trollope admits to condensing and constructing a number of editorial experiences in particular stories. But fiction is not fact and it is at least problematic to criticize it as such.

Turner’s analysis of what was in Trollope’s mind is not materially affected by his taking the author’s description of the baths as being wholly accurate. Yet even a scholar as careful as Turner cannot resist an occasional embellishment when his argument could be made just as effectively by simply analysing the action. He writes, for example,

…the nature of Trollope’s Turkish Bath seems intended to arouse by teasingly positing the possibility of a homosexual encounter to male readers. The young, oriental boys, the heat, the steam, the nudity, the silence, the tension about etiquette, the supply of men: this is the stuff of cruising.

While the phrase ‘young, oriental boys’ may perhaps sound sexually suggestive, the phrase ‘oriental boys’, young or otherwise, does not appear in the story. Trollope uses ‘young’ only to describe the men lying on a sofa: Walker of the treasury, and the editor’s friends.

Trollope actually uses the phrase ‘eastern boys’ rather than ‘oriental boys’—and then only once. But apart from an office boy, there is no mention in the company’s minutes of any youths being employed, and it seems much more likely that, in the context of the baths, Trollope is using ‘boy’, as most frequenters of St James clubland would do at that time, to indicate a servant, the first meaning of the word given in The Oxford English Dictionary.

Here, ‘eastern boy’ would probably indicate that the attendant was not white, and might have previously been employed in a hammam in North Africa or France.

This suggestion is supported by a Charles Keene caricature in Punch which appeared on 26 January 1866, just three years before Trollope’s story was published, which purports to show a West End Turkish bath in a fictitious ‘Latherington Street’. Several of those connected with Punch regularly bathed at The Hammam, and at that time there was no other Turkish bath in London of comparable size. It is worth noting that there are no youths in Keene's drawing.

More telling is Turner’s use of the word ‘steam’ which does not appear anywhere in Trollope’s story either. Why should it when there was no steam room in The Hammam? But in modern bathhouses, of course, the steam room is frequently the most usual place for initial sexual overtures. And, except in the plunge pool (strangely, not mentioned by Trollope), there was virtually no open nudity in The Hammam at that time, bathers being swathed in at least two towels. Even in the pool, it was underwater nudity in dim light.

Finally, Turner implies—and in a later treatment states—that the baths were ‘men-only’. In fact The Hammam did provide women’s Turkish baths until two years after Trollope wrote his story, although this does not, of course, alter the all-male environment of the men’s baths.

If these might be considered minor points in an otherwise careful analysis, not all who followed Turner were as wary. Kate Flint, for example, referring to the author's comment that 'there is not an incident in the outline of which was not presented to my mind by remembrance of some fact,' interprets this as meaning that the story ‘was closely based on fact.’

Flint loses no time in attuning the reader’s mind to her thesis. In Trollope’s story, she explains, a man starts up a conversation with the editor ‘in the all-male Jermyn Street Turkish Baths. This is a queer setting indeed…’ Her juxtaposition of ‘all-male’, ‘Turkish baths’, and ‘queer’ can hardly be accidental. ‘All-male’ already seems to have become part of the history of the baths. And her use of the phrase ‘clothes disappear completely’ does not immediately signify that everyone was draped in towels—though she does clarify this later.

In justification for the attribute ‘queer’, Flint refers to phrases highlighted by Turner, such as ‘very skilled eastern boys.’ She also notes Trollope’s description of how the narrator, adopting the editorial ‘we’,

divested ourselves of our ordinary trappings beneath the gaze of five or six young men lying on surrounding sofas…

a quotation which, in the story, continues,

…among whom we recognised young Walker of the Treasury, and hereby testify on his behalf that he looks almost as fine a fellow without his clothes as with them.

Yet at the time when Trollope was writing, it would have been almost impossible to have seen anyone naked in The Hammam.

Bathers undressed in compartments—cubicles with couches for reclining after the bath. These were situated two steps above the ground floor level. Two of them were fitted with curtains for those who required total privacy.

The remainder had decorative screens, 4ft 6in (1.37m) high, placed between them and the main cooling-room, with even taller screens between cubicles. Even a fleeting glimpse of a frontally naked body would have been rare.

It is possible that the screens between the main hall and the cubicles may have been altered during the 1908 refurbishment. It is, unfortunately, difficult to determine this from the few surviving dark-toned photographs we have of the cooling-room. But either way, this is irrelevant to the nineteenth century situation we are concerned with here.

But a person undressing could not normally be seen by anyone lying on one of the four lounges (sofas) placed in pairs on each side of the pool; nor was it possible, for that matter, from any of the easy chairs which were placed, early on, with their backs to the cubicles.

There was, besides, a strict puritanical attitude to nudity. In 1861, the year in which the death penalty for sodomy was abolished, Erasmus Wilson, one of the founding shareholders of the London and Provincial, had written that,

a costume is indispensable. Without a costume in the presence of others, the bath is not the bath—it is an evil, and as an evil it should be suppressed with the utmost severity.

But by the time the baths opened the following year he must have been satisfied—no doubt under Urquhart's influence—that towels, appropriately worn, would make costumes unnecessary at The Hammam.

Though bathers were naked in the cold plunge pool, as soon as they reached the pool steps they were surrounded by a ‘gigantic crinoline of towels suspended from the roof to serve the ends of modesty while occupied with the friendly towel’, before being seen in the cooling-room. This practice lasted well into the twentieth century.

If we accept that Turner’s interpretation of the story is valid, what might have been the source of those parts of Trollope’s description which, though fictional, nevertheless seem to ring true? Were they imaginary details Trollope added to emphasise the hidden story—another example of artistic licence? Or has Trollope drawn his description of the baths from more than one establishment, in the same way that authors, including Trollope, sometimes base a character on aspects of more than one person?

It would be easy to hypothesize such a scenario, taking note of the fact that, between 1859 and 1867, Trollope worked for the Post Office in St Martin’s-le-Grand. He could not fail to have been familiar with the Post Office Turkish Baths in the same road at No 19, owned between 1861 and 1864 by Dr Major Richard Culverwell.

And apart from a women’s day on Tuesdays, these baths were also mainly for men only, while admission on Saturdays and Sundays at one shilling, made them much less expensive than The Hammam.

Perhaps Walker of the Treasury was really a Mr Smith of the Post Office? Could these baths, before they closed, have been the first recruiting ground for the fifteen-year-old youths who later moved on to Cleveland Street—scene of the scandal in 1889 involving a number of aristocratic clients and male prostitutes, some of whom were employed as Post Office telegraph boys? Of course, this is fanciful conjecture, but it is, at least, based on realistic possibilities.

Issues such as these do not necessarily affect critiques of Trollope's story as a work of literature. But they are extremely important to those researching the history of the Victorian Turkish bath, and especially that of the unique Jermyn Street exemplar.

So if an aspect of queer theory, or a history of gay appropriation of public spaces, for example, is to be supported to any extent by a work of fiction, then the historian must first take great care, as will be discussed in the next section, in determining which parts of the text being mined are based on fact, and which on artistic licence.

This page first published 24 January 2019

Thank you icon

Neil Bartlett for permission to quote from his email to me

Simon Lawrence for permission to use Joan Hassall's engraving

Deborah Denenholz Morse for her helpful comments on an early draft

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

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


Savoy Turkish Baths at 92 Jermyn Street

The Editor and Mr Molloy in Trollope's short story

Betowelled bather as company logo

Punch caricature by Charles Keene

* Section showing two cubicles

* Plan showing two cubicles

* The couches

The easy chairs

The towel tent

* 2 advertisements

* This image is not enlargeable


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