The Wash Houses, London Metropolitan University, former Whitechapel Baths

LMU events space and home of Frederick Parker furniture collection, formerly the Women's Library, on site of Whitechapel Baths

The Model Establishment, c.1847 to 1871
Contributed by Survey of London on July 27, 2016

Following Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary reports of 1842, a ‘Committee for Baths for the Labouring Classes’ was formed in October 1844 as a result of a high profile public meeting organised to address the issue. The group, based in London and made up of notable citizens, aimed to improve the sanitary conditions of the poor through the construction of publically accessible washing facilities. This gentlemanly enthusiasm for bath houses was spurred on by pressing concerns regarding the ability of the ‘industrious’ classes to rid themselves of ‘personal and domestic dirt’ in order to prevent further outbreaks of cholera. The Committee agreed to make their first specific intervention in Whitechapel and private subscriptions were sought to support the new Baths. This exemplar project was to be sited between Goulston Street on the west and Castle Alley on the east. P. P. Baly was appointed to design the building, Messrs Piper the builder, and work duly began in December 1845. 1

Although a date stone on the Castle Alley façade was inscribed with the year 1846, the Baths were not officially opened until July 1847 and even then only in part. Reliant on public subscriptions and loans, this delay was caused by alterations and additions to Baly’s original design which pushed the total cost up from £15,000 to £23,000. The project reached eventual completion in 1851. Inspecting the Baths, The Builder lauded its ‘Useful’ design, but held that the scheme was entirely devoid of the ‘Beautiful’, disparagingly noting that its appearance was ‘not simply plain and unpretending, but downright ugly.’ Whilst the Committee acknowledged the severe aesthetics, it diverted criticism away from the architect by drawing attention to the lack of financial backing which necessitated such functionalism. On account of funding difficulties, the Committee was forced to abandon its original intention to build four such establishments of several storeys each. The single storey Whitechapel Baths was their only success. 2

The building claimed two principal elevations, both of red-brick construction with white-brick window dressings. The washing department was located and entered from the east with one entrance, for women only (see figure 1). The bathing department was accessed from the west, with separate entrances for men and women. Inside, the accommodation was divided roughly in two, fitted out with ninety-four slipper baths and ninety-six washing places. Slate washing cubicles were arranged in three rows with individual stations facing ‘back-to- back’ in pairs, each supplied with a boiling tub, a washing tub and a drying horse (see figure 2). The sunken cast-iron slipper baths were divided equally between first and second class but two thirds of the baths were assigned to men and one third to women, correctly pre-empting an imbalance of use. Positioned to the north of the Baths, facing onto Goulston Street, a modest ‘plunge’ bath lined with dressing boxes sat below rooms allocated to the superintendent of the establishment. 3

Figure 1: ‘As built’ plan of Baths and Wash-house printed in The Builder, 8 Feb 1851, p.90

As former superintendent of I. K. Brunel’s Hungerford Bridge, Baly drew on his expertise in ironwork to engineer a structure which facilitated the efficient flow of water around the building. The ground floor rested on a basement formed of inverted brick arches and walls tied together with iron rods. Iron columns rose up on these vaults, projecting up to support a slate roof divided into ten bays. Below ground, two coal-fuelled boilers provided hot water and a steam engine enabled it to be pumped up from the underground reservoir to an elevated water tank positioned next to the central brick chimney stack. Gas heated the irons and mechanical ventilation was aided by roof openings. 4

Figure 2: Engraving of women at their washing stations (possibly in Baly’s Westminster Wash-house of 1849), ‘The Pictorial Handbook of London’, 1854, p.255

