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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3: A case study in queer history

John Potvin's three essays on the Jermyn Street Hammam

Since Victorian Turkish baths have not, until recently, received much scholarly attention, art historian John Potvin’s ‘Vapour and steam: the Victorian Turkish bath, homosocial health, and male bodies on display’ has been, and continues to be, much cited. But a more inappropriate use of the words vapour and steam in the title of an article about the Jermyn Street Hammam it would be difficult to find.

More or less the same material appears in Potvin’s ‘Steamy boundaries: Turkish baths, homosocial health and male bodies on display’ and ‘Hot by design: the secret life of a Turkish bath in Victorian London’, the latter aptly described by one reviewer as, 'positively dripping with suggestive language'.

All three versions (a journal article and a chapter in each of two books) contain a number of errors and misunderstandings. It would be tiresome, in a general article, to list each iteration of every statement which is of doubtful validity. Neither is it worth spending any time dealing with what Potvin considers a racial issue concerning supposedly Turkish attendants.

Instead, three areas are highlighted where conclusions are drawn, or consequences implied, which do not appear to be substantiated by any evidence: the suggestion that steam and vapour were present in The Hammam; the confusion, both actual and reinforced, between The Hammam and other hot-air baths; and the interpretation of bathers' body language.

These errors, and Potvin's repeated juxtaposition of the characteristics of different types of hot-air bath from different periods as though they relate to a single establishment, lend spurious support to his argument that homosexual males appropriated the Jermyn Street Hammam (and other Victorian Turkish baths) in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Vapour and steam

The inclusion of the words ‘vapour’ and ‘steam’ in the titles of two of his treatments is nonsensical when the whole object of the Victorian Turkish bath was to enable the body to sweat profusely by means of hot dry air. There was no steam at The Hammam until a Russian bath was added, as part of a major refurbishment and expansion, between 1907 and 1908.

There were, of course, vapour/steam baths in England even before the arrival of the Turkish bath. Sake Dean Mahomed opened his medicated vapour baths in Brighton in the mid-1810s, while the second edition of Mathias Roth’s book The Russian bath, with an image of the bath in his own London establishment, was published in 1855, a year before the first Turkish bath opened in the British Isles.

But in case there should be any doubt as to whether steam or vapour was likely to be a feature of The Hammam, it is only necessary to refer to the definition of a Victorian Turkish bath given by Dr J L W Thudichum, an initial subscriber to the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co Ltd, and one of its original directors.

In 1861, one year after the company was set up, Thudichum gave a lecture to the Royal Society of Medicine. Referring to the ancient Roman baths, on which, after their destruction and absence for hundreds of years, the new Victorian Turkish bath was modelled, he said:

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.

Not one of the important architect-designed Turkish baths of that period had steam rooms: not Burton’s (1861) in the Euston Road designed by James Schofield; not the Camden Turkish Baths in Kentish Town Road (1878) designed by H H Bridgman; not Nevill’s flagship baths in Northumberland Avenue (1884) designed by Robert Walker; not the Savoy Baths in Savoy Hill (1885) designed by C J Phipps; and not even the Wimbledon Theatre Turkish Baths built in 1910—ten years into the twentieth century. The only exception around that time seems to have been G Harold Elphick’s New Broad Street Baths for the Nevilles, which opened in 1894.

This general absence of steam is confirmed by Robert Owen Allsop's authoritative book on the design of the Victorian Turkish bath. Although published as late as 1890, it makes no mention of the provision of a steam bath. He did include a chapter on vapour and Russian baths in his book The hydropathic establishment and its baths published the following year, but this was written for architects designing a different type of building for a different clientele. And in addition to the Turkish and steam baths, Allsop's hydropathic facilities also included douche rooms, electrical treatment, the pine cure, and the sun bath.

Not until 1906, with the publication of Alfred Cross's standard British work on public baths, was the steam bath given any serious treatment. By this time, an increasing number of local authorities were adding Russian steam baths to their swimming pool facilities, although in some cases, as with Liverpool Corporation, this was instead of a Turkish bath, rather than in addition to one, because of the consequent lower running costs.

This present emphasis on the absence of steam or visible vapour in The Hammam is important, because Potvin includes it time and again in his various descriptions of the Turkish bath.

