The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY
EXTREMELY NON-HOMOEROTIC MODE OF RELAXATION
This topic comes up every now and again and benefits from having a little general data added.
In the period in question, baths weren’t primarily a homoerotic / gay thing. (Not that gay men couldn’t use the baths for facilitating their lifestyle… certainly it could be done, if one was careful. But that wasn’t the baths’ primary context.) What’s important to remember is that indoor plumbing of the type we’re used to wasn’t necessarily a given in the 1890s, even in houses in big cities. (And even less so in flats, which were seen as a budget option that a gentleman would dump as soon as possible. Not Holmes, though; he got comfortable there on Baker Street in the rooms he shared with Watson, and declined to move on even when he started pulling down the big four- and five-figure paycheques from troubled kings and distressed industrialists. Still, some people’s disdain on discovering that Sherlock Holmes was operating out of a flat rather than a house is spelled out specifically in Canon, and Gatiss and Moffat purposely riff on that in Sherlock by the pointed way Mycroft comes down on the “B” when mentioning Sherlock’s address.)
Your digs might have had a flush toilet if you were lucky, but the presence of the plumbing for that didn’t necessarily guarantee any bath facilities fancier than a collapsible tub downstairs in the scullery, near the household pump and the boiler associated with the cookstove. Daily casual washing was done in one’s bedroom with a jug and a basin, mostly, unless you were wealthy enough to have servants to bring the tub up to your room, heat all that water, and haul it up the stairs.
So the amenity of having big luxurious city baths where other people dealt with the logistics of water and heating and whatnot was a big deal – all part and parcel of the Victorian Cleanliness Movement, which was huge. I did a post on that elsewhere a while back: I’ll duplicate that data here.
Some data about the bath that Holmes and Watson were visiting:
After paying, the bather continued on to a cooling-room decorated in the style of the Alhambra in Spain. A fountain of cold filtered water, with a Doulton basin, reinforced
the Moorish ambience of the interior.
The room was divided into a series of divans, or cubicles, each of which was provided with couches, an elaborate mirror, and an occasional table. The ceiling was clad in cream tinted panels with coloured borders, and the floors were covered with soft richly patterned carpets.
Leading off from the cooling-room were three hot rooms, each with marble mosaic floors, and tiled walls and ceilings. Marble seats, stained-glass windows, and wall alcoves in faïence, gave the rooms a comfortable and luxuriant air. The calidarium (the hottest room) could be raised to a temperature of
270°F, the tepidarium to 180°F, and the frigidarium to 140°F. All were lit by electricity.
As in other Nevill establishments, fresh hot air came through a grated opening below the ceiling, while the stale air was extracted through ventilators in the seats near the
floor level, or gratings in the floor itself.
There was also a vapour bath of marble with hot water pipes (under the seat) throwing out fine jets of steam, producing instant perspiration for those bathers unaffected by the dry heat of the Turkish bath. The adjacent shampooing-room was also fitted with marble slabs, and tiled throughout. The bather then had a choice of showers (rose, douche, needle, or spiral douche) after which there was a cold plunge pool, 30ft. long and 5ft. deep, lined with marble, mosaic, and tiles, with a decorative frieze.
The ceilings of the hot rooms and the shampooing-room were of enamelled iron upon a solid roof of cement, and the windows were treble glazed to prevent rapid
transmission of heat. The design and colour of the various apartments differed, and a richly modelled stalactite cornice surrounded the cooling-room and the other main rooms.
At the top of the oak staircase leading to the baths below, and throughout the relaxation areas, were walnut screens with panels of coloured leaded glass in
peacock blue and gold.8
…Here’s a double cubicle in one of the drying / cooling areas of the bath. This could actually have been the spot ACD had in mind. Click here for more info.
The big baths in London were in serious competition with each other in terms of the facilities they offered their clients. You want to look at the images of the interiors of some of these places. And the ads.
Thirty thousand quid is a LOT of money in 1890s London. These people were angling for the high end of the local clientele – businessmen who want to get together to relax and network*, and well-off ladies with the same in mind. This is nothing like the rather bare-bones civic baths meant for the working classes: this is what we would now think of as a spa.
Here’s an ad from another big London bath that due to popular demand had opened up a separate women’s bath facility so it wouldn’t have to do staggered hours at the main one.
…For those interested in some more background:
…This is just a hint of the resources that are out there. A fascinating subject…
YouTube Bonus: Michael Palin has a Turkish Bath.
*The ads suggest that the baths down by the City charged more, on the general principle that the gents working in banking and other finance could bear the strain of paying a little extra for the privilege of steaming themselves while they networked.