Fulfilling the ambitions of the Committee, the Baths were judged to be both nationally and world-leading. Indeed, the attention the Whitechapel project attracted influenced Parliament to pass the important ‘Baths and Washhouses Act’ of 1846. Critically this Act gave boroughs and parishes the power to raise rates and borrow public funds to support the construction of public baths to be governed by bodies of commissioners. The Act required that twice as many baths were be provided for the labouring classes as for the upper classes and set out maximum fees of 1d for a cold bath, 2d for a warm one, and 1d for one hour’s use of a washing place. By the time the Whitechapel ‘Model’ reached completion in 1851, seven bath houses had been constructed within London. Reflecting later on its influence, the Illustrated London News noted that either Whitechapel’s design had been ‘unimprovable perfection’ or architects of later establishments had been ‘copying one another with a touching fidelity’. It was reported that representatives from France and Belgium, where Baly worked as resident railway engineer from 1845-49, took up the invitation to inspect the Model. Made more widely known through the distribution of drawings, it was upon the Whitechapel precedent that several bath houses were approved for Paris. Awareness of its success also contributed to the provision of similar facilities in the United States. The Model was however not the first of its kind in England, nor indeed London. It followed after a small-scale experiment at London Docks in Glasshouse Yard and, as a result of the delays during the construction of Whitechapel’s Baths, the bath house at St Pancras opened before it in 1846. 5

In spite of these considerable successes, the ghost of financial difficulty haunted the Whitechapel Baths far beyond the construction stage and the Model struggled to make a sustainable turnover. The challenges facing the establishment made it hard to find men willing to partake in its governance. Seeking a way forward, in 1854 the Baths were offered to the City Corporation for £13,000, the sum of its liabilities. The transfer did not come to fruition however and the Baths struggled on. Crippled by debt, they were closed in March 1871, intended for sale. A six-year period of disuse followed while campaigners sought to protect the institution, and the building fell into near dereliction. As an exemplar, the Baths proved a success. As proof of the long term financial viability of bath houses, they did not. 6

  1. Illustrated London News, 19 Oct 1844, p.256; The Builder (hereafter B), 8 Feb 1851, p.83-4; DSR 

  2. B, 7 April 1854, p.167; 29 May 1847, p.249; 3 Oct 1846, p.470 

  3. B, 3 Oct 1846, p.470 

  4. Ibid.; BDCE, Vol 2, p.45 

  5. B, 8 Feb 1851, p.83-4; 18 Oct 1851, p.664; 15 May 1847, p.229; R. O. Allsop, The British Architect, 15 Jan 1892, p.44; A. Campbell, Report on Public Baths and Wash-houses in the United Kingdom, 1918, p. 4; ILN, 2 July 1853, p.522; P. P. Baly, Baths and Wash-houses for the Labouring Classes, 1852; H. G. Bohn, The Pictorial Handbook of London, 1854, p.256; M. T. Williams, Washing ‘the Great Unwashed: Public Baths in Urban America, 1840-1920, 1991; BDCE, Vol 2, p.45 

  6. B, 7 April 1854, p.167; 19 April 1873, p.311; THLHLA, Pamphlet, ‘Whitechapel Public Swimming Baths’, n.d., 611.1 

Re-opening and Extension, c.1871 to 1889
Contributed by Survey of London on July 27, 2016

The density and poverty of the area surrounding Whitechapel Baths was frequently noted in late nineteenth-century reports. Two years after their closure, Dr John Liddle, Medical Officer for Health in Whitechapel, reported families living, eating and sleeping in one room. With women washing and drying clothes in the same space, the inhabitants were ‘drinking in the seeds of disease from an atmosphere reeking with foul steam’. Well-placed supporters rallied to resurrect the Model. Progress towards re-opening was however painfully slow. 1

The Baths found their saviour in the Vestry of Whitechapel. The Vestry agreed to take over the management of the Baths as long as money was raised to cover its debts and ensure its repair. To raise funds, a musical benefit was held in the Royal Albert Hall, the amateur orchestra assisted by no less than the Duke of Edinburgh. By 1876 a scheme of reconstruction had been approved and £8,500 was borrowed from the Metropolitan Board of Works to support the refurbishment. D. B. Glass undertook the building work and the Baths opened once again in 1878. 2

