Turkish baths in provincial England

Rochdale: 71 Church Lane

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

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Rochdale Turkish Baths

An inexpensively built Turkish bath

Uniquely, one Turkish bath was opened neither by a joint stock company, nor by an individual entrepreneur, but by a co-operative society.

David Urquhart, who battled with his board of directors at The Hammam about their high entrance price, was especially gratified when he learned that a people’s bath was being opened in Rochdale. He retained a newspaper cutting reporting that the baths initially cost £200 raised by working men in 1s shares, and that they reputedly realised 12½ per cent on their capital in their first year.

Unfortunately there is little information to help us understand exactly how this was achieved; how many subscribers there were; whether the shares had to be paid for on application, or over a period of time; and what proportion of the £200 ‘cost’ was actually paid for by the share capital—for the whole amount would have involved 4,000 shares being taken up.

Urquhart firmly believed that small baths did not need to be expensive. Indeed, in 1862 he built one for £37 ‘in the rudest fashion and at the lowest possible cost’ at his new home in Worthing. And if, as seems to be the case, there were, amongst the workingmen, a group of craftsmen with the necessary skills to construct the baths themselves, then the reported outcome seems much more achievable.

The Rochdale Pioneers and the Foreign Affairs Committees

Urquhart had every reason to be pleased. In March 1857, the Rochdale FAC appointed James Smithies as its chairman. Smithies was crucial to the success of this particular baths project, for he was one of the original members of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, known as the Rochdale Pioneers, and credited with the formulation of the Rochdale Principles and the foundation of the British Co-operative Movement.

Through the FAC network, Smithies asked John Johnson for some information about the bath. Then, as acting secretary, he called a meeting of those wishing to subscribe to a new society which proposed to build a Turkish bath, with attached news and refreshment rooms. At the beginning of July, Smithies was elected secretary of the Rochdale Subscription Turkish Bath Society. By the end of the month, the subscribers had taken a two-year lease on Church Cottage at the corner of School Lane, and were intending to begin ‘fitting up the premises for baths on the Oriental principle’ the following month. On 14 November, the baths opened for members of the society.

The first manager was Joseph Jagger, leader of the West Riding Secular Union, whose 'very sensible and practical' pamphlet on the bath guided bathers on how to take a shower, and who greeted visitors ‘in his Turkish bath dress.’

The Foreign Affairs Committees and the Secularists

Jagger’s appointment brought the proselytising FACs and their Turkish Bath Movement closer to other groups of proselytisers, the secularists. Both George Jacob Holyoake, editor and publisher of the Reasoner, and Charles Bradlaugh, co-editor of the later journal, the National Reformer,  were advocates for the Turkish bath and regularly published news to a wider public about its spread around the country. It undoubtedly helped that Holyoake & Co was by now distributing Urquhart’s Free Press.

Edward Royle has noted the number of secularists, especially in the north, who, in addition to Jagger, were also FAC bath owners and managers: men such as Abel Andrew (Stalybridge), Roger Evans (London), John Hindle (Stockport), John Maxfield (Huddersfield and London), John Shaw and Frederick S Rawnsley (Leeds), Hezekiah Thornton (Bradford), and Thomas Wilcock (Bradford and Liverpool). These were all staunch supporters of Urquhart, strong-believing Christian though he was. Royle saw ‘the continuing appeal of Urquhart through the Turkish bath movement’ as ‘a constant threat to secularism, even though the baths often gave secularism a home.’ Rather, it shows much mutual tolerance. Conversation in the Rochdale bath would have been lively with such a mix of fervent Urquhartites, co-operators, and secularists.

The Turkish baths

Early advertisements for the new Turkish baths included a surprising range of prices. Until five years earlier, co-operative society members were limited to a maximum shareholding of £4 so that no individual could have a controlling vote, and everyone had a more or less equal say in how the society was run. Yet they established three classes of bath, ranging in price from 2s down to 6d. Even on Thursdays, ‘reserved for ladies when a Female will be in attendance’, there was still a three-class structure.

In 1881, the Rochdale Subscription Turkish Bath Society needed to restructure itself so as to take advantage of changes in the law which now offered co-operators the protection of limited liability. The baths were also in need of refurbishment and the society had made a loss of £9 during the previous six months. A special meeting of subscribers on 2 March elected a committee to consider how best to proceed.

From Co-operative Society into a limited liability company

On 28 April the first general meeting of the newly registered Rochdale Turkish Baths Co Ltd was held with Abraham Greenwood, another Rochdale Pioneer, in the chair. He, with six others, would form the first board of directors, and the new company would buy the society’s assets and goodwill for around £80, having already obtained a seven-year lease on their building at an annual rent of £21. This would be financed by a public share offer of 250 £1 shares in the new company, with a 3s payment on application and a similar one on allotment (though this was changed to two payments of 5s when the offer was made).

By 23 June, barely 12 weeks later, there were 60 shareholders. Most of them were members of the working-class or small traders, all but nine of whom had but a single share. Five years later, the number had risen to 244.

There were still three classes of bather in the refurbished baths, all priced as before. Shareholders, however, could buy a second-class ticket for 6d instead of 1s. And bathers could now get a vapour or sulphur bath for 1s and a slipper bath or a shower douche for 6d.

The baths closed in 1891, a few months after Rochdale Corporation opened its own refurbished Smith Street baths, now with its own Turkish baths suite.

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