Bray’s Turkish Baths

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2007), News, Volume 15

Bray’s Turkish baths—built in an extravagant Moorish style by William Dargan for €£10,000. (A pictorial history of Bray, Co. Wicklow, Vol. 2)

Bray’s Turkish baths—built in an extravagant Moorish style by William Dargan for €£10,000. (A pictorial history of Bray, Co. Wicklow, Vol. 2)

In the mid-nineteenth century a new kind of Turkish bath was pioneered in Ireland, one that on the Continent is still called the ‘Roman-Irish bath’. This Victorian ‘improved Turkish Bath’ was modelled on the Roman system and relied on a flow of dry rather than moist air in the series of progressively hotter rooms in which the bather sweated; the principle was that dry air allows bathers to withstand high temperatures for longer periods than does moisture-laden air. The therapy came to be recommended for the treatment of rheumatism and gout, even for tuberculosis, as well as for promoting a feeling of general well-being. The very first Turkish bath of this type was opened in 1856 by Dr Richard Barter, a London-trained physician, at his hydrotherapy (water-cure) establishment at St Anne’s Hill, Blarney, Co. Cork.
Barter opened one of his new Turkish baths in Bray, Co. Wicklow, in 1859, the year in which he took out a patent for his system. Bray at this time was in the grip of a building boom: the railway to Dublin had been opened five years before, and a group of businessmen were engaged in transforming the existing small sea-bathing town into a major seaside resort on the English pattern. This group was spearheaded by William Dargan, the famous railway entrepreneur and creator of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853.
Dargan was the link with St Anne’s—he had apparently sampled the Cork bath—and he joined with Barter in providing this relatively untried facility as one of various amenities for the new Bray. While the baths at St Anne’s were part of a pre-existing complex, those at Bray were completely new, and they were erected on a major new road, Quinsborough Road, just opened up to link Bray’s Main Street with the then all-important railway station and the sea front.
Bray’s baths were built in an extravagant Moorish style and they cost Dargan £10,000, a considerable sum. Sir John Benson, architect of the Great Industrial Exhibition and so closely associated with Dargan, designed the exterior. The building was 180ft long by 70ft wide (55m x 21m approx.), the base was of cut granite from the quarries at Dalkey some seven miles away, and the walls were of red and white bricks, laid in an ornate chequered pattern, with tall minarets at the corners. At the back there was a 70ft-high ornamental chimney to disperse the fumes from the coke-fed furnace. The main entrance was onto Quinsborough Road, with lesser entrances at either end to the east and west ‘wings’.
Dr Barter involved his own architect nephew, also Richard Barter, in the design of the interior—in 1856 the younger Barter had visited Rome on his uncle’s behalf to study the ruins of Roman baths. Although pictures of the interior do not appear to have survived, there are two good contemporary descriptions. One is by an English Turkish baths’ enthusiast, Robert Wollaston, in a lecture in Cheltenham only weeks after the Bray baths were opened. The other is by G. R. Powell, author of The official railway handbook to Bray, published in 1860, who devotes several pages to his visit to Bray’s ‘improved Turkish, or new Irish baths’.
As eulogised by Wollaston, the grand entrance hall—Powell calls it the cooling room—had a dozen small dressing rooms on either side, each with a couch to rest on after the bath. There were other divans ‘for the purposes of reposing, smoking, and conversation’. The ceiling was painted ‘in arabesque, and richly coloured with the favourite Turkish colours—green, red and blue’. Windowpanes of coloured glass diffused the light and added to the kaleidoscope of colours. The floor was laid with small square tiles in an overall pattern ‘in imitation of the pavement of ancient baths’. According to Wollaston there was a marble fountain in the centre surrounded by flowers and ferns, shells and rock-work, though Powell wrote that the centre had a circular ottoman around a mirrored octagonal pillar—Wollaston had presumably not seen the Bray baths as actually completed, if at all.
The warm and hot air rooms had tiled floors, marble seats and domes set with ‘stars of variegated glass’. There were side chambers with tepid and cold-water showers and douche baths. Wollaston said that there were to be attendants in Turkish costume to shampoo the bathers, and that coffee and sherbet, cigars and pipes were to be supplied ‘to complete the whole ceremony of the Turkish mode of bathing’. Baths that Barter opened in Dublin a few months later had attendants in long scarlet dressing gowns and Turkish slippers, and presumably the Bray attendants were similarly dressed. According to Powell, all the attendants had been trained at Blarney.
Powell evidently tried the baths soon after they were opened:

‘Selecting a compartment, we uncase the outer man, for clothes substitute a coloured scarf, apron-wise, cast over our shoulders a loose sheet, not forgetting our wooden clogs, to protect the feet from the heated floors of the baths, and enter, like “sheeted ghosts”, the first heated air room . . . [where the temperature was 100 Fahrenheit] . . . we sit or recline on couches supporting mattresses, chat with the other bathers, and drink plentifully of delicious cold spring water . . . [After fifteen minutes in another hotter room, the bather is shampooed, then] . . . bowls of warm water are poured on his head, a fragrant detergent applied to the skin, and a small hose, connected with a kind of apparatus, plays on him with water of agreeable temperature. This completes the bath.’

Bray’s Turkish baths opened to the public on 2 November 1859. The opening hours were from 6am to 11pm, except for Sundays, when the baths closed for five hours in the middle of the day. There was a choice of public or private bathing, and bathing dresses, sheets and towels were included in the charge of two shillings or three shillings respectively. Shampooing cost sixpence extra, but was not available on Sundays. But it is hard to imagine that the baths were ever full of bathers even that first winter. Bray’s summer visitors were long gone, and although for the first few weeks curious Dubliners probably travelled out by train this journey was very quickly made unnecessary when Dr Barter opened Turkish baths in Lincoln Place, close to Trinity College, in February 1860.
To make matters worse, a major attack on the use of dry rather than humid air in the new Turkish baths appeared in the medical press in January 1860, using the baths at ‘B***’ as an example. The writer claimed that the dry air aggravated his sciatica rather than alleviating it, and that the treatment was actually dangerous to patients. There was a further allegation that in Bray the hot air contained fumes from the coke furnace. The controversy raged, not only in the medical press but also more widely, with Dr Barter and his supporters indignantly refuting the criticisms.
Meanwhile other Turkish baths had been opened by Dr Barter in towns and cities across Ireland: by the early 1860s there were baths, in some places more than one, in Belfast, Cork, Killarney, Limerick, Sligo and Waterford, as well as in Dublin. Most of these were purpose-built and, like Bray’s baths, in Moorish style. But despite this surge in interest countrywide Bray’s Turkish baths were not a success. In the winter of 1862 bathers were offered free entry, and by 1864 Dargan was trying unsuccessfully to sell the baths for £4,000.
By this time the baths were closed, and they were never again to operate as intended. In 1867 a new company converted the building into assembly rooms for concerts and other entertainments, although Dr Barter reopened Turkish baths in one of the ‘wings’, presumably using some of the original small bath rooms and chambers. These baths had a mention in Thom’s Directory alongside the assembly rooms in 1868 and 1869, but then they vanish from the scene. Dr Barter died in 1870 at the age of 68. Other of his baths continued to operate for some decades—for instance the one in Lincoln Place (1859–99) and that in Charles Street, Limerick (1859–86).
In Bray the Turkish baths building survived for another century, but with mixed fortunes. Although it continued in use as assembly rooms, it was described in 1877 as ‘a perfect eyesore’, and later as a ‘speckled elephant’ (as opposed to a white one); in about 1900 the exterior was rendered, obliterating the brick patterns. In the early twentieth century it became a cinema, but finally the building stood derelict, a sad ghost, until the demolition squad arrived in 1980. Now a small, undistinguished shopping precinct occupies the site. If the baths building had survived just a little longer, the current interest in preservation might have assisted in its rescue—to the great enrichment of Bray’s architectural heritage.

Mary Davies is the author of That favourite resort: the story of Bray, Co. Wicklow (Bray, 2007).

Adapted from K. Mary Davies, ‘A lost Victorian treasure—Bray’s Turkish Baths’, Journal of the Bray Cualann Historical Society 5 (2004), 12–18.
With many thanks to Malcolm R. Shifrin; his indispensable account, ‘Victorian Turkish baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline’, can be found at www.victorianturkishbath.org.

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