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


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one of the linked parts of an article published on Malcolm Shifrin's website

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


Original illustrated page with notes and links


7: The self-confident bathers

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

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 Turkish 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 cared only to be cleansed and relaxed.

Yet, if today the rituals have largely disappeared, the Turkish bath remains a set for performances. In the early 1990s, a visitor noted that the same women had been meeting at a Turkish bath for years,

and 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 at the same time, in the York Hall Turkish bath in a different part of London, another visitor experiences live theatre:

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.’

Thank you.



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Carrying the water cure patient (caricature)

First Victorian Turkish bath in England to open to the public

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

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