Performance in the raw:
some aspects of the ritual of the
Victorian Turkish bath

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

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7. The self-confident bathers

We have seen that for some bathers, the Turkish bath comprised a series of rituals. But there were three communities of bathers who had no need of ritual. For them, it was irrelevant.

Patients in well-established hydropathic establishments saw Urquhart’s bath as just the latest in a series of water-cure treatments which, to the unconverted, were so bizarre as to make the Turkish bath seem totally unremarkable.

While the working-class members of Urquhart’s Foreign Affairs Committees were pioneers of the Turkish bath, the Manchester Committee building the first public hot-air bath to open in England since Roman times.

At least thirty-five of the first such baths were associated with these committees. The bath was introduced to them by David Urquhart himself. They were self-confident.

And patrons of the later commercial establishments came only to be cleansed and relaxed.

Yet, if the rituals have largely disappeared, the Turkish bath as a set for performances remains to this day. In the early 1990s, Ann Longwell found that the same women had been meeting at their Turkish bath for many years, and commented that,

though they claim that they wouldn't recognise each other with their clothes on, they know all the ins and outs of each others lives. As one of the Lewisham regulars puts it: ‘You bare your body and you bare your soul down here.

And in the York Hall Turkish bath, north of the river, Brian Hill described the living theatre he had just witnessed:

In here, it's like being in a nude Harold Pinter play. Conversation is punctuated by long pauses as people gather the strength to mutter a profundity. ‘Poll tax, eh.’ (two minute pause) ‘Bastard.’

This page reformatted and slightly revised 14 January 2022

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The water cure

First display ad for a Victorian Turkish bath

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