The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Bermondsey turkish baths were “quite fabulous” (1927)

From the 1840s onwards, concerns surrounding the physical and moral condition of London’s poor impelled local authorities to construct public baths, in an attempt to and cleanse and civilize the urban “residuum.” Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough Council first opened baths for local dockers in 1853. In 1927 they were replaced with a new “modern establishment” in Grange Road, which contained two swimming baths, 126 slipper baths in cubicles, and Turkish and Russian baths. As well as keeping people clean, the Bermondsey baths quickly became a place for men to meet for sex and socializing. By the 1950s Bermondsey was “famous” in queer circles, achieving literary acclaim in Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile (1953). Kenneth Williams “went [there] for traditional interest” in 1958 and found it “quite fabulous.”

I never managed to check this, but a man that I interviewed in the late-1990s suggested that Bermondsey was “protected from the police by gangsters… the Kray brothers and so on… the [baths] paid the gangsters to keep the police away.” It makes in a lot of ways—and he probably knew more about postwar queer London than anyone else.

The photograph is taken from Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough Council, Public Baths and Washhouses. Souvenir of the Opening of the New Central Baths (London, MBC publication, 1927).


One comment on “Bermondsey turkish baths were “quite fabulous” (1927)

  1. 76jermyn
    August 26, 2013

    The Daily Mirror went to town on these baths when they opened, with the front page headline BERMONDSEY’S NEW £150,000 PALACE OF BATHS. Undeneath were two photographs. The first, of the cooling-room, was captioned

    The luxurious Turkish baths, where the charge will be 3s. 6d.’

    The second, an exterior view, was captioned,

    Bermondsey’s palatial new baths, built by the Socialist-controlled Council at a cost of over £150,000, and described by the mayor, Mr G Catchpole, at the opening ceremony on Saturday, as ‘better than the best.’ The building comprises marble halls, first and second-class swimming pools with stained-glass windows, private, Turkish and Russian baths, a recreation-room and baths for babies. The rates in Bermondsey are 22s. 6d. in the £.

    Today, alas, all the Turkish baths are gradually being closed.

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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