Turkish baths in private houses

England: Eltham: Kent (now London Borough of Greenwich)

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

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John Thomas North's private Turkish bath at Avery Hill

Avery Hill: the house

John Thomas North, known as Colonel North, the Nitrate King, was the self-made son of a coal merchant. He made the first of his fortunes in Chile during and after the Great Pacific War between Chile and her two northern neighbours, Bolivia and Peru. He returned to England in 1882 and the following year took out a ten year lease on an empty house at Avery Hill at Eltham, Kent (now part of the London Borough of Greenwich).

North bought the house in 1888 and, though it was by no means small, he decided to enlarge it in order, amongst other things, to build painting and sculpture galleries to house his art collection.

Before leaving for a visit to Chile in 1889, North commissioned the architect Thomas W Cutler (1842-1909) to make £40,000 worth of alterations and additions to the house. On his return, he found that Cutler had commissioned £100,000 of work, and the architect was dismissed, being replaced by his assistant J O Cooke.

By the time the house was completed, North had also added a fernery, conservatory and a huge dome-covered Winter Garden. The separate stable block, like the mansion itself, was centrally heated and lit by electricity generated in an engine room to the west of the main building.

A white Sienna marble staircase with a white and gilt ornamental wrought iron balustrade led from the inner hall to a first floor corridor, eighty-foot long and hung with crimson velvet and lit by windows with stained glass panels. Opening off it were the sixteen principal bedrooms and dressing rooms.

Exceeding them all in sheer extravagance was the three-roomed Turkish bath which caught the attention of architectural correspondents in the 1890s.

The Turkish bath

Among those impressed by the design and furnishing of the bath was the author of the detailed account which appeared in The Builder.

The entrance was through a lobby—a very short passage with a door at either end—to help retain the heat within the Turkish bath area. This led into the largest room of the three, more a lavatorium than a frigidarium. To the right of the entrance was a toilet and a large walk-in cupboard for towels and, if necessary, bathers’ clothes, and on the opposite wall was a bath and washbasin.

Opposite the lobby was the door leading in to the marble-floored tepidarium. Although this was square in shape, the ceiling was octagonal, supported by arcading. On the right, a horseshoe arched window over-looked a courtyard and white marble benches lined two of the walls. On the left was the arched opening to the caldarium.

This was rectangular and had an arched window opposite the entrance. Below this was a lattice-covered compartment through which hot air entered the bath. The windows in both hot rooms consisted of two panes of glass with a heat insulation gap between them. The other two walls had white marble benches, partly positioned within high arched niches.

A contemporary postcard shows the view from the caldarium to the tepidarium.

All the walls, ceilings, and arcadings were covered in Burmantofts faïence in shades of white, red, blue, green, and grey. At present, however, it seems that there are conflicting views as to which colours were used in each room. All the rooms had decorative marble floors, and the impact of the baths on a first-time visitor must have been overwhelming.

North lived in his completed house for just a little over five years. He died suddenly in his City office on 5 May 1896. His family almost immediately put the house on the market, but it was two years before they found a buyer, at a price much less than it had cost North. The new owner never took up residence at Avery Hill and the house remained empty for another eight years. It was bought with twenty-eight acres of parkland for £25,000 by the LCC in 1902 and four years later it was opened by its education committee (later named the Inner London Education Authority) as its first residential training college for (women) teachers.

It would be pleasing to know that, for once, a trophy Turkish bath built for the nouveau riche was now freely used by the college staff and students who followed. But a postcard similar to that illustrated here, briefly glimpsed on eBay, and sent shortly after the college opened, suggests otherwise.

An unknown correspondent, Sheila, writes asking her Ian whether he would like a bath in them. ‘They are all marble. of course no one uses them.’ Seemingly not even members of staff. Why? Shyness? Propriety? Or, perhaps, just expense?

With its tiled walls, marble floors, and door fittings of silver plate, North's private Turkish bath was surely unique and, before it was destroyed during a Second World War bombing raid, outshone either of the two extant private baths, Wightwick and Cragside.

This page last revised and enlarged 27 January 2019

Thank you icon


Alison Goss, Archive Assistant, University of Greenwich

Andrew Hobbs for leading me to the image of the plan

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

'Colonel' North

Avery Hill: two views

Two plans of the Turkish bath

The tepidarium

View from the caldarium to the tepidarium

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Other Turkish baths in private houses

Other Turkish baths in London


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

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