In that same year a revision to the Baths and Wash-houses Act extended legislation to enable the provision of swimming pools by local authorities. Responding to the ‘great recreational explosion’ and to the opportunity presented by the revised Act, Frederic Mocatta and the Rev. Samuel Barnett led a proposal to erect two new swimming baths in 1884. These eminent East End social reformers promised to secure the purchase of land to the north of the site, reclaimed by the Artizans' Commission, from the MBW. Three houses annexed to the Baths on the south side were also sold to raise the necessary funds for construction to begin. Local architect, John Hudson, drew up the design in 1885 and the building contract was granted to Mark Gentry. In May 1886 the new swimming baths were opened by the Lord Mayor before the performance of ‘a series of clever aquatic evolutions’. Entry into the first class pool was set at 6d and 2d for the second. 3

The addition of the new swimming baths doubled the area occupied by the Model and a new entrance canopy to Goulston Street extended out beyond the previous building line. The internal arrangement of the bath house was also adjusted to further prioritise ‘men’s second class’ slipper baths. Both pools, accessible only to men, were lined with dressing boxes above which galleries were constructed in 1890 along with two waiting rooms which lay to the east. The new swimming baths enabled many local school children to learn to swim and were especially frequented by the parish Board schools. The old bath house on the other hand continued to serve a diverse range of local inhabitants. One paper reported “Jews, English, German, Dutch, Polish, harkers and costermongers, the dirtiest of the dirty” using the slipper baths once weekly. 4

  1. B, 19 April 1873, p.311 

  2. B, 28 Feb 1876, p. 199; 12 July 1873, p.556; ILN, 21 June 1873, p.595; MBW Mins, 28 March 1884; The Metropolitan, 27 Dec 1873; DSR 

  3. A. Campbell, Report on Public Baths and Wash-houses in the United Kingdom, 1918, p.4; B, _26 July 1884, p.145; 18 August 1877, p.856; 26 July 1884, p.145; 21 March 1885; C. Love, _A Social History of Swimming in England, 1800-1918: Splashing in the Serpentine, p.2; THLHLA, Pamphlet, ‘Whitechapel Public Swimming Baths’, n.d., 611.1; MBW Mins, 28 March 1884; London Daily News, 19 May 1886, p.6 

  4. THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/1, p.82, p.131; Pall Mall Gazette, 31 May 1882, p.2 

The Ladies Swimming Bath and Recreation Hall, c.1893 to 1938
Contributed by Survey of London on July 27, 2016

For several years women and schoolgirls were only given access to the swimming baths on Wednesdays, so that they might ‘acquire the art of swimming’. However the increasing demand for a ladies swimming bath prompted a new scheme to be commissioned. Architect Bruce J. Capell of 70 Whitechapel Road was appointed to this end in 1893 and £13, 000 was borrowed to fund the building work. Robert Booth acted as engineer and William Goodman was the building contractor. 1

The ladies swimming bath was officially opened in spring 1897 although a plaque claimed July 1st 1896. Neither date represented a full opening however, for work was completed only in January 1902. A new floor to cover the first- class swimming baths was finished in 1904 allowing for the Baths to be granted an entertainment license for music and dancing. In 1910 a cinematography box was inserted at the gallery level of the second-class baths allowing for projections into the first-class swimming baths. The floored over hall could seat 1,000 people according to a schedule of 1921. 2 Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, this hall was well used by different community groups and businesses, accommodating plays, concerts, film nights, bazaars, lads brigades, boxing, political rallies and the Jewish Sabbath meetings of the Zionist Society. 3

Capell’s design further extended the Goulston Street entrance frontage, this time to run almost in line with the new swimming baths before receding back on a sharp diagonal to meet the existing party wall to the south. The ladies swimming bath was created within the area formerly occupied by the men’s second-class slipper baths and was lit by two large skylights. The female first- and second-class slipper baths remained largely in place on the ground floor. The men’s slipper baths were instead moved to a new first-floor area situated above the new entrance. The additional floor also allowed for more generous living quarters for the superintendent, whose sitting room was endowed with a projecting bay window in red brick. The first-class baths and the new ladies’ baths were lined with polished marble; the floors and dressing compartments in an artificial ‘Victoria’ stone. 4

