For the JC March 10 2017
An historic spa has been targeted for redevelopment — and that may mean the end to the nearly century-old practice of schmeissing, introduced by Jewish immigrants to London.
Literally, the word “schmeiss” means “whip” — but today it involves naked men beating each other with a raffia brush, in what one aficionado called “a thick soup of steam”.
And the steam, according to the hardcore of regulars who attend Bayswater’s Porchester Baths in west London, is what makes schmeissing possible.
Porchester’s steam is generated by a 1929 boiler and current proposals from the developer, as given to Westminster Council, envisage replacing the boiler with “individual steam generators” which the council says are an improvement on the present system.
For decades, the men who take part in the schmeissing sessions have come from all social classes — High Court judges, cabbies, journalists, lawyers and the odd villain.
There is even a mohel who enjoys schmeissing, and almost all the regulars have been visiting Porchester for years.
But actor Clive Saunders is bitterly opposed to the redevelopment. He said: “A new company has come in and set its stall out.
“The game-plan, it seems to us, is to get rid of all the unpleasant old blokes smacking each other with brushes. If they rip the boiler out it will be impossible to continue with schmeissing”.
Westminster said the redevelopment proposals, which are due to cost £750,000 and will be split between the council and the commercial developer, Everyone Active, do not include plans to stop body scrubbing and schmeissing. Journalist Matthew Norman, a regular at the spa for more than 22 years, says the proposed redevelopment is “social vandalism” and that a consultation process which the council says it has held is no more than “window-dressing”.
“They are intending to change the spa into something unrecognisable, a chi-chi place for women who can pay £200 a day. The reason most people go is the quality of the steam. The place has been scandalously under-maintained for a long time. All it needs is to close for a few months so that it can be properly cleaned, not redeveloped.”
Some regulars have complained about declining standards at the baths.
But Michael Chapman Pincher, another regular schmeissing fan, has been going to Porchester for more than 30 years, and says it is “a special place, where I have made such close friends and have got to know a lot about the Jewish way of life. It is a great melting-pot of culture”.
Barrister Philip Sapford QC agreed. He has been a devoted schmeisser since 1979.
Westminster is due to publish its response to the consultation process this month, but Matthew Norman vowed that “the fight is not over.
“No one wins from this; it is a disgrace not to cherish something unique”.
The council said it was “proud of the unique heritage of Porchester Spa and we recognise that practices like schmeissing are an important part of this heritage”.
Councillor David Harvey, cabinet member for environment, sports and community, said: “We know many spa users feel passionate about its heritage and future and we heard from a large numbers of people during the consultation process.
“The consultation listened to the views of existing spa users and those who may use the refurbished facilities in the future. The consultation process formally closed on February 28 2017, but we are continuing to meet with representatives from users groups to ensure the revised plans meet their needs.
“No decisions about the running of Porchester Spa, including heating systems it will use, have been made, but we are clear that the refurbishment will meet the temperature requirements for the hot rooms and continue to offer the same experience, with the same intensity of steam that is key to the user experience.
“We plan to present our revised proposals, following everyone’s feedback, later this month.
“The £750,000 investment in the refurbishment of the Porchester Spa is a great opportunity. We want the refurbishment to celebrate the heritage of the Spa while investing in its future. This work will form part of a £9 million investment in leisure centres across Westminster through the council’s contract with Everyone Active.”