For example, in a paragraph about the staff employed at The Hammam, he writes:

As if to justify (at least in part) the long hours put in by shampooers, Urquhart remarked that these men, regardless of the backbreaking labour and long hours were 'remarkably healthy', to which he attributed the limitless medicinal and reparative qualities of vapour and steam.

In this context it is not at all clear, unless the reader has taken the trouble to check the endnote, that Urquhart's remark (in The Pillars of Hercules) was referring not to shampooers in The Hammam, but to those in Turkey.

In another instance, describing the hararah (the first hot room, or tepidarium), he writes,

The ethereal, rarefied realm of progressive vapour and steam conjures the gradual descent towards the deepest, hottest, and most liberating location of the bath's space, the graduated hot rooms of the hararah.

The term 'graduated hot rooms of the hararah' is itself confusing, and Potvin has not been helped by the plan reproduced and referred to (and widely reproduced elsewhere).

[For a better understanding, this page should be read in its original form,
complete with the many illustrations to which it refers]

For the plan, originally published in 1862 in the Journal of the Society of Arts, is mislabelled, though the engraving of the hararah, also reproduced, is correctly captioned.

The hararah is the area in the form of a Maltese cross, at the left of the plan. The raised platform labelled C is actually the coolest part of the room and not, as captioned, 'Hottest'. The two hottest rooms are those labelled D in the corners of the square, and miscaptioned 'Hot or Hararah,' rather than, perhaps, 'hottest' or Laconicum.

Later, referring to these images from the Illustrated London News in 1862, Potvin contrasts the brightly lit meshlak (cooling-room, or frigidarium) with 'the dimly lit, more mysterious steam filled hararah'. Yet there is no contemporary source in which the hot room is described as being steam-filled.

Although we are here referring to the foremost nineteenth century Victorian Turkish bath, it is generally understood, as we noted earlier in the literary case study, that in a number of modern baths the steam room is frequently the most hospitable place for initial sexual overtures. Perhaps this is the reason why there are so many repeated suggestions that the bath is steamy or vaporous?

Such a scenario naturally resonates with a readership—especially a non-European one—in locations where Victorian, or Victorian-style Turkish baths no longer exist, and where the word 'bathhouse' often refers to a gay establishment, frequently called a Turkish bath, even when it is more usually a Russian one.

There is, as noted earlier, abundant evidence to show that homosexual activity took place in comparative safety in at least three Turkish baths in London in the twentieth century. But Potvin's thesis is specifically about homosexual appropriation of Turkish baths in the nineteenth century.

A confusion of baths

Potvin is not painting a general picture here. The Hammam is specifically included:

By examining the design and male culture of the Jermyn Street Hammam, this article attempts to tease out how a queer constituency gradually appropriated this and other Turkish baths as a destination for clandestine sex and community.

But he produces no evidence for such activity in The Hammam or, for that matter, in any other London establishment.

Mention has been made earlier of the confusion arising from the existence, between 1910 and 1940, of two Turkish baths in Jermyn Street. So when teasing evidence from fictional accounts of a specific bath, it is important to ensure that the identity of the bath is correct, especially if, as here, Potvin shows awareness of the existence of both.

Yet there is confusion when he indicates that 'Urquhart's bath',

bears considerable note in a literary tradition which deployed the Jermyn Street Hammam as the backdrop in various fictional texts and autobiographical accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century London.

For he then adds an endnote listing five examples, two of which, Bartlett's novel Mr Clive and Mr Page and Saki's short story The Recessional, are actually about, or refer to, the Savoy Turkish Baths at number 92.

Potvin seems to lack any understanding of how the steaminess and humidity of the Islamic hammams in Morocco and Turkey (described by David Urquhart in The Pillars of Hercules) differed from the Victorian Turkish bath as exemplified by the London Hammam. Apart from any other considerations, The Pillars of Hercules was published twelve years before The Hammam was opened and, according to Urquhart, the chapters about the bath were written fourteen years before that.

There is also an apparent absence of any significant knowledge of how or why the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company was set up, or of the people who built and ran it.