One local speaking of his experiences in the 1920s noted that, ‘the baths were like a community centre for Jews, especially elderly Jews’ in their preparation for the Sabbath. Local schoolchildren, Jewish and non-Jewish, were also long-standing beneficiaries of the Baths, often receiving free use of the pools, entering on markedly reduced ticket rates as well as enjoying frequent swimming galas. The swimming baths were also used by the city’s plentiful swimming clubs for adults. In September 1890 for example the first-class pool hosted the galas of the Jewish Working Men’s, City Police, Falcon Club and African Swimming Clubs. 5

A drawing of 1938 by the Borough Engineer and Surveyor shows the washing places within the wash house removed, replaced by additional women’s slipper baths after resisting any material alteration for almost a century. Next to these, a new ‘establishment laundry’ is depicted, purposed to wash and dry the hired towels and drawers. All entrances to Old Castle Street are closed off. Evidence of the implementation for this plan is lacking; it was probably interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. However the existence of such a proposal indicates the declining usefulness of the old ‘wash house’.

  1. THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/1, p.154-5, p.373; LCC Mins, 27 June 1893, p.669; 26 Jan 1897; 12 Oct 1897, p.1121; 9 Nov 1897, p.1185 

  2. THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/2, p.134; LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0377, 28 Jan 1902; 25 Nov 1904; 1 Dec 1910; 4 Jan 1911; 26 May 1911; 16 May 1911; 19 Dec 1911; Schedule of 1921; THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/2, p.229 

  3. For example, see applications: THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/2, p.183, p.233, p.235; LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0377, 15 July 1940; THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/2, p.242 

  4. THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/1, p.353 

  5. Jewish Chronicle, 3 Aug 1990; LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0377, 12 April 1938; THLHLA, L/SMW/D1/1, p.116 

War Damage and Rebuilding, c.1939 to 1990
Contributed by Survey of London on July 27, 2016

A rocket bomb that fell on 10 November 1944 spelled the definitive end for the washing department. Whitechapel Baths remained in a ‘bombed state’ for many years after. Water from the swimming baths had already been pumped to Houndsditch to put out fires raging during the blitz in 1941. 1

Although the men’s second-class bath was damaged beyond repair and the wash- house abandoned, the two other pools were salvaged and reinstated for short- term use. The ladies swimming bath was retained as an indoor pool whilst the roofless men’s first-class bath was continued as an outdoor pool. But this was an unsatisfactory arrangement for such a well-loved establishment and a lengthy negotiation to rebuild ensued between Stepney Borough Council and the War Damage Commission beginning in 1954. 2

The drawn out dispute that followed centred on the Council’s desire for a ‘modern redevelopment’ of the Baths instead of the ‘like-for-like’ reinstatement which formed the basis of the War Commission’s compensation package. Both parties finally settled on a sum of £72,000 for reconstruction. Unwilling to give up on their vision of a substantially updated building, the Council was left to make up the difference between the compensation and the cost of their redevelopment. The building contract was won by W. J. Marston and Son Ltd for £109,548 and work began in November 1959 for a projected eighty weeks, but, as with previous rebuildings, work significantly overran. Inclement weather, late amendments to the design, difficulty of sourcing materials and unexpected issues with the foundations and structural works contributed to the delays. The new building was finally opened on 28 April 1962. 3

