Friday 4 March 2011

"What in the name of thunder!"

A nice 'humourous' piece from Pick Me Up (1890) which, despite itself, manages to give a great insight into a typical visit to the public baths in late Victorian London:

By this time, all faithful readers of the " Tales from Twickenham" know, that the Rain Water Bath, as a bath, had been a failure. So Spoffins was reduced to one of the ordinary methods in order to obtain that characteristic which is next to godliness, and decided to patronise the public baths. Going into a public bath is not like going into the pit of a theatre. You are not pressed by a surging mob, and women do not shriek as rough men shoulder them out of the way. There is nothing of this sort of thing when you go to a public bath.
The desire for cleanliness does not provoke such enthusiasm as the love of amusement. After the door is entered you approach a turnstile alone. On your left is a glass window. There is a death-like stillness, together with a smell of newly-scrubbed wood and rapidly-dried and partially dried towels. There is also a faint, a very faint, odour of scent from the little pile of farthing cakes of soap that are sold for a penny.
     Spoffins noticed all this through the glass window as he waited patiently at the turnstile, and having seen what appeared to be a living object seated in an armchair in the room beyond, he tapped. The object, which was a man, got up, yawned, stretched himself, and came leisurely towards the window, working his face into a scowl to greet the unfeeling person who had disturbed him.
     " Can you let me have two new laid eggs with the shells on?" inquired Spoffins.
     "We don't sell eggs," said the man, putting down the window, which Spoffins immediately raised, and said:
     "Then I'll take a quart of buttermilk."
     "This is not a dairy," shouted the man ; "these are the Public Baths."
     "Then," said Spoffiss, " I'll have a Public Bath, warm."
     "You mean a private bath."
     "Yes, a public private bath, or a private public; anything that gets the dirt off."
     "Right. Sixpence. Soap?"
     " Only sixpence for that piece of soap ?"
     "Sixpence the bath, a penny the soap."
     "Oh, I see," said Spoffins ; "and the towels a shilling each."
     "No ; there is no charge for the towels."
     "Marvellous!" said Spoffins.
     "May I use them?"
     " Certainly."
     "Most of your customers gone to the races," muttered Spoffins. " Sorry to have disturbed you in your sleep ; no time like the middle of the day for sleeping if you've got plenty to do."
     "Ticket," growled the man. "Oh, thanks; which is the way?"
     "On the right—when you've paid sevenpence."
     "There you are, my friend," said Samuel, giving him the money. "I'll try and go out the back way, so as not to disturb you again."
     The man slammed down the window, rang a bell, and retired to his armchair, and was soon asleep. Spoffins ascended the stone staircase. In a distant part of the building he heard the wild shrieks of boys in the twopenny plunge bath. There was more reserve and dignity in a "six- penny private" than a "twopenny plunge," thought Spoffins ; but doing the grand in a sixpenny private, though you have two towels and a piece of—yes—scented soap, didn't seem to be so happy as the "twopenny plunge."
     Arrived at the top of the steps a man in shirt sleeves removed a short pipe from his mouth—the strongest pipe Spoffins ever met with—and hid it in his hand. Seizing Samuel's ticket he rushed down a steamy passage with iron doors on each side and brass knobs in between. He seemed to ascertain if the bath was occupied by turning on the hot water knob!
     " One minntt, sir" (turns on hot water).
     Voice from inside : " What in the name of thunder—"
     "All right, sir ; beg pardon" (turns of hot water).  "You can't have that one, sir," muttered the man, to Spoffins.
     "I didn't want it," replied Samuel. " I prefer to have my private bath to myself."
     The hot water of the next bath was turned on, and as there was no response the man said, " This will be yours, sir," and opened the door.
     The room bore traces of recent occupation. Here and there on the stone floor the wet footprints of the previous tenant were still visible, and the towels which had been used still remained strewn about.
     "Do you like it hot?" asked the man, stirring up the water with his not over clean arms and hands.
     "Yes ; but I don't care about it with a head—the soapsuds of the previous gentleman are waltzing on the top of the water, my friend."
     The man admitted it was so, emptied and refilled the bath, and with two or three whirls of his arms and the used towels made the place look quite respectable.
     When the attendant had gone, Spoffins sat on the edge of the bath and soliloquised, instead of undressing. "I wonder how many have been in that bath before me, and how many have used the brush with the long handle. The last chap 's left his soap. If I'd have known that I needn't have wasted a penny on a new cake. I don't think I'll use the comb and brush, anyway. I'm not certain whether I'll have a bath. That man's pipe was strong. Dear me, I can hear some one splashing in the next bath. If I can hear them they can hear me. Being heard is nearly as bad as being seen. Some of 'em might have the curiosity to look over—or the man might turn on the boiling water to see if I'm still here. 'Taint good enough. Blessed if I have a bath at all."
     His soliloquy finished, Spoffins opened the door and fled. He took the piece of soap home to Maria to show her that he had really bathed, but as he forgot to take the other fellow's, and his own soap hadn't been used, she declined to believe him.

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