This type of situation is probably inevitable whenever a subject outside a writer's own area of expertise is used in a case study to support arguments within the writer's own field; indeed, the present article runs the risk of being a mirror image of this very situation. Nevertheless, without a deeper immersion in the subject of the case study, support for an argument can quickly evaporate. Inevitably also, the availability of time constrains the amount of detailed research which is possible on a subject peripheral to one's own, with the resultant danger of basing an argument on an incomplete set of data.

For example, early in 'Vapour and steam', Potvin writes:

On 19 November 1860 Urquhart founded [sic] the London and [Provincial] Turkish Bath Company which solicited shareholders to ensure that his desires and plans to erect a fully operational Turkish bath in London could procure the necessary funds. However, since its inception the Company never acquired enough funds, which resulted in the shareholders' [sic] decision to increase fees, prohibiting lower class patrons' access.

Although the paragraph refers to the year 1860, its endnote cites a book published in 1902 (though the citation dates it 1898):

The entrance fee for the Jermyn Street Hammam was four shillings in comparison to one shilling for district hammams in London, which were open to both men and women. See Sims, op. cit., p.370.

It is true that the bathers in the Jermyn Street Hammam, which in 1862 charged 3/6 for a Turkish bath, will have been from a quite different class from those who frequented baths, such as Burton's in Euston Road where the charge was only 2/6, or 1/6 after six o'clock in the evening. But The Hammam (where, incidentally, the baths were open to women bathers on two mornings of the week) also had an off-peak charge of 2/-, which was reduced to 1/8 (only twopence more than Burton's) if twelve tickets were bought at a time. In the City, a Turkish bath could be had at the Post Office Turkish Baths, St Martins-le-Grand, for 2/- or 1/6, according to the time of day, but the Goswell Road Turkish baths, well out of central London, was one of only a few where a bath could be had for 1/-, and then only at certain times.

All this is relevant because Potvin returns to the subject of charges at the end of the essay. In a paragraph which begins by likening Turkish baths to the gay bathhouses of New York, he writes:

Given the Jermyn Street Hammam's rather prohibitive entrance fees, this meant that the bath was only 'patronised by gentlemen'. What this also ensured in turn was that those employed in the rough trade (male prostitutes) could not afford to enter and thus fewer incidents of blackmail were incurred, making for safer environments for upper-class queer men.

Here, since the endnote cites George Chauncey's standard work on the subject, it is being assumed that what is true of a gay New York bathhouse is specifically true of the Jermyn Street Hammam without any evidence to show the applicability of this comparison.

Furthermore, since the title of Chauncey's book specifies the period 1890-1940, The Hammam's 'prohibitive entrance fees' were by this time little different from its Central London neighbours. At its most expensive rate, The Hammam's 4/- charge in 1898 was only sixpence more than that at Nevill's Charing Cross or London Bridge baths in 1893.

While not all such errors are of major significance, in total they suggest a need to examine Potvin's arguments more closely. For example, he suggests that,

Urquhart sought out professionals to employ in his establishments [sic] in London and procured most of the attendants and shampooers directly from Turkey, namely from Istanbul.’

Although a relatively minor point, this is incorrect, for apart from an unconfirmed specialist in coffee-making from Constantinople (Istanbul), the only Turk known to have been appointed by Urquhart was the Armenian Chief Shampooer, Youssouf Hieronymus, and even he may not have been brought over ‘directly from Turkey’. Perhaps the Turkish costume worn by The Hammam attendants has misled Potvin here?

In particular, and perhaps surprising to those not fully aware of the close relationship between Urquhart's Foreign Affairs Committees and the Turkish bath movement, the first two managers of the baths, working directly under Urquhart's supervision, were John Buxton and John Johnson, both English, and members of the committees.

Potvin makes much of the boundary between the internal 'essential defining features of Turkish architectural space,' and the 'decidedly simple, unadorned façade' of the hotel within which The Hammam was to be built, as though this differentiation was by design. He states that,

the stark difference between the exterior façade and the interior space of the building emphatically highlighted the essential quality of the total sensory experience. The greater the assimilation into the bath, the greater was the experience of exoticism, heat, health, and other-worldliness.

It was this, he continues, which resulted in quickly established boundaries 'between outside and inside, between cleanliness and dirtiness.'