Reusing the foundations, the scheme mostly reiterated the internal organization of the previous building although the new façade along Goulston Street was given a Modernist twist. The swimming baths themselves were mostly unchanged, excepting enlarged viewing galleries, suspended ceilings and a small extension to the first-class swimming bath to bring it to 100 feet exactly in length. Fifty-nine slipper baths were positioned on the ground and first floors as before but terrazzo partitions replaced their slate predecessors. The ‘public laundry’ to the eastern side and the boiler house were reinstated. For the first time however, provisions were made to ensure all swimming baths could be used by men and women. The work re-established the Whitechapel Baths as the best in the area, a fact reflected in its higher charges for galas and buoyant attendance figures. 4

In the year 1963-4 there were 82,790 users of the slipper baths and 109,620 of the swimming baths, and yet it was considered that the use of slipper baths was in ‘sharp decline’ as a result of a loss of population in the local area and the improved housing facilities. There is evidence that, as the Jewish community resiled from use of the washing facilities in respect of the Sabbath, the area’s new Muslim community revived demand for the baths in connection with their ritual ablutions. In 1960 the Baths opened one hour early in order to ensure that members of the East London Mosque could wash and attend the mosque in time for 9am prayers for Eid. In a further reflection of changes in leisure practices, 1972 saw many slipper baths removed to make way for two new pine-faced saunas, divided for male and female use. A solarium was installed in 1976 alongside a gym with a five-stationed ‘gym compact’, a rowing and a cycling machine. One wall within the gym was decorated with a mural depicting gymnasts in action, produced by local artists from the Tower Hamlets Arts Project. 5

The 1990s ushered in the closure of the Whitechapel Baths, in spite of surviving a fire in 1985. Promising a brand new swimming pool elsewhere in the borough, the Council reported that the Baths did not meet modern health and safety standards and were running at a loss. The abrupt closure provoked an intense outburst of bitterness and protest in Whitechapel which was organised into a co-ordinated but ultimately unsuccessful ‘Save Whitechapel Baths’ campaign. Feasibility studies spurred on by this group demonstrated the viability of re-opening the institution but no action was taken apart from a stripping of the building’s assets. The Baths sat vacant for two years and sank further into a state of decline. In 1993, the land was sold to the London Guildhall University (formerly the City of London Polytechnic), with the intention of converting the swimming pools into lecture halls. 6

  1. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0377, 1 May 1945; 7 Jan 1957; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/20, 7 Sept 1961; THLHLA, Pamphlet, ‘Whitechapel Public Swimming Baths’, n.d., 611.1 

  2. THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/18, 30 May 1957; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/19, 9 Oct 1958 

  3. THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/18, 30 May 1957, p.151; 6 Nov 1958, p.210; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/19, 17 June 1958, p.225; 5 Nov 1959; 29 Dec 1960; 9 Oct 1958; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/20, 14 June 1962, p.10 

  4. THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/19, 23 June 1960, p.64; 3 Nov 1960; 29 Dec 1960; 27 April 1961; 8 Sept 1960; 27 April 1961; 22 June 1961; 29 Dec 1960; 2 Feb 1960; 5 April 1962, p.186 

  5. THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/18, 17 June 1958, p.225; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/20, 25 June 1964; THLHLA, L/SMB/A/3/19, 7 April 1960; ELA, 5 Jan 1973; THN, Dec 1976 

  6. ELA, _2 Oct 1992; 13 July 1990; 20 July 1990; 24 Aug 1990; 21 Jan 1993; 6 Feb 1992; _Leisure Week, 13 Aug 1990 

The Women’s Library and London Metropolitan University, c.1995 onwards
Contributed by Survey of London on July 27, 2016

The conversion was not immediate. In 1995 Wright and Wright Architects won a design competition to remodel the site for London Guildhall, which was to be consolidated into the London Metropolitan University (LMU) in 2002. Ultimately the architects created the Law Department of LMU and, significantly, ‘The Women’s Library’ – a unique collection hosted by the University. Having lodged in a cramped basement of the adjacent Calcutta House for many years, the new Library costing £4.5 million was funded by private and public donors of whom the Heritage Lottery Fund was the most significant. The Women’s Library was completed in 2001, the Law Department followed shortly after in 2003.

