Interior of Frederick Street wash house, the first public wash house. Taken in 1914.
Baths and wash houses available for public use in Britain were first established in Liverpool. St. George's Pier Head salt-water baths were opened in 1828 by the Corporation of Liverpool with the first known warm fresh-water public wash house being opened in May 1842 on Frederick Street.
The popularity of wash-houses was spurred by the newspaper interest in Kitty Wilkinson, an Irish immigrant "wife of a labourer" who became known as the Saint of the Slums. In 1832, during a cholera epidemic, Wilkinson took the initiative to offer the use of her house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of a penny per week, and showed them how to use a chloride of lime (bleach) to get them clean. She was supported by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone. In 1842 Wilkinson was appointed baths superintendent.
Illustration for Maidstone Baths opened May 1852.
In 1844 the Committee for Promoting the Establishment of Baths and Wash-Houses for the Labouring Classes was formed with the Bishop of London as president. The Bishop petitioned for a bill for the regulation of public baths and in 1846 Sir George Gray introduced the bill which became the first legislation for public bathing establishments and empowered local authorities to fund the building of public baths and wash houses.
The first London public baths was opened at Goulston Square, Whitechapel, in 1847 with the Prince consort laying the foundation stone. The building was demolished in 1989 and the site re-used to build the Women's Library in 2001, which incorporates a faux wash house frontage.
^"Baths and Wash-Houses". The Times. 22 July 1846. p. 6. Yesterday the bill, as amended by the committee, for promoting the voluntary establishment in boroughs and parishes in England and Wales of public baths and wash-houses was printed.
^"Classified Advertising". The Times. 26 July 1847. p. 1. Model Public Baths, Goulston-square, Whitechapel. The BATHS for men and boys are now OPEN from 5 in the morning till 10 at night. Charges - first-class (two towels), cold bath 5d., warm bath 6d.; second-class (one towel), cold bath 1d, warm bath 2d. Every bath is in a private room.