With my friend Maurice, I have long frequented the Ironmonger Row baths behind Moorfields Eye Hospital. As married men, we appreciated the circumspect and respectful behaviour; for a few quid one felt properly laved and rejuvenated. Nakedness is a great leveller. City traders mingled with taxi drivers; a High Court judge might ‘testiculate’ (talk bollocks) with Maurice, a Labour peer. Afterwards in our robes we relaxed in the cooling-room over cups of tea; the steam induced a state of blissful lassitude.
In 2012, after an ill-spent £16 million refurbishment, the baths were reopened as the Old Street Spa Experience. At a stroke, the local community was priced out: only transient businessmen and affluent Islingtonians can afford the exorbitant entry fee. The art-deco baths, once so atmospheric, have lost their character. Islington council recommends that customers now wear swimwear, which is not only prissy, but unhygienic. The whole point of the Turkish bath — in Yiddish, shvitz — is to enable the body to perspire profusely. Anthony Trollope, in his short story ‘The Turkish Bath’, commended the clothes-free ‘sudation’ as a thing of beauty. He was writing in the aftermath of the Public Baths and Wash-Houses Acts of 1846 and 1847, which enabled local authorities to build sanitary facilities where the poor could wash both their laundry and themselves. Brick Lane, east London’s most mythologised street, was dense with Turkish and Russian vapour baths. Orthodox Hasidim had settled in the area in the 1880s following the pogroms in Russia; shvitz signs were in both Yiddish and English.
By the mid-1970s, most commercial baths in Britain had closed. As more homes came equipped with running water, the need for public washing diminished. Painkillers served to alleviate the rheumatoid tensions and distempers previously put right by a hammam. Today hardly any public baths survive. The Porchester baths, a Grade II-listed building with Islamic arches and star-pierced domes, will close this April for a £750,000 Westminster council facelift. Once re-opened, the emphasis apparently will be on ‘mixed gender’ sessions. Very inclusive, but mixed sessions discriminate against Muslim women, Orthodox Jewish women and Orthodox Jewish men, who are not allowed to mingle naked. Sexual separatism is essential in the bathhouse, where men are unable to relax unselfconsciously in the presence of women.
I had almost given up hope when I discovered the New Docklands Steam Baths. Situated in a Canning Town industrial estate, the baths are of no architectural account; wonderfully, there is no piped birdsong or treatment room. This is the real thing. All around are car-crushers’ yards, vehicle hire outlets (‘The Mutt’s Nuts’) and the Durham Arms, once a notorious villains’ pub.
In this overlooked part of England, the Canning Town shvitz stands triumphantly above our emptier, more money-conscious times. It is east London’s last authentic bath house. The Jewish purification ritual known as schmeissing, where men take turns to slap each other with well-soaped besoms made of sea grass, is still practised. East Europeans, Russians, old-time Yiddish cockneys, retired boxers and cabbies sit on marble benches downstairs amid a picnic of watermelons, black bread and lemon tea. (You can take your own food.) Talk is loud, sweary and aggressively homosocial. In the Russian baths, the men wear pointed felt pixie hats, and pummel each other with fistfuls of oak leaves.
There is a weekly Jewish night for frummers or Hasidim, as well as a monthly Muslim night. The Jewish night begins at 10.30 p.m. on a Thursday and ends at 3 a.m. the next day. The Stamford Hill rabbi comes in advance to purge the premises of mobile phones, credit cards, newspapers and other trappings of ‘Babylon’. After repeated submersions in the plunge pool, the Hasidim sleep until the dawn light of pre-Sabbath Friday.
Most days, rubdowns are administered by an official masseur, but regulars sometimes offer a free kneading in return for a meal in the café upstairs. ‘The massages are safe and enjoyable,’ says Wayne Gruba, a trustee and founder member. ‘Any suspect predator is sent off site immediately.’ Maurice and I took turns to be schmeissed by Wayne, who flailed us expertly. In today’s mass uni-culture dominated by unisex lavatories, internet porn and Facebook, the New Docklands Steam Baths offer a rare steam spirit.