The client’s brief requested the new library ‘feel permanent’. Wright and Wright’s design made use of thick concrete walls which contributed to a restrained architectural aesthetic as well as providing substantial thermal mass for improved environmental performance. In its dignity and pragmatism, the building was regarded by the architectural press as a ‘model of politeness’. The design bore a resemblance to the technology-led original Baths. Both schemes shunned unnecessary ornamentation in favour of carefully considered efficiency and ventilation. Maintaining continuity with the thousands of women who had utilized the same entrances for over a century and a half, the practice elected to privilege the eastern façade of 1846 (see figure 3). Indeed it was this willingness to engage with the site’s history that Claire Wright believed won the architects the commission. Behind this punctuated black facade, a substantial new building of red brick stepped back, rising up to five storeys and down into a basement. Internally the purpose- built accommodation was arranged around a centrally located ground floor exhibition space lined with pocket courtyards and a cafe. A modest staircase led up to the archive, library, offices and reading rooms. The design for the interior clearly drew attention to the visual and physical connections between these diverse spaces. Because of these interlocking rooms and voids, The Architectural Review lauded the building possessing ‘the elegant complexity of a Chinese puzzle’. In this organisation, the design rejected conventional spatial hierarchies, an act which some argued was self-consciously ‘feminist’. In 2002 it was awarded the RIBA Journal’s ‘Best UK Building of the Year’ Award. 1

Figure 3: Wright and Wright’s Women’s Library (photographed February 2015)

The innovative library only continued in this purpose-built accommodation until 2012 when it was sold to the London School of Economics. Reminiscent of efforts to save the Baths, the ‘Save The Women’s Library’ campaign gathered a petition with over 12,000 signatories and was backed by prominent supporters, including RIBA President Angela Brady. One protester reflected that the Library and its award-winning home belonged together, like “a body and its insides”. According to the designs of Molyneux Kerr Architects, LMU substantially adapted the ground floor interior to house a new central lecture theatre and is presently preparing to relocate its own wide ranging archival collections to the site. 2

  1. AJ, 23 Feb 2006, p.26; Adams, Annmarie, ‘Architecture for feminism?: The design of the Women’s Library, London’, Atlantis: __Critical Studies in Gender, Culture & Social Justice, Vol 29.1, Fall/Winter 2004, pp.99-105, p.100; Architectural Review, 9 May 2012 

  2. [accessed 6 July 2016] metropolitan-university/, [accessed 6 July 2016]; The Telegraph, 8 Nov 2012; Information kindly supplied by Peter Fisher, Archivist at London Metropolitan University 

How the Wash Houses were used
Contributed by Survey of London on April 17, 2018

East End historian and guide David Charnick recounts some of the history of the former Whitechapel Baths and Wash House on Old Castle Street.

“Well. We're on Old Castle Street and we're looking at the wash house entrance to the old Whitechapel Baths and Wash House or, as it was known at the time, the model establishment. The date on the front is 1846. That's when Prince Albert himself came here to lay the foundations stone, but the building didn't actually open until 1847. At that point, it still wasn't finished anyway. There was still work to be carried out.

As the name implies, baths and wash houses, you got two functions. The baths were what were called slipper baths. In other words, they were individual bathtubs in cubicles. The main entrances of those were on the other side from where we are now on Goulston Square, which was just off of Goulston Street. You had first and second class baths. First class baths, you got two towels instead of one and a bit more hot water and a nicer cubicle. Second class baths were just as accommodating. Then, you had the washhouse side, which again was small cubicles.

These were where obviously the women of the family, the mothers, would bring the laundry to do. Each little cubicle would have two troughs at the end. One of them was for warm water for general washing. The other was hot water heated by steam, which was for your boil washed to get rid of the stubborn stains, et cetera. In between, at certain point, you would have what they called ringing machines, which are basically hand operated tumble dryers.