But Urquhart had not wanted such architectural distinctions between inside and outside. He had wanted the whole building designed according to the pattern of those he had seen in Constantinople, but the Crown Estate landlords had insisted that the Jermyn Street exterior could not be altered.

As he wrote about the building to an unknown correspondent, 'When I first saw it I decided against it.' However, weeks had already been spent unsuccessfully looking for a suitable site in central London which was within the company's limited budget. There had been no alternative. The plan subsequently fixed upon by architect Somers Clarke and himself, he wrote,

which altho' not according to the proper form of an Eastern Bath, still in all essentials, and in a very great degree even in appearance, will represent the Bath of the East.

As for the boundary between inner cleanliness and outer dirtiness being established as a result of the different architectural styles, this is not so; such a boundary had already been set in all previously opened Victorian Turkish baths, both large and small, even when located in part of a proprietor's house.

Almost as though Urquhart had specifically chosen the Jermyn Street site for some nefarious purpose, Potvin loses no time in stating that,

the Jermyn Street Hammam was one of numerous venues in this 'inner sanctum of the masculine city', where male homosociability was performed and enjoyed.

The source of 'inner sanctum of the masculine city' is given as G S Street's best-known novel The Autobiography of a boy, published in 1894. The juxtaposition of this phrase with 'male homosociability' seems strange in the context of a book published at the end of the nineteenth century. A quick online search of Street's text fails to find the phrase. But the citation (page xiii of what the author calls 'The Editor's apology') does include, 'On leaving home [Tubby] went into a delightful little flat in Jermyn Street…'.

A search on Google Books indicates that the phrase 'inner sanctum of the masculine city' (in quotes) also appears in at least three books, amongst which is Matt Cook's London and the culture of homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cook writes:

Tubby, the effete protagonist of G S Street's novel Autobiography of a boy (1894), has chambers in Jermyn Street, St James'—the 'inner sanctum of the masculine city', according to Roy Porter—and he travels by sedan chair to the London and Provincial Turkish Baths at number 76, another important homosocial West End space.

A further search, this time for 'Roy Porter' and 'inner sanctum of the masculine city,' refers to his London: a social history—though the phrase itself does not appear in the book. What Porter actually wrote was:

Clubs helped keep London a masculine city, and St James's, with its bachelor chambers around King and Jermyn Streets, was its inner sanctum.

Is it mere pedantry to wonder if the difference matters?

Much more important to the Turkish bath historian is Cook's apparent discovery of a previously unknown reference to 'The London and Provincial Turkish Baths at number 76' in a work of fiction.  The reference, to  patronage of the baths by an effete young man, prompted a further online search of The Autobiography. This failed to find any mention of the London and Provincial, although a Turkish bath does appear, further on in 'The Editor's apology'.

 

As a student, the 'editor' explains, Tubby was sent down from Oxford in his third year, but two years later,

His humour of being carried in a sedan chair, swathed in blankets and reading a Latin poet, from his rooms to the Turkish bath, is still remembered in his college.

Clearly, the sedan chair journey to 'the Turkish bath' does not occur in London, let alone Jermyn Street, but in Oxford. We are not told which was Tubby's college, but William Dolley's Turkish baths in Merton Street, just down the road from Merton College, were the only ones in Oxford at that time.

Potvin is certainly not the only academic teasing out false references to The Hammam while, perhaps, seeking to confirm preconceived ideas.

But having a far greater negative impact are Potvin's descriptions of The Hammam building, and his comments on its procedures and on the activities purporting to take place there. For he moves seamlessly back and forth in time, as well as to and fro between different baths in different countries. Yet only in the most recent essay, 'Hot by design', does the imposition of the Harvard system of referencing ensure that the date of each source appears within the text. And even this does not clearly signal to non-specialist readers the possibility of frequently drawing the wrong conclusions from what they read.

In his two non-Harvard referenced essays, Potvin does, of course, indicate all his sources in endnotes, but unless readers check them as they read, the manner in which his text is written suggests that almost everything refers to the London Hammam.

This is important because he bases much of his argument that The Hammam was 'gradually appropriated as a homosexual haven' on descriptive elements of the building, its location, and what purports to take place in its spaces.

