23 Jul, 2013

History of the East London Spa

The history of the East London spa is connected to numerous Jewish immigrants that arrived in the 19th century. The Yiddish speaking Jewish people liked to create close-knit communities, preferring to live and work near to other Jews and within walking distance of a synagogue, ritual baths and kosher food shops. In 1880 there were around 46,000 Jews in London, but by 1900 this figure had almost trebled to 135,000, and the majority of these lived in the East End.

In 1889 Charles Booth observed:

The newcomers have gradually replaced the English population in whole districts, Hanbury Street, Fashion Street, Pelham Street, and many streets and lanes and alleys have fallen before them; they have introduced new trades as well as new habits and they live and crowd together.

As well as setting up small synagogues, like those in Eastern Europe the Jews opened shops selling kosher food. Posters and newspapers were printed in Yiddish and Jews also introduced the custom of “Russian steam baths”.

The steam baths were were an important part of social and religious life and were mostly used by men following work on a Friday evening at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, before they went to synagogue for prayers. In 1888, The secretary of the Jew’s Temporary shelter wrote that there were 5 exclusively Jewish East London Spas. He named one in Little Alie-street, Whitechapel, one in Heneage-lane, Bevis Marks, and one in Steward-street, Spitalfields, and two others. Mr Montague also wrote that there were five Jewish bathing establishments within half a mile of Aldgate and that these were entirely attended and supported by “Jews and Jewesses” and that the Jewish swimming club, connected with the Goulstone-street Bath, was the largest in the East End, and that at least two thirds of the people who bathed there were Jews.

One of the most famous baths was right opposite the synagogue on Brick Lane and was called Schevzik’s Russian Vapour Baths. These baths were closed during the war due to a fire which was not caused by bombing. The advertising sign above reveals that they claimed to offer the “Best Massage in London: Invaluable Relief for Rheumatism, Gout, Sciatica, Neuritis, Lumbago and Allied Complaints. Keep fit and well by regular visits.”

The Jewish immigrants came mainly from Eastern Europe and had adopted the custom of Banya (Russian baths) which have been used by Slavic peoples since at least 1113 AD. Two of Spa Experience East London spa locations are in fact a living legacy of these “Russian baths” frequented by the Jewish community. The  historic York Hall of Bethnal Green was opened in 1929. Its Russian style sauna is a legacy of the Jewish community who were once prominent in the borough. Spa LONDON has breathed new life into Bethnal Green’s former Russian baths – respecting the historic nature of the site, while also offering modern treatments which are relevant to the 21st century customer. Spa Experience Ironmonger Row Baths were  also originally a public East London spa built in 1931 and designed by architects AWS & KMB Cross.

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