You put your wet clothes into there, shut the lid, turn the handle and then, they would get partially dry. There were also some, what we called clothes horses that would come out from the wall where you could air your clothes and dry them properly before you took them home.

The building was demolished later in the 20th century. Not totally sure of the date because some say the 1980s, some say early 21st century, but certainly was demolished and made way for the new building that sort of peeps up behind it, which is the former Women's Library.

There was [also] a swimming pool. Plunge baths as they used to call them in those days. They had the trouble with the model establishment is that although they did charge a small fee for baths, it was by no means enough to keep the place going and it actually closed in 1871. It was up to its neck in debt and the local authority, the Whitechapel Board of Works, they took it over on the grounds that the money could be raised by charitable means to clear the debts. When it reopened in 1878, it had a large plunge pool for men and then, later a second one was added for women. No mix bathing in those days.

When it actually came into being, It was created by one of a number of groups that were appearing in the early 19th century to encourage public bathhouses. This was The Society for the Committee for Promoting the Establishment of Baths and Wash Houses for the Labouring Classes, which was created in 1844 at a public meeting at the Mansion House in the City of London. Its Principal was the Bishop of London. They actually opened two wash houses before this one, but they were in converted buildings.

This was to be the model establishment. This was to be the prototype that was to be followed by others. By 1852, the society was reporting that there were representatives from various European cities and indeed cities from the US who were coming to visit, taking notes of what was being provided here, et cetera and then going back to their own countries and starting their own. The people here weren't bothered about that. They wanted people to copy them.

They wanted to be, as I say, the prototype to encourage more of such establishments to be created. It was essentially a charitable body. It was only taken over by the local authority of the Whitechapel Board of Works in the late 1870s. One of the people behind that was Samuel Barnett who was a major philanthropist in the area.

A variety of people, [used the baths]. As I say, you had to pay a small fee. Although, when there were outbreaks of cholera in the area in the 1840s, they made the baths free for access.

It would presumably have been a weekly visit. Because people around here, even people in regular work weren’t earning a great deal. There was a limit to how much they could pay on luxuries of bathing. Although, people were well aware of the necessity for bathing, I mean we tend to think of this idea of cleanliness next to godliness, but it wasn't actually a Victorian sentiment. One of the major diseases prevalent in Victorian times and indeed prior to that was typhus fever, which is a sort of umbrella term for a number of fevers that are spread by parasites that goes from human body to human body.

Particularly in things like jails when they didn't use to have individual cells, they had communal cells and so, parasites would run around. The need to clean your body and to wash your clothes to get rid of these parasites was paramount to avoid the spread of typhus. There was an awareness of how important these things were. Everything was done to encourage people to use them. Abolishing taxation on lanolin, which was used to make soap and things like this. There was a lot of movement in the 19th century to make bathing and cleanliness much more affordable."

David Charnick ( was speaking to Shahed Saleem on 23.02.18. The text has been edited for print.

Going to the baths in the 1950s and 1960s
Contributed by Rosemarie Wayland (nee Zetolofsky) on June 6, 2017

I remember going to the public baths in Goulston Street because we had no bathroom at home. You brought a clean towel and clothes with you and paid your money at the entrance. In return you were given a ticket which you gave to the attending lady. You were then shown to your bathroom and given a plug to stop the water draining away. In the room there was a sink and a mirror. You shouted out 'More hot water for number 10!'

