Praise in verse—and worse

This is a single frame, printer-friendly page taken from Malcolm Shifrin's website
Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

Visit the original page to see it in its context and with any included images or notes

Original page

Inspiration from perspiration?

The Victorians made many exaggerated claims for the Turkish bath, not a few of which related to its ability to cure anything from a hangover to syphilis. No-one, however, claimed it as an inspiration for poetry. This did nothing to stop the production of verses in praise of the bath.

Perhaps one of the first was written on 28 September 1857 by Dr Edward Haughton and published the following year in his book Facts and fallacies of the Turkish bath question, or, What kind of bath should we have?

An ode to the Turkish bath

Soon in each town will stately piles appear,
To show the hand of progress has been there;
Soon shall the Briton purchase for a groat
A bath which sets all other baths at nought,
Where he can calm recline, walk, sit, or stand,
Waiting in turn the tellak's* soothing hand,
From whence he comes divested of all care,
Bold to defy the keenest wintry air,
Strong as a lion, active as the roe,
He feels the love of man, yet fears no foe;
His pulse with double vigour bounding thrills,
With pure delight his heaving bosom fills;
His heart expanding sees the world grow fair,
Nor can behold the pain and woe that's there.
The car of progress flies with rapid pace,
And each great city strives to lead the race.
The STEAMING "HAMMAM", foremost in the van,
Gives Barter thanks, and says "Thou art the man!"
Who is so rude as would not Roman be?
Or who a craven, Spartan games to flee?
Learn of the ancients, cease your strife for wealth,
For nought can e'er avail you without health.
Turkey now gives you what your fathers knew;
Be ye as wise, unto yourselves be true;
Adopt the good, the evil cast aside,
And, above all, the heavy burden, pride.
Let the new era be envoked with joy,
And still let labour every hand employ;
The best good thing in this bad world receive,
Enter our gates and soon you will believe.
I am no prophet, yet I now declare,
A mighty change in England shall appear:
No more shall poisoned blood for poison call;
No more shall alcohol the mind enthrall;
Plenty shall reign, and fair Contentment smile,
And new enjoyments fascinate awhile;
And by degrees fierce passions shall abate,
Which now destroy a man, now curse a state.
When we discover where our evils lurk,
We in our turn shall thank the grateful Turk.

* tellak: (Turk.) bath attendant

Some of the verse was rather less serious than Haughton's effort. Charles Bartholomew was a born publicist and he was most effectively to use letter-writing skills (learned during his work as one of the organisers of David Urquhart's Foreign Affairs Committees) to obtain free newspaper publicity whenever he was about to open a new Turkish bath. Other publicity stunts were more Barnum and Bailey.

One of Bartholomew's patients wrote a parody of The Spider and the fly which seems to confirm that the owner of the Bristol Hydro rarely missed a good opportunity for a publicity stunt.

Mr Bartholomew and the cripple

'Will you walk into my Turkish Baths?', said sly Bartholomew;
'Tis such a pretty little Bath, and just the thing for you;
You've only got to pop your head just inside the door,
To be cured of every pain you have, or haven't, which is more.
'So will you, will you, will you, will you, walk in and be cured?
Will you, will you, will you, walk in and be cured?'

'My Baths are always open', said sly Bartholomew,
'I'm always glad to cure the bad, and set them up anew.'
'Yes, I've heard of you before, my boy, 'tis said that men are stew'd
In their own gravy at your Baths, so do not think me rude
'If I will not, if I will not, walk in and be cured,
If I will not, if I will not, walk in and be cured.'

But none could ever get the best of sly Bartholomew,
And so this Cripple,--'twas from gout,--inside he somehow drew;
I cannot tell the frightful sounds that people outside heard,
'Twas said that he was smoked and cured like ham, but that's absurd;
But whether he was really cured, or whether he preferred
To keep his gout till he got out, will presently be heard.