Each of his three essays includes descriptions of the design of The Hammam as a building, and of the various functions of its spaces. The texts are not always exactly the same, though the differences are not significant. But they share one thing in common; they all have the effect of misleading the reader by not clearly indicating when he is referring to The Hammam, to an Islamic hammam in the Maghreb or Turkey, to a commercial Turkish bath in the late nineteenth or twentieth century, or to the bath in a private residence.

For example, in 'Vapour and steam', he reproduces the plan of The Hammam, and images of the meshlak and hararah, all originally published when the baths opened. He writes:

The overall square plan of this hararah consisted on each side of receded horseshoe arches forming adjoining transepts. At one end the transept opened to the meshlak, while the opposite transept gave access to the 'heated smoking saloon, which occupies a position corresponding to that of a Lady-chapel in this very ecclesiastical looking plan'.

However, there is no smoking-room on the plan. Checking the endnote to Potvin's included quote indicates that it is from Allsop, op. cit., p.18. Only by persevering, and going back a further page for the full source, does it become clear that the smoking saloon phrase is from Allsop's book The Turkish bath. (It actually appears on page 19—but typos in endnotes are notoriously difficult to avoid as the present author, alas, knows only too well.)

Allsop's book was written in 1890, nearly thirty years after the baths opened, and the author describes them as they were when he was writing. In fact, the smoking-room was part of the extension to the building erected in 1881 when the company finally leased and built on the land to the rear of the existing baths.

Yet in the first sentence after this quotation, Potvin refers again to the original plan, continuing his description of the meshlak and hararah. Towards the end of the same paragraph, he writes:

A refreshment cart was also made available in the final resting spaces where beverages and light snacks were usually taken. The 'manly onslaught' by which the refreshed and invigorated bather would partake of his meal in this final stage, suggests how a 'manly' appetite was evidence of the successful transformation incurred.

Here the endnote leads to Turkish and other baths by Gordon Stables, not published till 1883. But the breakfast Stables refers to is one taken from The Eastern, or Turkish bath, a book by Erasmus Wilson published a year before The Hammam opened. And Wilson is describing a bath taken at Urquhart's Riverside home in Rickmansworth over two years earlier still. Only when Wilson is quoted again, five pages on, is a link made to the Riverside bath, but it is still not clear that this is where Wilson had breakfast.

Then, immediately following Potvin's remarks on the 'manly onslaught', he ends the paragraph:

Finally, to complement the rejuvenating experience, connected to a shop in Jermyn Street, the Hammam thoughtfully offered the additional services of a hairdresser.

Again Potvin still seems to be referring to The Hammam as it was at its opening. It is true that Robert Douglas, the Bond Street hairdresser, set up a small salon in an upstairs room soon after the baths opened, probably in 1863 when the company began letting chambers within the original hotel. Ten years later, this was taken over by one of his assistants, William Penhaligon, creator there of the fragrance Hammam Bouquet, a version of which is still sold by a company bearing his name. But it was not until the end of June 1879 that he also began to rent the ground floor shop 'to carry on trade or business of a Hairdresser and Perfumier.'

In the corresponding section of 'Steamy Boundaries' written two years later, Potvin additionally mentions that there was also a chiropodist available in one of the aisles of the meshlak. But the first chiropodist so far known to have worked at The Hammam was Mr Gregory of 184 Regent Street who, starting there in 1881, was to pay 'a rental of £75 per annum under a yearly tenancy.'

The frequent interposition of items about the Hammam as it was at its opening, with explanations about how hammams generally should be fitted and furnished, is also confusing, despite the use or otherwise of the uppercase initial H for the specific hammam, and despite indexed endnotes with author and date.

For example, in 'Vapour and steam', after several paragraphs describing the floor and wall tiling recommended by Allsop in 1890 and Wilson in 1861, Potvin moves on to furniture, with illustrations from Allsop's book, even though none of these designs was used in The Hammam. He continues, in the same paragraph:

Further to these furnishings, even the Turkish coffee and smoking pipes which Turkish attendants in traditional clothing prepared, as well as other luxury items, were imported by Urquhart to give credence to and enhance the authentic atmosphere he attempted to (re)create.

