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Yor ‘avin a Turkish

From the Cockney rhyming slang, Turkish Bath (laugh)

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, said the preacher John Wesley in the late 1790s and it was a sentiment that wealthy Victorians took to heart in the middle of the 19th century.

City Bath House circa 1860

Victorian plumbing catalogues abound with the latest gadgets for the home, but what did a typical City gent do if he found himself in need of freshening up after whiling away a day at the office? By the early 1800s Bath Houses had started to open around the City of London. The first was a small building in the middle of Bishopsgate; situated close to the Stock Exchange and Lloyds it had a ready made clientele. By the middle of the 19th century these Bath Houses had evolved into Turkish Baths and there were many spread across the capital. There were baths in Russell Square in Bloomsbury, Northumberland Avenue near Charing Cross, Pall Mall in St James, the Royal Automobile Club on the Strand, Ironmonger Row in the north of the City, and Queensway, just north of Hyde Park.

Dr James Culverwell

These baths were popular and some still plied their trade into the 1950s but none remain except for the Bishopsgate baths which back in the early 1820s were referred to as New Broad Street Baths. Towards the middle of the century it was owned and run by a Dr Culverwell, marketing them as Medical Baths. A year later he had also opened an establishment in Argyll Place near to Oxford Circus and they continued to trade until 1860, Dr Culverwell died in 1852 but the business was continued by his widow Anne, who sold to an undisclosed company. By 1882 the Bishopsgate baths were being run by a company called Jones & Co who three years later fully refurbished the premises. One of their brochures states “Better baths have replaced the now obsolete forms, and the rooms have been enlarged and thoroughly ventilated, thereby removing all those drawbacks which passed muster in bygone years, but which are now no longer up to the present scientific standard.”

The baths were open from seven in the morning until nine at night. A ‘plain hot-air bath, with shower’ cost 3/6d and the “complete process” cost 4/-. Also available were perfumed vapour, Russian vapour, Vichy, and sulphur vapour baths. There were scented showers, together with ascending and descending jets and spinal douches. To put these prices into context a lowly clerk working at a City of London institution would take home in the region of 21 shillings per week, so it is unlikely that he would be in a position to spend around a fifth of his weekly wage on a visit to the baths. I have read an account of a clerks weekly expenditure which comes in at around 19/3d, leaving just over a shilling spare, so the baths were obviously targeted at the wealthier end of the spectrum.

Shortly after the refurbishment the baths were bought by Henry and James Forder Nevill who already owned four similar establishments in London. Between 1893-95 they demolished the original structure and built the building that survives to this day. It was designed by the architect G Harold Elphick, who modelled the design on the 19th-century shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

The baths closed for normal use in the 1950s and remained empty until the 1970s when they were “rediscovered”. The building is now called the Victorian Bath House, used as a venue for private events. The building came through the Second World War unscathed and more miraculously evaded the developers bull dozer in the 1980s when Bishopsgate was redeveloped. The building is now Grade II listed.

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