But that Cripple ne'er was seen again to pass out of the door,
Though, in an hour, a spruce young man, in what the Cripple wore,
And very like him in the face, went forth upon his way—
I offer here no comment, so judge of it as you may,
But won't you, won't you, won't you, won't you walk in and be cured?
But won't you, won't you, won't you, won't you walk in and be cured?

While Bartholomew's unknown patient used verse to poke gentle fun at an allegedly fraudulent gout cure, proprietors and managers were themselves not averse to verse when advertising the benefits of their own establishments.

In 1887, Mr C Norfolk, the manager of the Dalston Junction Turkish Baths in Ashwin Street, produced a fine broadsheet announcing his current prices and opening hours, and generally singing the praises of his well-designed establishment. He starts by suggesting that the poem is read carefully, for 'Your own Ailment is referred to in one of the lines'.

Dalston Junction Baths

I sing the Turkish Bath! a fit, a worthy theme,
Alike for sage's discourse or for poet's dream.
A dream it is; yet sage—and real—and true,
A dream of joy; but not (as most dreams do)
Eluding fitfully our eager clutch
E'er half conceived or realised; nor such
As, after brief enjoyment, leaves the pain
Of disappointment tingling every vein.
But one defying fancy's fickle freak
A dream to keep you happy for a week.
A week, say you, and then—why then, my friend
A bath a week—your dream will never end!!!

Ye myriad hosts, whose countless ailments small
Imbue your lives with bitterness of gall.
Ye mines of small distempers! Never well,
Yet wanting words in which your ills to tell!
Essay the Turkish Bath! Gain peace, repose;
Temper your distempers; 'whoa' your woes,
And ye who let life's petty warps and strains

Play havoc with your weary, jaded brains!
A moment pause to ponder and reflect
How much 'tis due to bodily neglect,
That ye, grand temples of that grander shrine
The human intellect, should scarce divine
The difference 'twixt a mammoth and a mole;
Or (not to deal in needless hyperbole),
Deem high as pyramids or deep as wells,
Such mounds or pools as are but bagatelles.

Gross matter mars the immaterial mind
(As sea-drift, by the breakers left behind,
Checks and impedes their rhythmic ebb and flow,
Till comes some monster wave, recurring slow—
With many a pygmy wavelet in between—
To sweep obstruction from the turbid scene).
Thus grossness, prone to stagnate in the frame of man,
Obstructs the diverse channels of the mental plan,
Until that wave of health, the Turkish Bath,
Rolls, welcome, up, to clear the cumbered path;
And leave the soul unfettered free to soar
Above those mundane frets we oft deplore.
'Tis thus the strong whom trifling ills annoy
May cleanse the gold of health from all alloy,
While to the sick a vigour new twill give
And those who now exist henceforth may live.

Ye poets—painters—priests—right zealous workers all
Who foster art, and scatter wide the truth,
When poor 'Pegasus' halts as if to fall
Fly to the Bath, renew the verve of youth!
Come, busy denizens of business dens!
This acme of delight no longer miss,
Whose subtle charms pervading every sense,
Can win the soul to dreams of rural bliss.
Ye hardly-driven drivers of the quill,
Of sallow countenance, lack-lustre eye;
To whom vile gas-light shed on foolscap blue
But mocks the glorious azure of the sky!—
Come, try the Bath, and feel your pulses stir
With gen'rous, joyous reawakening zest,
And then confess (You must, you can't demur)
The Turkish Bath of 'Pick me ups' the best!!!

Ye piteous victims of a too-much married state,
Bask in this freedom for one blessed hour;
Throw off the mean indignities of fate
To don the robes of majesty and power!
Here, here at least, ye shall in all command:
Your minions execute what ye dictate;
Or with your own august, despotic hand
The tasty new-laid egg decapitate;
Deep draughts of true enjoyment in your coffee quaff:
Find in chops, charms you never found before.
O'er Punch's wild vagaries loudly laugh,
Peruse your Daily, Cornhill, Longman, or
In misty circles from a fragrant mead
Weave wondrous visions of health, wealth and power.
In short, conceive yourself Grand Turk indeed,
Take pleasure at a plunge and blessings in a shower.

