Victorian Baths And Washhouses
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Victorian Baths And Washhouses

In the 19th century, public baths and washhouses were built across Britain. We think of washing, maintaining the cleanliness of oneÂ’s own body, as a private act, but it became a major public concern in the Victorian era. Public baths were buildings that allowed BritainÂ’s urban populace to perform a private function in the interest of public health.

In the 19th century, public baths and washhouses were built across Britain. We think of washing, maintaining the cleanliness of one’s own body, as a private act, but it became a major public concern in the Victorian era. Public baths were buildings that allowed Britain’s urban populace to perform a private function in the interest of public health.

In the Victorian period, Britain became the world’s first industrialised nation. Towns and cities expanded as people flooded in looking for work. Cities were dangerously overcrowded and the working classes were living in unsanitary conditions. Often, there was no running water in these homes i.e. no facilities for getting washed. This led to anxieties about the state of the working classes, who were known as the ‘Great Unwashed’.

Why would the upper classes care about hygiene among the working class? Firstly, they were concerned about contagious diseases that could spread. Secondly, ill health could prevent people from working, which could reduce productivity and damage the British economy. The Victorian ideal was that of a healthy mind in a healthy body. In response to these fears, the government passed the Baths and Wash Houses Act of 1846. The Act was introduced by Sir George Grey, but the main case for it was made in the House of Lords by the Bishop of London. Britain became the first European nation since Ancient Rome to lay the foundations for the building of public baths. Hundreds were built across the country. By 1915, there were 343 public baths and 69 washhouses maintained by public authorities. Almost all towns with a population of 50,000 had some bathing provision (Sheard, 2000).

Proposed baths and washhouses at St Pancras

The internal division of space reveals the motives behind these institutions. They were divided by class, gender and ethnicity. Most had first and second class baths – they were socially segregated. The buildings had separate entrances for men and women, as well as separate baths. This was meant to prevent sexual impropriety. Some had separate baths for Jews – a racial division hinting at anti-Semitism. So the design of these buildings reveals Victorian anxieties about class, gender and race as well as public heath.

Newcastle built public baths in 1839. These were designed by Newcastle’s best architect, John Dobson. Anothe example, Gibson Street baths were opened in 1907 in a working class part of town. The door on the left was for men and the door on the right was for women. The men’s entrance is decorated with tiled panels showing swimming scenes and buxom mermaids. Significantly, the women’s entrance lobby has plain white tiling, which suggests that women occupied lower status during the Victorian era. Public baths and washhouses were seen as a solution to both hygiene and general health. It helped to resolve the deficiencies of working class housing, especially the lack of running water. This highlights the boundaries between public and private life.

Design

An important aspect of bath houses was their design. They were firmly rooted in the Victorian penchant for the ‘exotic’ the ‘oriental’. Western culture has had a longstanding fascination with the East, which has been perceived as decadent, sensuous and mysterious. The design of baths reflects these Western fantasies and many included Turkish baths inspired by the Orient.

Primary sources can be used to analyse these buildings. I found these images in an architectural journal from 1870. This is a public bath in Ashton-under-Lyme, designed by Paull & Robinson. The exotic design was influenced by Italian Renaissance churches, with banded brickwork and a campanile tower. The interior was a vast space with cast iron columns and a central swimming pool.

Public baths in Ashton-under-Lyme

Public baths in Ashton-under-Lyme

A public bath in Westminster was built as part of a library complex and designed by F.J. Smith (1891). The entrance features sculpted panels of swimmers by Henry Poole. The facade has separate entrances for men and women, but the swimmers are all male - it was felt that men and women should not mix even in allegorical sculpture.

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Comments (3)

HA I thought bath houses were strictly a social event and learned much from your historic article.thank you

Ranked #11 in Architecture

I have seen public bath and toilets here when I was too young, but never been inside, it was just like as big as a small chapel. I remember that it was located near the railways. Excellent work Michael.

Nice presentation!

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