The early and mid-19th century outbreaks of cholera helped to concentrate the public mind on hygiene. The impact of the 1832 epidemic led an Irish physician, Dr Richard Barter, to become interested in the ‘water cure’ and open St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment at Blarney, Co. Cork.
Barter discovered the Islamic hammams of Morocco and Turkey in a quirky travel book called The Pillars of Hercules by the Scottish politician and former diplomat David Urquhart. Barter immediately recognised the therapeutic potential of these baths, and invited Urquhart to St Ann’s to help him build one. Barter also realised that hot dry air would be more therapeutically beneficial, especially in cases of complaints such as rheumatism and gout, than the steamy vapour of the hammam, and went back to the ancient Roman baths for inspiration.
His first ‘improved’ Turkish bath, using relatively dry hot air, was available to his patients in 1856. The following year, Urquhart helped build the first such bath in Manchester. While Barter was responsible for its rapid spread throughout Ireland, Urquhart, concentrating more on the value of the bath as a cleansing agent to improve personal hygiene, was responsible for its spread throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, the Empire, and the United States.
This is the bath which became known as the Victorian Turkish Bath. By 1860 —a period of less than five years—its exemplar was already considered to be ‘a type of bath in which the bather sweats freely in a room heated by hot dry air (or in a series of two or three such rooms maintain-ed at progressively higher temperatures), usually followed by a cold plunge, a full body wash and massage, and a final period of relaxation in a cooling-room.’1 In Victorian Turkish baths, the body wash and massage, taken together, were known as shampooing.
While simpler versions were soon to be found in the country and town houses of the wealthy, larger commercial ones were opened by companies, family businesses and individual proprietors. The 1846 Baths and Washhouses Act had allowed local authorities to build hot and cold slipper baths and uncovered swimming pools; several of these later had Turkish baths added. During the following 150 years many hundreds of Victorian, or Victorian style Turkish baths were opened in the British Isles, but in 2021 only twelve of these remain open.
While Kent had fewer Turkish baths than many northern counties, they were no less interesting than those built elsewhere. Many well-known people used them including F C Burnand, Wilkie Collins, and Edward Linley Sambourne, while George Grossmith not only used them, but also owned shares in one of them, The Savoy.
The first Turkish bath we hear of in Kent was a private one in Bifrons Mansion House at Patrixbourne.2 Its foundation stone was laid in March 1860 by the Dowager Marchioness Conyngham but, apart from a decorator’s bill which included painting the bath,3 little else is so far known about it.
A number of baths were proposed but never progressed any further. Between 1860 and 1863, for example, there was much campaigning in the local newspaper correspondence columns on the need for Turkish baths in Folkestone,4 but to no avail.
More hopefully, in 1877, the Dover Harbour Board approved plans for baths designed by J T Anson for a Mr Adcock which were expected to open the following year, but the scheme fell through. The three-floor building, its frontage ‘style being ornamental Byzantine’, was to have included a swimming pool, slipper baths, Turkish bath, and a flat for the proprietor or manager.[^ref7]
The first Victorian Turkish bath in Kent successfully to open to the public was part of the Saline Spa designed by Edward Pugin, son of the more famous Augustus Welby Pugin, as part of the Granville Hotel in Ramsgate.[^ref8] This opened on 24 September 1870, was still open in 1938, and possibly even later.
This was followed by baths in Tunbridge Wells (1875), Woolwich* (1876), Folkestone (1895), Dover (1903), and two in Margate (1904 and 1927)
All Kent’s Victorian and Victorian style Turkish baths had closed before the beginning of the Second World War. Their relatively short lifespan is no different from that in most other counties.
Such baths rapidly became fashionable and popular because 19th century medicine was unable to cure or even alleviate the pain of many complaints, and at a time when few homes had even basic washing facilities. That has increasingly changed as the century changed. And in the case of the more expensive establishments, there were fewer patrons with time to spare after the major social changes brought about by the 1914-18 War.
Beamish, Richard. The cold water cure: as practised by Vincent Priessnitz, at Gräfenberg, in Silesia (London: Highley, 1843)
Urquhart, David. The Pillars of Hercules, or, a narrative of travels in Spain & Morocco in 1848 (London : Bentley, 1850) Vol.2; pp.9-60
References and notes
‘Proposed public baths and washhouses for Margate’ Folkestone Chronicle (15 Dec 1866) p.5
[^ref6]: Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal (13 May 1876) p.2
[^ref7]: ‘The Dover Bathing Establishment’ Whitstable Times (21 Apr 1877) p.3
[^ref8]: ‘The Saline Spa [advertisement]’ East Kent Times and Mail (15 Dec 1870) p.2
*Woolwich was within the Kent boundary at the time.
Shifrin, Malcolm. Victorian Turkish Baths (Swindon: Historic England, 2015) p.3 ↩
Cork Daily Herald (23 Mar 1860) p.3 ↩
Thomas, B M. A History of Bifrons Mansion House (Kent Archaeological Society, 2017) p.324 ↩
At least ten references to correspondence in the columns of the Folkestone Chronicle and the South Eastern Gazette between 1860 and 1863 have been found in the British Newspaper Archive under the heading ‘Folkestone Turkish bath’ ↩