This is a beautiful book. Responding to the title and glancing at the abundance of sumptuous illustrations, the modern reader, accustomed to indoor plumbing as a standard feature in every house, may be tempted to think that this is an exploration of a sybaritic (though immaculate) luxury. It is much, much more. The physical beauty of this book is not to be minimized: it is large and dense with illustrations, charts, and diagrams, all of which serve the text well. The author’s style is straightforward, clear and enhanced by the use of terms as they were used then. The curious are well served by extensive notes, references, indices, and the associate website

The first Victorian Turkish bath was built in 1856, the last in 1981. Since about 75 per cent of them were built during the reign of Queen Victoria, it is fair to consider them a Victorian phenomenon. The baths had wide geographic distribution, but never widespread use. For those who could afford both the time and the cost, they offered hygiene and relief from pain, a feature not to be taken for granted. The first was built near Cork in Ireland, followed by baths in the industrial north of England, then Scotland, then the Midlands, and London.

Two bathhouses from The Victorian Web: Left to right: (a) The Wells and Camden Wash Houses and Baths (1888) (b) Camberwell Public Baths (1890-91).

There had been other forms of wet therapies in use, such as wrapping the patient in cold wet towels. [People came to prefer the dry, warm rooms of the Turkish bath – imagine!] There was also the use of the moist heat of what were called Russian baths, similar to the modern sauna. What characterized the Turkish baths was the series of experiences, including massage (and here the author uses the contemporary term “shampoo”), cold and hot showers, and dry rooms ranging from warm to hot to very hot.

All of this required special construction. It was essential to generate sufficient heat safely, to insulate each type of room appropriately, to design the right traffic flow, and all of this to be consistent with contemporary ideas of modesty and the aesthetic aura of the exotic. The author provides detailed, rigorous and extensive descriptions of the physical structures throughout the book, dominating the text. This makes the book particularly satisfying for those interested in architecture, construction, and the associated technical challenges of a special purpose building. For readers less interested in the engineering mastery that these baths display, the illustrations of the finished spaces offer a visual treat that the floor plans may not. [See floor plans, immediately below]

Left: Winner of a competition for baths in Chelsea thatw as never built. Right: Mile End Baths: part of the first floor plan. Courtesy London Metropolitan Archives, City of London. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

There were two of particular interest. One was the impact of the Foreign Affairs Committees (FAC’s). These were public committees formed by middle-class citizens in the 1830s whose goal was to influence foreign affairs. One of their fears was the threat of an expansionist Russia. Linked to that was their view that the best counterforce was Turkey (as the Crimean War demonstrated), hence things Turkish were to be valued and appreciated. A driving force in the FAC’s and in the establishment of Turkish baths was David Urquhart. (It’s worth noting that while the foreign affairs professionals considered him an ill informed nuisance, Karl Marx respected his opinions.) It was no accident that the term Turkish bath was used, and the architecture and décor of the baths deliberately evocative of the exotic. None were specific copies of any particular building, but the design, the richness of details, from archways to tiles to glass windows, were all meant to convey to the British bather, that this beauty came from Turkey. This was true even of baths designed to serve the working poor. None were simply utilitarian. [See illustrations pp. xiv, xv.] The aesthetic was meant to persuade as well as to please.

Another dominant feature in the development of the Turkish baths was the changing views of health and hygiene. It can be hard to remember that this linkage is a fairly modern assumption. Here the role of a few dedicated physicians was immensely important, not just in establishing some of the baths, but in serving as publicists both to the public and to their fellow professionals. That they overstated the claims was not surprising. (We still hear of cure-alls about this foods or that vitamin based on almost no evidence.) Indoor plumbing, even in wealthy households was not widespread. The enactment of the Public Baths and Wash-houses Acts of 1847 and 1848 enabled (though did not require) local authorities to build baths at public expense. This is clearly a demonstration of the recognition that cleanliness was linked to public health. At the other extreme was the advertisement of London hotel that their Turkish baths were “the largest and most luxurious in London” while the same hotel only one bedroom in seven had a bathroom.

There were many types of baths: private Turkish baths for the wealthy, baths in lunatic asylums (the term then in use) for solace for the patients, the inclusion in some baths of Mikvahs for observant Jewish women, “first class” and “second class” baths, separate entrances and schedules for men and women, and so on. In describing the baths, this books describes many aspects of society. One simple example was the barrier to women using baths, no matter how low the usage fee: women of all classes had little or no discretionary money. In many ways, the baths simply reflected the norms and mores of the time.

While not the major focus of the book, there are gems throughout. Agatha Christie, the famed mystery writer, generated her own mystery when she disappeared for ten days. It was later claimed that she was at the Harrogate Hydropathic. Conan Doyle’s story The adventure of the illustrious client describes the Turkish bath as the place where Sherlock Holmes was “less reticent and more human than anywhere else.” While this may seem like a frivolous comment, it does speak to the genuine sense of relief and comfort the baths provided. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the U.S. but gave gifts of gratitude to his hometown, Dunfermline in Scotland. These were public Turkish baths and a gymnasium.

Manchester’s Victoria Public Baths, winner of the first BBC2 Restoration Award. Photograph courtesy Aidan O’Rourke.

As hot and cold running water became standard in almost all homes, the need (though not the appeal) for public baths of all sorts disappeared. Reliable pain killing drugs replaced the role of the baths as solace. Still, some Turkish baths remain. The author provides a succinct summary of the various factors affecting the modern status of baths, both their decline and their lingering appeal. [See Manchester’s Victoria Public Baths shown above.]

Related Material


Shifrin, Malcolm. Victorian Turkish Baths. Swindon: Historic England, 2015. Hardback. xviii + 366 pp. ISBN 978-1-84802-230-0. £40.00

Created 6 July 2016