A SPA in Sheffield which stakes a claim to having the oldest remaining Victorian Turkish baths in the world is planning to go ‘back to its roots’ with a major new charity scheme.
The baths, on Victoria Street off Glossop Road, were launched more than a century ago when the city was ridden with disease and the local population needed educating about the benefits of hygiene and clean water.
Despite public opposition, the facility closed in 1990, but reopened as Spa 1877 in 2004 following a renovation costing £2 million.
Steve Wilkinson, who runs the business with his wife, Katherine, said that researching the baths’ heritage led him to make his bold assertion about their history.
Steve said he now wants to ‘give something back’ by providing 10,000 free spa places to carers over the next four years, providing them with respite from the stress of their daily duties.
“It will help carers who suffer from all sorts of issues, because it’s an unpaid occupation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.
“More and more carers are having to look after other people. We’re trying to help them and give them a bit of respite. I would like to see it rolled out across the country.”
Steve, aged 52, has made the restoration of historic Sheffield buildings his forte, with past projects including the redevelopment of the Garrison Hotel at Hillsborough.
“The Turkish baths were part of a bigger development in the 1800s,” he said.
“Sheffield was rather a grimy, horrible place in the 1820s and 30s. They built the first phase in 1836 to help people have a wash and to understand about illness.”
At the time, the average life expectancy stood at just 27, and diseases such as cholera, typhoid and consumption were rife.
In 1832 the devastating cholera outbreak in Sheffield killed 400 people and it was then decided to build the first public baths, where Spa 1877 is now housed.
“When the Crimean War broke out, we were allied to Turkey, so there was a big surge in Turkish baths. I think we’re the oldest still-remaining Victorian Turkish baths in the world.
“We’ve never really shouted about it, I guess. We’re only just starting to understand what we’ve got.”
Steve attributed a decline in the baths’ fortunes to tension between the medical establishment and practitioners of alternative therapies.
“In Victorian times doctors used to get paid to tour the town saying they would rather have people come to them.
“We’ve got a tradition of the medical professions trying to say that these alternative therapies, or holistic therapies, don’t work.”
He said the spa shut in 1990 because the main building was proving too expensive to be restored. A demonstration was held outside the Town Hall protesting against its closure and a community campaign was launched to take over the baths but was rejected.
Steve’s daunting restoration project involved the replacement of 25,000 hand-painted glazed bricks, which cost £5 each.
“We had to get all the equipment for the 21st century in a 19th-century building,” he said. “We use different types of heat, with essences to rejuvenate the skin. It’s a ‘hot and cold’ experience that creates a rush of endorphins. That gives you the relaxation in mind and body.”
Steve said he feels passionately about the charity initiative, which would see the spa offering carers 10 free three-hour sessions every day, five days a week, through a partnership with the Carers Trust.
“Caring for Sheffield folk is at the heart of what we do. Having overcome the battle with cleanliness, in modern times the challenges facing us have changed, however we firmly believe that the solution remains the same.”
He cited a recent survey of more than 3,000 carers, which found the job had a negative impact on 83 per cent of carers’ health. Another 36 per cent sustained an injury such as back pain.
“We’re giving something back to them. The way we see it, we’re giving some of our time to people who are literally giving away part of their lives.”