This draws on an article by Nebahat Avcıoğlu published in 1998. But Potvin's phrase 'Further to these furnishings' surely implies that these, in common with the coffee and pipes imported by Urquhart, were all used in The Hammam.

So clear chronology is extremely important when, as in these essays, the author uses evidence from different eras to make an argument relating to only one of them. The reader must forever be on guard against cases of confusion, checking sources so as to understand which bath and which era is being referred to.

For example, Potvin writes:

The enactment of homosocial codes provided the unwritten rules of propriety made manifest in the embodiment of the ideals of the Turkish bath. Urquhart saw parts of the bathing performance, particularly within the first act, to be 'essentially sociable', for while a young boy attended to the needs of the bather's feet, the bather became well acquainted with the news of the town.

But it has already been established, in the literary case study above, that no youths were known to have been employed at The Hammam. Potvin's endnote indicates that the passage he is referring to is from The Pillars of Hercules. Checking this, we read:

…the bath is essentially sociable, and this is the portion of it so appropriated—this is the time and place where a stranger makes acquaintance with a town or village. While so engaged, a boy kneels at your feet and chafes them, or behind your cushion, at times touching or tapping you on the neck, arm, or shoulder, in a manner which causes the perspiration to start.

This is a popular passage, and was even quoted by Erasmus Wilson in his 1861 work The Eastern, or Turkish bath. More recently it was again quoted (citing Wilson's use of the passage) by Mark Turner in his Backward glances: cruising the queer streets of New York and London. But unlike Potvin, Turner clearly prefaces the passage with its context, writing, 'Elsewhere, Urquhart, again discussing ancient practices, is quoted as saying…' [my emphasis].

One is wickedly tempted to ask whether the omission of 'or village' in Potvin's paraphrase was intentional.

If any further indication is needed to support the assertion that there were no young boys employed at The Hammam, it is only necessary to examine published images of the baths to see that there was none. This is, of course, only a possible confirmation of the situation, and not intended to be taken as the evidence in total.

For even the use of images as sources of evidence needs to be undertaken, as we shall see, with great care.

The interpretation of bathers' body language and sightlines

Potvin uses images in all three essays to provide evidence for his conclusions about the interaction between bathers, the manner in which their bodies related to each other spatially, and the panoptical view of the whole of the meshlak from the peripheral cooling and relaxation areas.

Referring, in 'Vapour and steam', to the two engravings from the Illustrated London News, he argues that although the two rooms look 'vast and expansive as if to suggest a luxury of space, a space that overwhelms the bathers' bodies,' the images are deceptive and 'belie the physically intimate setting the chambers created'.

Potvin is certainly correct here; such exaggerated views are typical of nineteenth century images in architectural journals and in papers such as the Illustrated London News and The Graphic.

In 'Steamy boundaries' he refers to these engravings 'In light of Trollope's fictional account of one man's experience of the Jermyn Street Turkish bath', a story in which, we may recall, the narrator, settling in an easy chair and using the 'editorial we', explains:

The chairs are placed two and two, and a custom has grown up—of which we scarcely think the origin has been eastern—in accordance with which friends occupying these chairs will spend their time in conversation. The true devotee to the Turkish bath will, we think, never speak at all; but when the speaking is low in tone, just something between a whisper and an articulate sound, the slight murmuring hum produced is not disagreeable.

In both these essays, Potvin then continues by commenting on 'two very important phenomena'. First, in the image of the hararah, 'men are represented interacting freely with each other'.

To reinforce this, he reproduces the frontispiece of a copy of Sir John Fife's edition of Urquhart's writings, Manual of the Turkish bath, captioned The Hammâm, and showing the hararah, looking south, as though seen from the meshlak.

He suggests that it 'similarly displayed a number of men gathered throughout the hot chamber engaged in conversation, save for one bather who is attended to by a shampooer.'

My own copy of Fife's Manual—perhaps one of a limited edition for friends—has, as frontispiece, a pasted in sepia photograph (over a printed tinted frame) of a different image. This has a family likeness to the frontispiece in Potvin's copy, but shows the hararah viewed from the other end, looking north, as does the image in the Illustrated London News.