First visit to the baths
Contributed by Survey of London on Feb. 6, 2018

Yoel Sheridan grew up in Goodman's Fields in the 1930s and 40s and has written about the experiences of his family at this time in a book called 'From Here to Obscurity' (Tenterbooks, 2001). He recalls that he visited the Goulston Street Public Baths with his brothers every Friday on his way home from school. Here he describes attending the baths for the first time with his elder brother:

"Yulus was escorted, on his first visit, by his eldest brother who had the appearance of an expert bather. He always looked immaculate...Having paid on entry Yulus was given a ticket that he handed to an attendant in exchange for a clean neatly folded white towel and a bar of soap. Yulus sat with his brother on a bench against the wall of a clinical white-tiled ante-room that had a strong smell of chlorine. Next! Shouted another attendant who wore white overalls over white trousers and white canvas shoes. Yulus was ushered through swinging doors, his brother at his side, into a long, wide corridor flanked on either side by cubicles, all but one, with their doors closed. The doors were not full-sized, there being a large gap between the bottom and the floor and of such a height that the attendant, by stretching, could see over. There was a clock on every door, each showing a different time. On the outside walls of each cubicle were hot and cold water taps that were operated by a large removable key handle, presently attached to the tap of the open cubicle. The attendant swung the door open further to reveal a white bath that in Yulus's eyes was enormous, big enough for a swim. The bath was half full of water. Clean looking but yellowish in colour. Test it, said the attendant as Yulus stared at the bath in bewilderment. It's his first time, said his brother. Put yer 'and in and see if it's too 'ot, said the cockney attendant standing at the open door, broom in hand. Yulus touched the water gingerly and said Ouch! Too 'ot? Fought so, said the attendant as he moved the key from the hot to the cold tap and swung it round. A strong gush of cold water streamed out of the elephant-sized tap outlet for a few seconds and then stopped as he swung the key handle back. Try it now. He ordered. Go on, stick yer 'and in. Be''er? (the 't's' of better and other words were not pronounced) he asked. Yulus nodded. Fought so, said the attendant as he adjusted the clock face on the door. You's go' twen'y mini's, tha's till 'alf pas' the 'our, like the clock sez and not a mini' more. Unnerstan'? How will I know, if the clock is on the other side of the door? Cos there's a real clock up there, ain't there? He said pointing upwards with his broom to a large clock hanging from the ceiling that could be seen from every cubicle.

Ask him now, said his brother, nudging Yulus to instill confidence. Yulus had been told that it was more private to bathe in the public baths than at home. If that's the case, said Yulus, then why don't they call them private baths? You'll have to ask at the baths, he was told. Whadge wanna know? Asked the attendant with a momentary show of kindness. Why are the baths called public when each cubicle is private and why are they called slipper baths? Ventured Yulus, never short of adding a question. Wha' a bloody question! How should I know? I only work 'ere. Retorted the attendant as he turned to Yulus's brother...You're next. We ain't go' all day yer know. Nah you! He said turning to Yulus. Ge' yer clothes orf, ge' in and ge' washed. Every bi' of yer nah. There ain't much of yer, so i' shoodden take long...E's a bright un, the attendant could be heard muttering. Why is private public? What a bloody question!

The water that had felt comfortable to touch was too hot for the body, but Yulus was too embarrassed to call for more cold water having said it was OK. He got in, turned pink all over and washed and dried within five minutes. He wanted to get out as soon as possible but was afraid that they would suggest that he hadn't washed at all, so he stood by the bath splashing the water and said everything was OK again when asked. After a couple of visits he soon got used to the atmosphere and learned to call out like the rest of the bathers for more hot or cold water or joined the communal singing that would break out from time to time. One song that was sung to the tune of the Volga Boatman contained the lines: Hot water number forty four, repeated three times and followed by Ooh Ooh and a long drawn out Aaaah and shouts of laughter. Quiet! The attendant would shout above the din. Carn 'ear myself wash ou' the barvs! Which he did dexterously with his long-handled yellow broom after each bather and before the next."

Former Whitechapel Baths in 2016
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

The Wash Houses from the north east
Contributed by Derek Kendall

The Wash Houses from the north east, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

The Wash Houses from the east, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

The Wash Houses, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Detail of the Wash Houses, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Talking to Sarah Milne about the baths

Survey of London historian Sarah Milne tells us a little bit about the history of the Whitechapel Baths

Contributed by Shahed Saleem on Sept. 14, 2016