Nostalgia: Healing waters of Portobello Turkish baths

The refurbished Turkish baths. Picture: TSPL
The refurbished Turkish baths. Picture: TSPL
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A social occasion for the Capital’s industrial workers, a trip to the Turkish baths in Portobello allowed time to relax, heal and luxuriate.

Portobello Sea Water Spa first opened its doors to the public in 1901.

The refurbished Turkish baths at Portobello Baths. Picture: TSPL

The refurbished Turkish baths at Portobello Baths. Picture: TSPL

Portobello baths were built by the Corporation and soon became established as a treatment centre and health spa for the middle classes.

The baths, which had separate pools for men and women, used water pumped from the sea and filtered.

At that time, the water was heated by coal boilers to around 76F (24C). Even the showers ran with hot and cold sea water. The healing properties of sea water were widely accepted and the baths were recommended by doctors for patients suffering from sciatica, rheumatism and nervous disorders.

Apart from swimming for exercise, visitors could relax in the luxury of Turkish or Russian baths, exercise in the gymnasium or take tea in the cafeteria.

Masseuse at work at the Portobello Turkish baths. Picture: TSPL

Masseuse at work at the Portobello Turkish baths. Picture: TSPL

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Spectators could watch the swimmers from an ornamental balcony over the pond area, and an exterior balcony to the front of the building afforded wonderful views of the coastline.

Charlie Styles began working at the baths 36 years ago, shortly before his 15th birthday. His first job was as a Towel Boy.

“I was responsible for making sure the towels got to the laundry, got washed, spun, dried and neatly folded with the Edinburgh Corporation emblem bang in the middle,” he remembers.

Portobello Baths on Portobello promenade. Picture: TSPL

Portobello Baths on Portobello promenade. Picture: TSPL

Post-war Portobello saw the baths re-emerge as a main swimming pool, but keeping the Turkish, Russian and aerotone baths - although, by then, regular Portobello visitors had begun to venture abroad. But the baths remained as popular as ever with local industry workers, such as miners, coal merchants and workers in the glass foundry.

Coming for a soak in one of the 18 hot baths was a sociable occasion, Charlie recalls.

“Those were magnificent days. Everyone knew everyone else, and there was a huge sense of the baths being the centre of the community.

“You began to know who would arrive when, and what their idiosyncrasies were. The public nowadays are friendly, but in those days they were like family.”

Literally, as it turned out, since Charlie met his wife at the pool one day when she came for a swim.

Charlie worked his way up to be a Turkish bath attendant and his duties included massage, something he had learned along the way.

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A ticket for two shillings and sixpence entitled the bearer to a complete wash-down, during which you would be scrubbed with soap and a loofah.

The 1970s and 1980s saw big changes in the service to the public. New regulations meant that the Turkish attendant couldn’t serve tea in the steam room and the lifeguard couldn’t leave his post to give informal swimming lessons.

Industry, too, moved out of town and more and more people started owning homes which had bathrooms.

Portobello baths evolved again at the turn of the last century when it was closed for two years for refurbishment.

Beautifully restored at a cost of £4 million, with great care taken to keep as many original features as possible, it has further evolved into a swim centre for the new century.

“The reaction of the community was very positive,” says Charlie, now part of the management of the pool. “People who have been coming here for years are still coming, only now they’re wearing lycra, bringing their own towels and likely to be taking part in an aqua aerobics class for the over-50s.

“Hopefully Portobello baths and I will continue to evolve for many years to come.”