Turkish Baths, Bishopsgate

Above: Looking west (towards Old Broad Street) at the building which is now used as a functions venue. The ‘star and crescent’ is just visible above the onion-shaped cupula.

There was a time when the wealthy men of London – and also the women – really knew how to relax and enjoy life. One way was by taking a Turkish bath. The whole experience was lavish in the extreme. If anyone was to enjoy such an experience today, the steam would almost certainly be a problem because you can imagine the wealthy gent sitting there thumbing his iPhone. This was an experience savoured by Victorians and Edwardians in London – as well as many other cities – which lasted into the middle of the 20th century. In London, there were Turkish baths in Russell Square; Turkish baths in Northumberland Avenue; a swimming pool and Turkish baths in Pall Mall, at the Royal Automobile Club; Turkish baths in Ironmonger Row, a street which runs north from the church of St Luke, Old Street; and Turkish baths at Porchester Spa, Queensway, just north of Hyde Park. The list is not complete.

The Turkish baths near Bishopsgate were also referred to as ‘New Broad Street Turkish Baths’. The thoroughfare called New Broad Street is actually the western continuation of the path through St Botolph’s churchyard on the western side of Old Broad Street.

There had been baths of one kind or another on the Bishopsgate site since 1817. By 1847, Dr Robert James Culverwell was providing Medical Baths there and a year later there were baths in Argyll Place, near Oxford Circus. Both these establishments, known as the Argyll Baths, were continued for about eight years by the widow of Dr James – Ann Eliza Culverwell – after his death in 1852. By March 1860, they were both owned by Argyll Baths, who added Turkish baths and renamed them ‘The Argyll Turkish Baths’ and ‘The New Broad Street Turkish Baths’. They changed hands again at a date before 1883, this time coming under the ownership of a firm called Jones & Co and, in 1885, both establishments were refurbished.

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, descending and spinal douches.

A few years later they were sold to Henry and James Forder Nevill who already owned more similar establishments in London than any other company. This was their fifth such acquisition. Between 1893 and 1895 Nevill demolished the old baths at Bishopsgate to build new baths which rivalled those in Northumberland Avenue (built 1884). The new baths at Bishopsgate were designed by the architect G Harold Elphick, using Craven, Dunhill tiles. Elphick modelled the design on the 19th-century shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

The site was cramped but a good one – being so close to Liverpool Street Station, the Stock Exchange and Lloyds. These Turkish baths were clearly designed to attract the ‘City gent’. The baths do not appear to have been open for women bathers, probably because the site was so small, with no space for separate changing rooms.

The baths themselves were partly underneath the original New Broad Street House (now demolished) and partly underneath Alderman’s Walk (the former name of the footpath which crosses the churchyard. The entrance forms part of a kiosk in the upper portion of which were water tanks, masked by a Moorish style wall, and surmounted by a similarly styled onion-shaped cupola, decorated with a star and crescent.

Entering the kiosk, the bather went down a winding staircase, lined by tin-glazed earthenware (fäience) tiles to the entrance vestibule, where clients bought the ticket.

Three of the Nevills baths (they omitted the final letter ‘e’ of Neville when naming their baths) charged 2/6d before 6.00 pm in the evening and 1/6d afterwards. But the newer baths at Northumberland Avenue were rather more expensive – 3/6d before 7.00 pm in the evening and 2/- afterwards. It is possible that being so close to the Stock Exchange and Lloyds, the Nevilles thought that City gents could afford the higher rate at their New Broad Street establishment also.

The baths closed for normal use in the 1950s and remained empty and disused for several decades. After various owners using the premises for several purposes, including a restaurant,, the building is now called the ‘Victorian Bath House’, used as an unusual venue for private events. The small two-storey building – one at ground level and one below ground – is Grade II listed. The address of the building is 8 Bishopsgate Churchyard.

This is one of the more unusual buildings in the Bishopsgate area – standing beside the footpath through the large churchyard of St Botolph Without Bishopsgate. It escaped being bombed during the Second World War. An even greater feat was to escape being demolished due to extensive office development in the locality which has taken place from the 1980s onwards and continues into the 21st century.

-ENDS-

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