Around 1807, Dean Mahomet decided to leave Ireland and head to London. It was the biggest city Mahomet had ever seen yet. Mahomet, Jane and their two small children (they would have five more over the years), set up home in one of the city’s growing fashionable centres: Portman Square.

Dean Mahomet found work with a rich Scottish nobleman who called himself the Honourable Basil Cochrane. He had returned from India in 1805 as a very wealthy “nabob” (as Europeans who had amassed great wealth in India were called). Cochrane bought for himself one of the largest houses in Portman Square.

Cochrane claimed to have developed a form of vapour cure, learnt from his days in India. He guaranteed that it ensured complete improvement in health. He set up a vapour bath providing therapy to his clients at his large residence, and this is where Dean Mahomet worked.

One of Dean Mahomet’s sons, Horatio, was to write a book on this some years later. In it he said it was Cochrane who had the initial idea of setting up a vapour bath, but it was Dean Mahomet who had “fitted” up and equipped it appropriately for Cochrane.

Soon Dean Mahomet added to Cochrane’s bath a unique practice that would become wildly popular in England. This was the “shampooing” or the therapeutic massage. When he later wrote the story of his own life, embellishing his early life to make things more attractive for his potential readers, Dean Mahomet also claimed that he had been a practitioner of the shampooing technique in England right from 1784 – the very year he had arrived in Cork.

The word “shampoo” came from the Hindi word champo, which meant “to smear, or massage”. Champo itself is said to come from the champa flower used to make fragrant hair oil. After Dean Mahomet offered the “shampoo” in Cochrane’s vapour bath, it was soon in huge demand. Many commercial bathhouses, aiming to copy Cochrane, came up soon after and began to include shampooing among the therapies they offered.

However, Dean Mahomet did not receive any acknowledgement from Cochrane for his shampooing innovation. Nor did his rich, influential clients at Cochrane’s baths acknowledge this. He was disappointed and went about reinventing himself. He decided to start an eatery to present Indian cuisine to the British aristocracy.

An ‘Indian’ restaurant

In late 1809, Dean Mahomet set up his “public eating house”, which he called the “Hindostanee Coffee House” to make it stand out from all the other eating places popular at that time. Everything about it – its ambience, its furnishings, and even the way Mahomet advertised it – was intended to draw in the kind of clientele he wanted: Europeans who had worked and spent several years in India, and who wanted that same experience “back home”.

The Hindostanee Coffee House was located on Portman Square, quite near where Mahomet lived. Coffee did not feature in it at all. Instead, the menu offered meat and vegetable dishes, suitably spiced and served up with seasoned rice. There were sofas and bamboo chairs to create an “Indian” setting.

As the scholar Michael Fisher has detailed, on the walls were paintings showing Indians engaged in various activities, and sporting scenes showing Indians. The Coffee House offered a separate smoking room where diners were offered gilded hookahs in which the tobacco, Mahomet claimed, was carefully mixed with Indian herbs.

However, the rents and the eatery’s special cuisine catering to those “familiar” with it in some way, meant that start-up costs exceeded whatever capital Dean Mahomet had. Even bringing in a partner helped little and finally in March 1812 he went bankrupt and closed it down. It meant Dean Mahomet had to move with his family to a boarding house, where rents were lower. He again found employment in a vapour bathhouse.

The magic of the message

It was around this time that Brighton in the south of England was growing into a fashionable and sought after seaside destination. Sea bathing was popular as a healthy habit. For those self-conscious about swimming openly in public, “bathing machines” that were, in fact, carriages drawn by horses, ran along the shore to take the bather directly into the water. Professional “dippers” waited near these machines to help bathers into shallow seawater.

Once again, Mahomet and his family went about making a new life for themselves in Brighton. Two years after their restaurant shut, in September 1814, they set themselves up as “bathhouse keepers” on the eastern edge of Brighton.

For his new bathhouse, Dean Mahomet advertised a range of luxuries, such as especially made Indian tooth powder; then something he claimed to have just introduced from India – the celebrated “culeff” or kalaf, which is Persian for “permanent” red-black hair dye.

Dean Mahomet and his wife also offered clients their own specialised version of the “therapeutic bath”. This was called “the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath”, promising a different experience with medicinal herbs. Dean Mahomet also offered “shampooing” with specially made Indian oils.

Master of shampooing

In their offering of “Indian” vapour and shampooing they were different from Brighton’s other baths. Dean Mahomet began to call himself “Shampooing Surgeon” in his advertisements. In 1820, he published another book containing a detailed description of the many people he had treated. The book had testimonials from grateful patients in praise of his technique. It was called Cases Cured by Sake [Shaikh] Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, and Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour and Sea-Water Baths . . . (1820).

His success meant he could invest more into his business. He then built Mahomet’s Baths right on the road overlooking the sea, and close to the Royal Pavilion built by King George IV. In the new place, there were separate baths on different floors for ladies and gentlemen. While they waited, clients could read newspapers and journals in beautifully appointed reading rooms. The walls had the usual Indian landscapes again and designs that Dean Mahomet had selected. The ladies had a “boudoir” (sitting room) and gentlemen their own “private parlour”. Verandas encompassed the entire building, and there was also a “sun room” for clients to soak up the sun if they so desired.

The basement had the coal and store cellars, a breakfast room, a room for the manservant, kitchens, pantry, and other offices essential to running a bathhouse. In the steam engine room, the large volume of sea and fresh water used by the establishment was pumped up. However, as they drew in more and more clients, they began to be copied.

Besides his advertisements, Dean Mahomet brought out new editions of his book. It was now called: Shampooing, or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, as Introduced into this Country by S.D. Mahomed (A Native of India). Between 1822, 1826 and 1838, three editions of his book appeared. He offered a different version of his life story in this book. Dean Mahomet now claimed to have received some kind of medical training in India. He also raised his age by over a decade in the hope that this made him seem more “respectable”.

In this period, royalty numbered among his clients, including King George IV (who ruled between 1820–30) and King William IV (who ruled between 1830–37). He was even awarded Warrants of Appointment as royal “Shampooing Surgeon” to Their Majesties.

Excerpted with permission from Across the Seven Seas: Indian Travellers’ Tales from the Past, Anuradha Kumar, Hachette.