Stories from the Collections: Sake Deen Mahomed

16 October 2015

By Kate Elms

October is Black History Month, which gives us an ideal opportunity to look at some material from our archive relating to one of early 19th-century Brighton’s most intriguing characters, Sake Deen Mahomed.

There is some debate about the year of Mahomed’s birth – according to some accounts it was 1749, other records suggest that it was 10 years later. The spelling of his name also varies. What we do know is that he was born in India, served in the East India Company’s Bengal Army for a number of years, and moved to Ireland in 1784. There he met his future wife Jane, and together they moved to London. In 1794, he produced The Travels of Dean Mahomet, the first book written and published in English by an Indian author. Ever the entrepreneur, he then opened the first Indian restaurant in the country, the Hindoostane Coffee House, near Portman Square in London.

Portrait of Mahomed, c1810 Mahomed’s story starts to be of particular interest us in around 1814, when he and Jane are thought to have arrived in Brighton. The town had been developing as a sophisticated resort since the mid-18th century, partly thanks to the work of medical men such as Dr Richard Russell – an early advocate of seawater cures – who established his practice here, and partly as a result of the growth of services – hotels, assembly rooms, libraries – that attracted a stream of aristocratic guests. Indoor hot and cold seawater baths began to appear for medicinal purposes, offering privacy and exclusivity along with health benefits. It was as the manager of a bath house in Devonshire Place that Mahomed established himself in Brighton.

His timing could not have been better. During Mahomed’s early years in Brighton, John Nash was in the process of transforming the Royal Pavilion into an exotic, Indian-inspired palace and, from the start, Mahomed sought to exploit his ancestry. To set himself apart from other bath-house keepers, he offered ‘authentic’ Indian oils and herbal treatments, which were quickly followed by therapeutic steam and vapour baths and his signature ‘Shampooing’, which was actually an invigorating massage. As Mahomed’s business grew, he began to refer to himself rather grandly as a Shampooing Surgeon. In 1820, he embellished his reputation with the publication of Cases Cured, a book of glowing accounts written by former patients. This was followed by another book, Shampooing, first published in 1822 (shown here is the second edition). Shampooing featured more detail about conditions Mahomed had successfully treated, such as asthma, rheumatism and paralysis, and – ever the self-publicist – it also includes further effusive letters of thanks.

‘I am very unwilling to leave your house without acknowledging my gratitude for the wonderful cure effected on Mrs Wartnaby by the use of your Vapour baths and advice…’ begins one. ‘Through the divine blessing, you have been the means of so much benefit to my bodily health, that I cannot leave this place without testifying my gratitude to you upon that account…’ declares another. It becomes apparent, however, that these are not spontaneous testimonials – a third one reads: ‘In compliance with your request of yesterday’s date, I feel much pleasure in stating, for the benefit of whomsoever it may concern, that, in the year 1816, I was completely crippled from contractions in both legs, and that from the use of your bath for six weeks, I found myself greatly recovered…’

Visitors’ Books held in our archive show that business was brisk and that Mahomed’s clientele, both Gentlemen and Ladies (whose care would have been supervised by Mahomed’s wife Jane) travelled from some distance to benefit from his unique therapies. His most prestigious client would undoubtedly have been George IV, and it’s said that Mahomed was consulted about the arrangement of the King’s bathroom at the Royal Pavilion. Princess Poniatowsky of Poland was another royal visitor. In September 1824, it was reported that she had come to Brighton specifically to visit Mahomed’s baths, and it seems that she was so delighted with the results of his treatment that, in May 1825, she presented him with an engraved silver cup. It now forms part of the Local History collection held by Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Report of Princess Poniatowsky's gift to Mahomed, from the Brighton Gazette

Report of Princess Poniatowsky’s gift to Mahomed, from the Brighton Gazette

By this time, Mahomed had moved into a magnificent new bath house on the seafront, close to the Royal Pavilion. His opulent new premises featured reading rooms and parlours for waiting guests, bedrooms for those needing overnight accommodation and, of course, luxurious marble baths. Mahomed and his wife were prominent figures in Brighton society and retained their royal patronage when William IV succeeded his brother in 1830. Despite his advancing years, Mahomed seems not to have embraced retirement. The ESRO archive features a handwritten letter written from Mahomed to Brighton’s Town Commissioner Lewis Slight dated 1 January 1840. Reminding the Commissioner of the numbers of people he has brought to the town to his ‘justly celebrated baths’, he asks for a foot coping to be provided from the other side of the street to his front door. ‘Ladies frequently are compelled to go to other establishments,’ he explained, ‘because in wet weather there is no approach to mine without wading through the mud…’ We will transcribe this letter in full in a future post, and hope by then to have found out whether or not permission was indeed granted!

Mahomed died in February 1851, just two months after the death of his wife Jane. They are buried at St Nicholas’ Churchyard.