Donegall Street: Cleanliness next to Godliness

The Donegall Street Bathhouse.

Whilst the churches of north Belfast still pierce the skyline, as they have for centuries, the buildings which have surrounded them during their life have continuously changed with the times. Many old buildings still stand on Donegall Street, while others have been demolished. Progress and renewal is a key part of urban development, however, removal of these buildings also removes a tangible link to the area’s history. It is therefore important that we examine the buildings which once stood alongside the various Heritage Cluster buildings in order to better understand the people who once walked the streets of north Belfast.

The need for bathing facilities, and their popularity in Britain, rose dramatically from the 1830’s, when a second Cholera Pandemic reached the shores of England. During this pandemic in Liverpool, an Irish immigrant, and laundress by trade from Londonderry, Catherine Wilkinson, offered out her house and yard to people wishing to wash their clothes in hot water, whilst also educating people on the uses of bleach.[1] Her efforts saved many lives, and her petition to establish a place in which the working class could bathe received backing from then Mayor of Liverpool, William Rathbone. As a result, the first modern public bathhouse was built in Liverpool in 1842.[2]

Eighteen years later, Belfast, now a well-established industrial centre, sought to establish its own public baths for use by the working classes. The baths were built at the expense of Dr Barter, who had been responsible for designing public baths elsewhere in Ireland. The baths were opened on the 1st of October, 1860 at 112 Donegal Street, close to Union Street.[3] Several sites were considered for the first Public Bathhouse in Belfast, however objections were raised by nearby residents due to the “possible annoyance from a constant concourse of the poor.”[4] It is therefore not by accident that the Bathhouse found itself on Donegall Street, in close proximity to the Belfast Poor House.

The Turkish Baths on Donegall Street circa 1930. The buildings either side are still there! (Credit: National Museums of Northern Ireland.)

Despite the increasing awareness of the need for personal hygiene and a concentrated period of investment in sanitation and infrastructure, the initial response to the opening of the public baths was underwhelming. Glowing endorsements and grandiose claims of the benefits of bathing could not overcome the scepticism present in the general population. Sanitary reform campaigner Andrew Malcolm saw great promise in Belfast’s Public Baths, stating:

              “The bath is no longer a luxury devoted to the exclusive gratification of the wealthy. It is here for the labouring man, who at close of the day may now refresh and invigorate his toilworn frame…A new source of enjoyment and recreation is opened up to him which may supersede the nightly frequenting of the tavern-which will bring him home to the bosom of his family a new man, renewed in body and in mind.[5]

Andrew Malcolm: (As shown in Smiley, 1986)

Whilst the benefits of the Public Bathhouse may have been apparent to Malcolm, a doctor in the General Hospital on Frederick Street, his optimism was not shared by the general public who viewed them as being too far from their homes, too expensive, and having limited opening hours. Whilst initially founded to ensure the poor had accesses to facilities in which they could bathe and clean themselves, it instead became a preferred recreational facility for those who had the free time and extra money with which to indulge in the plunge ponds and bathing facilities. In Belfast, this was shown by the rebranding of the Public Bathhouse as the Hammam Turkish Baths in 1893, as it was an attempt to attract a more affluent clientele. The lack of uptake by the working class that necessitated the rebranding of the Bathhouse was met with significant derision:

“If working men would visit the second-class baths on Saturday evenings, instead of the public-house, which too many of them frequent, they would find their health benefited by it, and their strength invigorated for the labours of the ensuing week.”[6]

Whilst the initial intentions was to provide accessible healthcare facilities to those who otherwise could not afford it, the cost of running a public bathhouse (the amount spent on water in 1871 was £14 15s 3d)[7] meant that many were running at a loss. Consequently, the focus began to shift away from healthcare to recreation and luxury, in an effort to attract patrons who would be most likely to return and could afford the cost of admission. As a result, the health benefits of using the Public Baths were no longer stressed as a key benefit, reflecting the changing focus.

Turkish Bath Influenza Advert. (The Belfast News-letter. 4 April 1895)

Changes of ownership, interior redesigns, and a rebranding were not enough to keep the doors open, and it closed for good in 1936. Societal advancements during the 19th and 20th centuries were also helping alleviate the health issues which arose during the 1800’s, with sewage systems instituted in major cities and running water becoming increasingly available to everyone, which may well have expedited the bathhouses’ decline.

Despite underwhelming numbers ensuring that the Baths rarely made significant profit, there was a degree of resistance to the closing of what was a longstanding Belfast service; an institution which had become part of the daily or weekly routine. It is easy to imagine residents of Belfast using the Public Baths before dressing in their ‘Sunday Finest’ and worshipping in any of the churches along the length of Donegall Street and Clifton Street.

The baths lay empty for ten years, before eventually being demolished in 1946, as Belfast began to rebuild after sustaining heavy damage during the war years. Whilst not a direct architectural casualty from the Blitz, it is yet another example of lost heritage which can never be replaced. Many neighbouring buildings on Donegall Street remain to this day, however, there is no visible reminder of the Hammam Turkish Baths which once stood here all those years ago.

The current site where the Turkish Baths once stood. Note the two buildings on the left are the same as circa 1930, albeit the height of one of the buildings has been reduced.

[1] G. Scally ‘The very pests of society’: the Irish and 150 years of public health in England. Clinical Medicine4(1), p.79.

[2] M. Shifrin:

[3] Lennon Wylie Street Directory.

[4] H.G.Calwell, Andrew Malcom of Belfast. Physician and Historian. (Belfast, 1977) p 79.

[5] A. G Malcolm, Cleanliness and the Advantages of the Bath. (Belfast, 1848).

[6] Belfast News-Letter. 12th July 1861.

[7] M. Shifrin:

Image: Andrew Malcolm: J. Smiley ‘ Andrew Malcolm and CD Purdon. Pioneers of occupational medicine in Belfast.’ Ulster Medical Journal. (1986) Vol. 55, No.1, pp.41-46

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