A New Model Bathouse For The Industrious Classes
Those working class chaps, eh! No one denies you need ‘em – for toiling in your factory or down the docks, but oh boy, don’t they just whiff!
The issues surrounding the lower classes’ personal hygiene had been exercising sturdy nineteenth century minds for some time. Not only did they have to live in the same vicinity as the labouring hobbledy-hoi, they had to sniff them too. By 1844 it things had got so bad that a public meeting was called at Mansion House, open to anyone whose nostrils were offended by poor people, to try to deal with the stench.
It was decided that the only thing to do was for decent middling sorts to put their hands into their pockets and raise a subscription, enough to create a wash house to show the paupers how to keep themselves clean and decent. Of course, for them, it was very much an act of charity. “It is Christian, ” wrote one benefactor, “and it is politic in a worldly sense; it is a beginning towards the salvation of soul and body, by cleansing the boady and purifying the mind; it is an earnest in part payment of a debt due to those who labour for us.”
The Model Establishment was opened in Goulston Square in the City in 1847, and, to the delight of the committee, they even brought in a few shillings. It seemed that once the workers actually had somewhere to bathe they were quite happy to keep themselves clean.
An Act of Parliament was passed to allow boroughs to raise some cash (on the security of the rates) to build local baths and wash houses. Greenwich was an early adopter. Our bath house for the industrious classes was on the corner of Royal Hill, I think where the Borough Hall is now, and it was a huge success.
The bath and wash houses seem to have been pretty much of a muchness in design. The floors, the divisions between the zinc baths and wash tubs were made of slate, and each cubicle had a looking glass, a seat, pegs to hang up clothes, and ‘other little conveniences.’
It cost 6d for a first class warm bath with two towels. I’m not sure what else a first class bath included, since if you paid 2d you could get a second class warm bath and the only difference the book mentions is that you only got one towel.
In the laundry, there were wringing machines, drying chambers, ironing boards and a “very ingenious” glass and slate roof to create the best conditions for drying clothes.
The Victorian book I’ve been reading about it raves about the benefits for both rich and poor of the system, saying that it will “encourage the philanthropist to psursue his search for opportunities to benefit the poor withouth sacrifcing their independence, or lessening their inducements to continue with cheerfulness their daily toil.”
It’s also boasts that other countries are following Britain’s lead - France is just about to erect bath houses in Paris and Belgium and the United States are thinking about it.
The book (I wish I knew what it was called; I bought it as a ripped and torn fragment, in several pieces and with no cover; I’m not even sure of the date) is staggered to find that “the anxiety of poor women to use the laundry has proved to be fully equal to that of the men to use the baths,” but it also accepts that not everywhere was quite as clean as Greenwich. Takeup “in the dirtiest and poorest districts” was low, even when “the charge for its use is so low as to place it within the reach of all but paupers.” In 1849, to try to get the buggers to wash, they stopped charging altogether, and “tubs, well supplied with hot and cold water were opened gratuitously to the poor during the whole period that the cholera was raging, and yet but few availed themselves of the advantages so offered.”
I’m not entirely sure when the Greenwich Baths disappeared; I’m assuming when the new Borough Hall was built in the late 30s.
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