If the manager of the Dalston establishment sang its praises to entice customers to share his enjoyment of the bath, then Thomas Owen, editor of the Oswestry commercial circular and a vice-president of the Vegetarian Society, seemed, in his verses, to be revelling in his ability to enjoy a Turkish bath late at night completely on his own. But this would be to misjudge one whose working hours precluded the use of a public bath during the daytime and who, according to the writer of his obituary, was always ready with good advice for those who sought good health.


'He erected a well-equipped Turkish bath at his residence in Mount-road, and attributed his good health to its habitual use; in fact, during the long period of 45 years he never had a day's illness. As an instance of his vitality, he learnt to cycle when 60 years of age, and frequently covered from 75 to 80 miles a day.' In 1912, Owen published a short booklet describing how he set about building his bath, and included these celebratory stanzas.

     Verses composed at midnight,
in 200° Fahrenheit, February, 1912.

I SING  'The Bath,'  the glorious Bath,
    The Orient's mighty Thermae—
Achilles' wrath, nor aught else would
    From its delights deter me!

The bath sublime, of Pliny's time,
    Though long since lost to view,
Still casts its rays, in modern days,
    Upon a favoured few.

Night after night, at boiling point,
    My radiant chamber glows.
No limb or nerve resents the heat,
    Save finger-tips and toes.

While resting thus on wooden couch,
    The skin begins to ooze,
Till streamlets join and rivers form,
    As heated rays diffuse.

At intervals the surface hot
    With water cool is laved.
And by degrees the skin is rid
    Of cuticle depraved.

Then, finally, when quantum suff.
    Of vital heat is stored,
A stream of water, icy cold,
    From overhead is poured.

Reclining next on easy couch,
    Enwrapped in mantle warm,
The cooling air through windows wide,
    Refreshes like a charm.

To heroes, then, of Greece and Rome
    We chant a grateful lay;
For to their wit, plus Turkish tact,
    We owe the Bath to-day.

Such verse was not confined to British responses to the Turkish bath. A bather named S Waterloo wrote describing his feelings of repose after finishing a Turkish bath in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States—and it probably was a male author, advisedly using a pseudonym.

After the bath

There comes a dreamy languor o'er me stealing,
    A lassitude which is not lack of strength,
A pulsing rest, a plenitude of feeling,
    Which thrills divinely through my sheeted length.
There's no negation in the soft enjoyment;
    It is not enervation, but delight.
Body and mind find sensuous employment
    In idle shifting and in fancies bright.  

Nothing disturbs the self-possessed scnsation,
    Each muscle is reliant, and each nerve ;
There is an equipoise, a co-relation,
    A perfect balance which they all preserve.
I watch the smoke-wreaths from my lips uprising,
    I note the fountain idling with its spray,
Luxurious adjuncts to a fair devising,
    And lazily the moments pass away.  

Such glowing rest might follow a potation
    Of liquor spiced, or still decanted wine.
But so could never come the clean equation
    'Twixt brain and body which I feel in mine.
There is no thought of yet-to-come reaction.
    No forfeit for the passing pleasure's sum,
Here only is a perfect satisfaction
Of what is present and is yet to come.  

Beyond all pale of pleasure apathetic
    He passes who pursues this pleasant path,
A finer zeal is his, a thrill magnetic.
    The perfect sequel to the perfect bath.
Nothing is needed the delight enhancing.
    The blood is free in artery and in vein,
'Tis but to will the act to set it dancing
    In turbulent and bubbling course again.  

Like tiger basking in the noon-day splendid.
    With nerves relaxed, but still with nerves of steel,
I lie supine 'till the siesta's ended.
    Quiescent, still the tiger's vigor feel;
And then I shake me, like the tiger waking.
    And face the struggles of the day once more.
To laugh at troubles which had set me quaking—
    Mere trifles now which heavy were before.

