If today the term Irish-Roman bath seems a more accurate
description, most Victorian proprietors contented themselves with
advertising their baths as Turkish,
some tried to have their cake and eat it by using the phrase Roman
or Oriental Baths,
while others—especially in Ireland—called them ‘Improved’ Turkish
Baths. The use of ‘Improved’ in this context is not, as was once
suggested to me, a Saidian example of how the west appropriated an
oriental institution while still emphasising its own superiority.
More prosaically, it came from an application which Barter made in
1859, for a patent entitled ‘Improvements in heating and
ventilating buildings, and in apparatus connected therewith’ which
he indicated was particularly relevant in ‘the heating of the
improved Turkish or Roman bath’ constructed by him at St Ann’s.
All patent applications are necessarily for a new invention, or
for an improvement on an existing one. Barter’s improvement
recirculated the heated air from the hot rooms, passing it over
the furnace, and into the hypocaust, thereby considerably cutting
his fuel costs.
The improvement was on the Roman hypocaust, not the Turkish
The Victorians discussed, in a variety of journals, whether the
bath should be called Roman or Turkish. A reading today of
selected contributions to that discussion has led to the
suggestion that in preferring the term Roman bath the west was
reclaiming its ancestry from the east. Or, that Roman (read
European) baths would be more acceptable to a British public than
Turkish (read oriental) baths.
Although there were some writers (particularly amongst the
opponents of the bath who were often doctors feeling threatened by
it) who argued that a great empire could not adopt the bath of the ‘indolent,
languid, luxurious Turk’, such ideas were far from
the minds of those who reintroduced it.
To Barter, ‘Roman’ only implied dry air, as opposed to ‘Turkish’
which implied vapour.
Urquhart’s use of the term Turkish bath, though he well knew its
Roman origins, was quite deliberate. He additionally saw the bath
as an effective means of introducing Turkish culture to the
British people, not as a curiosity to amuse them, but as something
worthy of emulation. Indeed, Dr Avcıoğlu has perceptively argued
that Urquhart’s criticism of earlier travellers’ descriptions of
the hammam could almost have been written by Edward Said.
Terminology also impinged on discussions about the architectural
style to be used for Turkish baths, especially around 1861, by
which time over three dozen establishments had already opened.
Architects asked whether they have to look Turkish, or perhaps
In a lecture at the Liverpool Architectural Society, W H Hay
described the Turkish bath he had just designed for the very
middle class Lochhead Hydropathic Establishment near Aberdeen. His
brief was ‘to produce a certain accommodation at the very smallest
outlay’ and his plan was ‘based upon the baths of ancient Rome’.
I have adopted the Turkish or oriental style
of architecture with a touch of Eastern grandeur, so that the
Turkish Baths might not be altogether a misnomer to the
uninitiated; nevertheless, there is a very large demand made upon
the practical skill and experience of an architect in the erection
of works of this kind. But I was employed to design Turkish baths,
and Turkish baths they must be; to arrange the interior as I
pleased; but the bulbous domes and gilded minarets must appear in
all the cheapest and most showy style, so that the Oriental
character might be realised as freshly as from a perusal of Lalla
I should be inclined, however, to recommend a thoroughly English
style of architecture as decidedly preferable to this.
In complete contrast, in Jesus Lane, Cambridge, we can still see Matthew Digby Wyatt’s classical
portico fronting the grand Roman baths built for the newly
incorporated Roman Bath Company which opened in February 1863.
The Roman emphasis was deliberate: intended to indicate clearly
that this was to be no steamy hammam. But it was not a success,
and closed before the end of the year.…