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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4: Perhaps after all?

The behaviour of the shampooers

By 1884, 20 years after Urquhart retired for health reasons to the warmer climates of France and Switzerland, and seven years after his death, Thomas Gibson Bowles wrote a long letter to his fellow directors about what he saw as falling standards at The Hammam. If there had been any signs of creeping appropriation by homosexuals, it would certainly have been included amongst Bowles’s highly critical list of things to be rectified, one of which was that, by then, some years after Youssouf Hieronymus had retired, the shampooers lacked the necessary skills. This, he suggested, might be remedied by bringing over a shampooer from France (such as one of the Arabs who worked successfully in the Paris Hammam) in order to train their existing shampooers.

In fact there is no specific mention of improper behaviour within the baths anywhere in the company’s surviving Minute Book. This covers the years from 1860 till the early 1890s, when the Minutes were detailed enough to record a complaint that one of the bathers had been ‘blowing his nose into his fingers in the washing room’.

However, three years later in 1887, there was a recorded incident when David Urquhart Junior, Managing Director at the time, ‘referred to an evil that was showing itself of bathers being advised by some of the shampooers to be rubbed [rubbing being no more than a contemporary synonym for massage] at their own homes instead of coming to the bath.’

If the word ‘serious’ had been used instead of ‘evil’, it would be natural to assume that this practice worried the company because of lost revenue. But the only occasion on which the word 'evil' was used in nearly 30 years’ Minutes seems to suggest there was an implied and understood sexual connotation. Indeed, ten years later, an editorial in the Journal of Balneology and Climatology also used it in the context of massage.

After noting that many trained nurses, both male and female, working 'under  the direction of qualified medical practitioners' were often indispensable to the busy doctor, the writer continued, in the euphemistic language of the time, by drawing attention to a practice which had been a problem for several years:

We cannot, nevertheless, close our eyes to what threatens to become one of the worst evils with which the profession has had to deal during the present generation. This evil may be vaguely estimated when it is remembered how badly educated and often how impecunious are the majority of these persons who seek this form of employment. No marvel that they soon fall under the necessity of soliciting work after the methods of quackery and charlatanism. Nor is this all. It has become only too evident that certain base class of men and women are making use of the state of things thus created for vile and immoral purposes. It is unnecessary here to go into particulars, since the general facts are known to our readers, but we desire to raise a note of warning…

So if a shampooer from The Hammam were to provide massage at a bather’s own home, he would not only be able to pocket the fee and the gratuity, but also able to offer sexual services at a much higher rate.

Yet, even tangentially, this does not support Potvin’s claim of ‘queer appropriation’; it argues against it. For the main reason for offering massage at home would surely have been because it was considered too risky to provide it at The Hammam, and probably too risky even to suggest it to someone who had not already agreed to be massaged at home.

After his original letter about The Hammam's unsatisfactory shampooing, Bowles was appointed as one of two directors charged with acting as a subcommittee with responsibility for overseeing the maintenance of standards. He took this responsibility very seriously and his participation in Board meetings was regular, covering a wide range of topics. No further company Minutes mentioned the earlier 'evil' which would undoubtedly have been appropriately dealt with as soon as the matter was first raised.

After the 1908 expansion, none of the original directors was still on the Board, though two of the sons of the late Major Robert Poore, the largest shareholder, continued to represent the family interest. After fifty years it would be surprising if the original company ethos had not changed to a greater or lesser extent, and one of the services offered, this time officially, was that 'A number of certificated masseurs are kept, who can be provided to attend on gentlemen at their own residences.'  The history of The Hammam suggests that it was a no-nonsense service, but there is no evidence either way to confirm or reject this.

Conclusions

It is important to emphasise that I do not contest that Potvin’s scenario might be applicable after, say, the 1890s—though it would be much likelier in other baths. I argue only that none of his arguments offers any ‘teased out’ evidence of such activity in The Hammam at any time.

By the mid-1880s the Paddington Hammam at 8 Harrow Road was already open, and this seems a much more likely location for a gradual queer appropriation. Unlike most of the cubicles at The Hammam, those in the majority of later Turkish baths were curtained, and so were considered more or less private.

This also true in all three of the London establishments which were open all night,  the Imperial Hotel, the Jermyn Street Savoy, and the Harrow Road baths (the last two of which each had a series of like-minded proprietors). Private dressing cubicles were also the norm in municipal baths such as, for example, Bermondsey and Greenwich in London, and Sheffield and Leeds  in the provinces.

But, as Houlbrook notes—quoting from an account of visits to London’s baths around 1900 by an American writer, Edward Stevenson—even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, sexual activity in the baths was still limited to gazing at bodies and arranging later meetings elsewhere.

By the end of World War I, the situation was quite different, and Houlbrook’s account of the relationship between gays and the London Turkish baths between 1918 and the end of the 1950s has not been bettered.

This page first published 24 January 2019

Thank you icon

Mike Young for his evocative images of Harrow Rd & Imperial Hotel Turkish baths

Deborah Denenholz Morse for her helpful comments on an early draft

Matt Houlbrook for helpful comments on an early draft & much useful information

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Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.


Thomas Gibson Bowles

Excerpts from the company Minutes Book

Brochure from The Hammam

Rest rooms at Nevill's Harrow Road Turkish baths

Cooling-room at the Imperial Hotel Turkish Baths, London


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