But the point made by Potvin, that it shows bathers in conversation, or in conversation together with a bather being shampooed, holds true for all three images. He continues, 

Vigorous sensorial stimulation as performed in the company of other men is represented. Second, one man is centrally depicted in plain view of all the other bathers and attendants. The tension between the visible and the invisible is particularly acute and manifest in the precinct of the hot chambers in which the limited light afforded by the celestial beams from the starry dome are somewhat obstructed by the steam and vapour. According to Lawrie, the hot chambers marked the 'climax of enjoyment.' The sensations here are of the 'most rapturously pleasant'.

In the context of Potvin's thesis that the steamy baths were appropriated by male homosexuals, what he seems to be implying here is misleading. The phrases 'climax of enjoyment' and 'most rapturously pleasant,' which his endnote correctly attributes to Lawrie, are not about The Hammam, but from a booklet for patients at Dr Lawrie's own establishment. This was not a stand-alone Turkish bath but part of his hydropathic establishment at Sciennes Hill, Edinburgh, the first in Scotland to include a Turkish bath.

In the course of introducing patients to his hydro and guiding them around its baths, he writes,

This room, the Sudatorium, is the climax of enjoyment. It is not indeed so decidedly so at the first, or perhaps even at the second or third bath. If any inconvenience is felt at first, let the bather, instead of reclining on the heated couch, sit up, or, better still, walk about in the deliciously pure and warm air, and his sensations will be most rapturously pleasant. After a few visits, the constant—say the weekly—bather longs for this apartment. After he has been in the Tepidarium half an hour or forty minutes, he begins ardently to desire the greater Warmth of the Sudatorium.

But Potvin reinterprets the 'climax of enjoyment' experienced by Lawrie's patients, writing in 'Hot air by design',  the most recent (2008) of his three essays:

The hararah functions as the site of liberation and transformation of the bather for it is the place of perspiration, the location of detoxification, the space in which the skin is cleansed of its impurities and rendered pure again. In short, it is the climax of the homosocial ritual. Yet as a space of ambivalence on the part of the viewer and hence vulnerability, bodies are not easily discerned nor are they quickly differentiated in the hot chambers.

He makes no comment, incidentally, on any 'climax of enjoyment' which might be experienced by Lawrie's women patients. And in similar vein to Turner's reference to 'the heat, the steam, the nudity' being 'the stuff of cruising,' Potvin suggests that the baths ‘are spaces in which masculinity and sexuality are as slippery as the soapy passageways of the baths themselves.’

Strangely, although each of his three essays includes a plan of The Hammam, he does not appear to have noticed that there is no steam room (nor even a steamy room) where 'bodies are not easily discerned.' Nor, for that matter, are there any passageways, soapy or otherwise.

From here, it is but a short step to his argument that being with others in the all-male environment of the Jermyn Street Hammam, participating in performances centred on bodily pleasures which are enacted there in spaces where the bathers' vision was diminished by the steamy vaporous haze, this would all have,

enlivened a distinctly illicit homoerotic gaze and subsequent queer appropriation of its space, despite its best attempts to keep things clean and pure.

There is, however, a major problem in Potvin's basing his argument (about the positioning, stance, and interactivity of the bathers) on the images he reproduces: the Illustrated London News engravings are from the issue dated 26 July 1862, two days before the baths actually opened, at 10.00 am the following Monday.

Four years ago, I suggested in an earlier version of this article that the engravings were derived from drawings made at the special pre-opening session of the baths held for company directors and their friends on 16 July. In this case most of those present would already know each other, and would be standing and chatting in groups quite differently from bathers using the bath once it was open to the general public.

But given the existence of several other images in which the building is shown, whether looking north or south, from the same two north or south vantage points, and with generally similar perspectives, I now believe that all the images are artists' impressions of how The Hammam would look once it opened.

Furthermore, given the family likeness of all the images, it is most probable that those looking north are based on one of draughtsman George Daniel Stevenson’s presentation illustrations for architect George Somers Clarke's client, the baths company.

Such architectural drawings are normally intended to show clients how their project will appear when complete. When appropriate, they typically include people and, these days, vehicles and trees, and are not intended to appear realistic.

The images looking south are based of one of a series of the architect's original drawings. This, and a second one, both engraved by M A Carter, are reproduced in John Fife's Manual of the Turkish bath.