Even worse, and also from St Louis, is this anonymous verse advertising the advantages of a Turkish bath to women bathers.

Better than milk

In the time of  'The Directory,'  in France,
    Skins fair and soft as silk
Were counted but as charms of circumstance;
    They said: 'She's bathed in milk,'
When speaking of some famous reigning belle,
    Some court of beauty's queen.
Of whom e'en yet, the poets love to tell
    Whose portrait yet is seen.
 Times change, yet woman's beauty is the same,
    And to assure her reign
By proper means, as sought the storied dame,
    Will haughtiest woman deign;
But, wiser than her sister of that day,
    The present beauty hath
Learned to enhance her charms, a surer way—
    She takes the Turkish Bath.

Both these last two verses have been transcribed from The Turkish bath hand book, edited by George F Adams and published in St Louis by Little & Becker in 1881.

Although Better than milk is about the suggested power of the bath to enable a woman 'to enhance her charms', it is clearly an advertising puff written by a man. But this last verse is the only one so far found which was actually written by a woman about her own visit to the Turkish bath. It appeared in a Scottish newspaper in 1886.


(Described by a Young Woman)

Has any of your wandering paths
Ever led you to the Turkish baths?
They're the finest of all things, never doubt it;
Just sit down, and I'll tell you all about it.

First of all you are shown to a cell;
There you proceed to take off—well,
You may retain your hair-pins and rings,
But you must remove all your other things.
Then you wrap yourself in a sheet,
And fold it around you from head to feet
(And you'd better take one of your own
If you chance to be large and pretty well grown,
For you'll find—and your modesty 'twill harrow—
That those provided are rather narrow).

Then you follow a girl in solemn procession,
Like a white-robed nun going to confession;
And she lays you out on a marble slab,
And you feel like a lobster, or maybe a crab.

To state that the room is extremely hot
The bounds of truth oversteppeth not.
Pretty soon you begin to melt,
And you wonder how Shadrach and Meshach felt.
Then you're put in a room that's hotter still,
And here you really begin to grill;
And the perspiration begins to flow,
And you think of poor Abednego.
There you lie and think of your sins—
And all you have heard it will do for skins—
Till your very eyeballs begin to burn.
Then the pretty girl comes and says it's your turn,
And then, stretched out as if you were dead,
On a steamy, slippery marble bed,
With a rubber pillow under your head,
You're splashed, and soaped, and scoured, and rubbed,
In fact, most comprehensively scrubbed;
And last, somewhat to your consternation,
Are played on by hose, like a conflagration.

Then, tucked away in a clean, white nest,
You can go to sleep, or can lie and rest;
And everything in the whole arena
Is as clean as it is at home—or cleaner;
And when, at last, you dress for the street,
You feel so supple, and nice, and neat,
And even your temper has grown so sweet.
You feel no longer cold or hunger,
And you look at least to be ten years younger;
And be you as fat as a seal or thin as a lath,
For ever you'll bless the Turkish bath.

There must be other verses about the bath written by women, but until the 1980 poem First Date in the Turkish Bath, by Rachel Hadas, and the more recent Brooman's Lane (from Twitten) by Rachel Playforth, neither verse nor poem have I found.

First Date in the Turkish Bath, is still in the author's copyright, of course, but it can be enjoyed by those with access to JSTOR.

If you know of other poems or verse about the bath, please let us know.

This page last augmented 14 January 2022

Thank you icon

Derek R Williams Local Studies Section, Oswestry Library, Shropshire County

Library Service

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

Dr Edward Haughton

Charles Bartholomew

Dalston Junction Turkish Baths

Thomas Owen

Top of the page


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

Home pageSite mapSearch the site

Comments and queries are most welcome and can be sent to:
The right of Malcolm Shifrin to be identified as the author of this work
has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

©  Malcolm Shifrin, 1991-2022