KEEPING CLEAN: VICTORIAN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE BATHS

With very little access to clean water, the Victorian working classes faced an uphill struggle when it came to keeping themselves clean and healthy. They were given a helping hand when the 1846 Baths and Wash-houses Act was passed. This legislation was a response to the successful experiments in providing public baths in Liverpool and the Glasshouse Baths near London Docks. The Act meant that corporations, town councils and parishes could fund the establishment of public baths and wash-houses through the rates, although they could not be forced to do so.

By 1865, numerous large towns had public baths and they were popular wherever they were established. When Coventry’s new baths opened in 1852, there were “upwards of 1,000 bathers on the day of opening”. At every public baths, there were separate entrances for men and women. Inside were baths with private facilities, as well as public and private plunging and/or swimming baths. All had first and second class options, and in later years, third class was also available.  

Men’s Private Baths – Hornsey Road Baths and Wash-Houses (from Living London, 1901)

The Baths and Wash-houses Act fixed the maximum fees bathers could be charged: the lowest class warm bath was 2d, while the cold version was 1d. Open-air baths were also 1d. For this price, they received clean water and the use of a towel. Higher fees were charged for the more superior facilities, which in a first-class private bath might include a carpet, chair, mirror, brush and comb.

The private baths were enclosed in a compartment and they were usually of the ‘slipper’ type. In many cases, there were no taps inside so the attendant controlled the temperature of the water from outside. In other baths, particularly first and second class ones, the bathers had taps inside the rooms.

An article in Living London (1901) mentions a particular bather who made full use of the bathing and washing facilities: “At Westminster they tell a tale of a certain flower-seller: Every Saturday evening, week in, week out, comes this girl, clad just as she would be when crying “Penny er bunch” on the kerb-stone. She enters from the street by the ‘wash-house’ door, and proceeds to a private room, where she takes off all her clothes but her skirt and jacket,, and puts her front locks into curlers. Then she hires a trough, mangle, etc. for an hour, submits her underwear to the cleansing process, finally hanging it up to air; that done, she buys a ticket for a twopenny hot bath, bathes herself, puts on her clean clothes, combs her fringe, and for the expenditure of threepence-halfpenny emerges as good an imitation of ‘new woman’ as anybody else could compass at any price!”

Teaching Schoolboys to Swim – Kensington Baths (from Living London, 1901)

For those who could afford it, the ultimate in luxury was the Turkish bath which were available in most large cities. According to Living London, “it is practised in perfection at the Hammam (or Turkish bath) in Jermyn Street, St James’s. It costs four shillings, and it takes two hours; but nothing yet invented by Londoners, or annexed from abroad, has ever come near the delicious experience or the restorative quality of the Turkish bath. One enters, a world-weary wreck, tired from travelling, working, pleasuring, maybe, rheumatic; one sits, or reclines, in a succession of hot-air rooms, each of the eight hotter than the last – varying from 112 degrees F to 280 degrees F – until a sufficient perspiration has been attained.”

Turkish Bath, Jermyn Street – Shampooing Room (from Living London, 1901)

“Then one is conducted to the shampooing room, and whilst reposing on a marble slab, one is massaged by light-handed attendants. That process is followed by a series of brushes and different soaps; and after a variety of shower douches and a plunge into cold water, the bath is complete. A sojourn in a lofty cooling room, a quiet smoke, or a light meal, and one sallies forth to a new being. A visit to the gallery of the attendant hairdressers makes perfection more perfect.”

Turkish Bath, Jermyn Street – Cooling Room (from Living London, 1901)

Living London recommended the vapour bath (obtainable at the Marylebone and a few other public baths) as “an excellent substitute for the Turkish should limited time be a consideration. Various medicated baths are also used by a section of Londoners – such as pine, bran, sulphur – to cure certain ailments, as alternatives to foreign springs, etc. whilst electricity is impelled through the water at the request of some others. This sort of bath is occasionally used in conjunction with the Swedish system of treatment (massage and exercises by means of mechanical appliances), now much practised in the Metropolis.”

While these luxurious Turkish and vapour baths were beyond the reach of the working classes, those in regular employment could afford to use the public or private baths once a week. As The Graphic reported, “At the cost of a pint of the commonest beer, the working man may enjoy an invigorating swim or a wholesome cleansing in a private warm bath.”

VICTORIAN PATENT MEDICINES

Imagine if you could visit Victorian England and take a sneaky peek inside the cupboards of an ordinary house – and wouldn’t we all love to do that! Chances are you’d find numerous pills and potions designed to treat every ailment under the sun. The Victorians constantly worried about their health and that of their family – for good reason. Epidemics of infectious diseases came and went in never-ending cycles of typhus and typhoid, cholera, smallpox, measles and scarlet fever. Add in respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, which were the major killers from the 1880s, and you get a good idea of how unhealthy it was to live in Victorian England. Even catching a simple chill could lead to a more serious, life-threatening illness. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the Victorians lapped up the claims of drug manufacturers to cure all ills. The newspapers were full of advertisements proclaiming the success of X, Y and Z to treat conditions like skin diseases, gout and digestive complaints. Many of the Victorians’ ‘tummy’ problems were probably a result of food adulteration, such as the addition of alum, ground bones and plaster to bread, and the extra ingredients of vitriol and cocolus indicus in beer. For the wealthy upper classes who ate large meals made up of multiple courses, indigestion was inevitable. 

Patent medicines became hugely popular to solve digestive complaints and one of the most well-known examples was Holloway’s Pills, invented by Thomas Holloway, the son of a baker. Advertisements claimed the pills could ‘strengthen the stomach, and promote the healthy action of the liver, purifying the blood, cleansing the skin, bracing the nerves and invigorating the system’. 

Here’s the front of a trade card for Holloway’s Pills and Ointments:

And here’s the reverse with Holloway’s claims for what his medicines could treat:

The pills and the ointment were hugely successful, not just in Britain but across the Empire. They made Thomas Holloway a multi-millionaire and when he died in 1883, he had amassed a personal estate of £596,335 plus freehold properties. After his death, the pills were analysed and found to contain nothing more than aloe, saffron and myrhh – a traditional herbal remedy.