All these images are either by Stevenson or one of the architect's staff, or else they are later reworkings by others of the earlier original images. The bathers sketched within them differ, so as not to make the reworkings too obvious, and are the artists' impressions of how they thought the bathers would appear after the baths opened. To help them achieve some sense of reality they would probably have had access to images of hammams abroad. The same poses can be seen, for example, in contemporary postcards.

It is not possible, therefore, to draw any valid conclusions about the body language or behaviour of bathers who had yet to patronise The Hammam, from the images reproduced by Potvin.

The same conclusion applies to the bathers portrayed in the other pre-opening image in the Illustrated London News, which is probably based on Stevenson's impression of how the meshlak would appear when in use.

Not only does Potvin find that his imagined vapour and steam in the hot rooms turn them into 'a destination for clandestine sex', but he also sees the brighter meshlak as being designed to facilitate the homoerotic gaze as its preliminary.

Unlike the hot chambers, the modulated pod-like spaces of each resting chamber in the meshlak offered an unobstructed panoptical survey of the entire cooling apartments and plunge bath. The pods with divans/couches formed a centrifugal configuration usually along the circumference of the (main) plunge pool.

Potvin here refers to the image from the Illustrated London News and then continues:

The boundary of distance maintained architecturally through the demarcation of each chamber as distinct from the central, highly visible plunge bath area suggested that the private visual pleasures of the bath's clients were an integral part of the bathing experience.

Mention has already been made, in the literary case study, of the screens between and in front of the cooling apartments. These are shown in the engraving, though the architect's sectional drawing shows them to be slightly higher in relation to the human body than appears in the engraving.

More important, it must be remembered that the engraving is an artist's impression published before the baths were open. As such, the meshlak is shown unfurnished. It takes no account of things which, when the baths opened, block the view of the pool, which is, in any case, well below floor level.

While the pool in the engraving has low level plants along its length, in reality the sides parallel with the cooling areas are partially surrounded by couches, behind which are rails on which hang curtains to shield those on the couches from water splashes.

Also not shown in the artist's impression are the pairs of easy chairs which back onto the cooling apartments. Although we cannot be absolutely certain that these were already in position when the baths opened, they were definitely there by the time Trollope's story was written, in 1869, seven years afterwards.

Of course betowelled bathers sitting in the easy chairs could see others, similarly clad, lying on the couches, and vice versa, but there was no possibility of anything other than a very rare accidental glimpse of a full-frontal naked body within the cooling apartments.

There is no evidence to suggest that the room was designed, as was a panoptical prison, so that everyone could be seen from a central position.

Complementing the 1908 photograph of the meshlak, there is only one known photograph of the hararah. This was published in 1902, and was probably taken at the turn of the century. The photograph certainly confirms Potvin's view that the 'vast and expansive' appearance of the early published illustrations 'belie the physically intimate setting the chambers created,' but I do not myself feel qualified to tease out any hidden meanings it might conceal.

Towards the end of 'Vapour and steam', Potvin asks:

Is it any wonder that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century…Eastern-styled baths were universally appropriated by homosexual men as a clandestine space for desire, eroticized vision, and sexual encounters?

To which we must respond that there is no evidence, teased out or otherwise, to support the claim that The Hammam was appropriated by homosexual men at the end of the nineteenth century. It does appear, however, that the history of The Hammam has been appropriated by a number of twenty-first century Queer Historians.

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

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


Mahomed's vapour baths

Roth's Russian bath

Allsop's Russian bath

Cross's Turkish baths suite

Section and plan of The Hammam

The meshlak from the Illustrated London News

The hararah from the Illustrated London News

Price list advertisement for Nevill's Turkish Baths

* Two attendants in Turkish costume

Jermyn Street façade

The hararah from Manual of the Turkish bath frontispiece

* Title page from Manual of the Turkish bath frontispiece

The meshlak: Stevenson presentation drawing

* Sciennes Hill Hydro: advertisement

The hararah from Old and New London

Hararah sections and architect's impression

Rhodes: Islamic hammam postcard

Bursa: Islamic hammam postcard

The meshlak: 1908 photograph

The hararah: 1902 photograph


* This image is not enlargeable


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