3: Women and the first
Victorian Turkish baths
It is difficult
to analyse women’s ownership of Turkish baths with any
accuracy as information is not easy to find in any methodical way. We
don’t know how many Turkish baths there were, and I have almost
certainly underestimated the number open to women, but one can only take
a view on the basis of the information available.
were considered quite respectable and their growing popularity coincided
with the rise of the Joint Stock Company. So it is worth noting that
women were among the shareholders in many of the 100 or so companies
whose records survive.
hundred-and-four baths, 38 provided totally separate facilities, in the
same building, but with separate entrances, and 64 provided separate
sessions for women on specific days, or at stated times.
for separate women’s facilities, perhaps surprisingly, often
emphasised that they were ‘under the supervision of Females’ or, if
shared, that ‘none but females (specially instructed) are in
proprietors felt it necessary to distance their establishments from the
disreputable bagnios and hummums of the recent past, or they wished to
stress that the therapeutic Turkish bath would be a comfortable
experience; that women had no cause to fear the intrusions on their
privacy suffered during visits to their male doctors.
Intrusions of a
different kind clearly prompted an advertisement, in 1863, for the
residential Matlock Bank Hydro which warned of a 10/6d fine for ‘Any
gentleman entering the ladies’ bath-room.’
Only two Turkish baths catered solely for women, one near the Female
School of Art in London’s Queen Square, about which very little is
known, and the other, opened by Bradford Corporation in 1883, and closed
thirteen years later through lack of use.
Many establishments, even those open to both sexes, were quite simple—a
converted house or a shop; but a few were purpose-built, and rather more
The oriental looking Brighton Hammam, for example, was lavishly
fitted inside with marble, coloured tiles, and fine woodwork. Its
Alhambric hall was entered through red curtained Moorish triple arches,
and furnished with divans ‘pillowed in damask and silk’.
The women’s baths on the first floor were smaller, had a separate
entrance, and a large cooling-room which was elaborately decorated and
furnished, ‘feminine taste and elegance of disposition being, of
course, considered and provided for.’
pretty curtains and a dressing table were often intended to divert
attention from the smaller size of the women’s baths, and the fact
that not all the men’s facilities were matched in the women’s baths.
varied from establishment to establishment. Men’s hot rooms ranged
This might seem
high, but the body can easily cope, provided the air is dry. Matilda
Ellrington, a young servant who looked after Urquhart’s children,
testified on oath that she had happily spent half an hour at 180ºF
in the Turkish bath at his Riverside
Women seemed to
prefer slightly lower temperatures, but we don’t know why. Amongst
men, there may have been a certain macho competitiveness to see who
could bear the hottest room for the longest time—the least beneficial
approach to determining the best temperatures.
Availability of the baths to women