Heroic Irrigations

E.S. Turner

  • The English Spa 1560-1815: A Social History by Phyllis Hembry
    Athlone, 401 pp, £35.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 485 11374 0
  • The Medical History of Waters and Spas edited by Roy Porter
    Wellcome Institute, 150 pp, £18.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 85484 095 8

In Europe the health-seeker may still go barefoot in dew-treading meadows, as enjoined by Father Kneipp, or sniff the gentle mist from rows of brine-soaked hedges, as at Bad Kreuznach, or wallow in the black mud laid on at almost any decent spa. What the British call sea-bathing is available as thalassotherapy, or, with added sand, as thalassopsammotherapy. Less agreeably, the spas offer heroic irrigations not to be described. The inhalatorium and the gargling-room beckon, and so do the salles de pulvérisation. It is all there for those who have not lost their faith. The Rheumatism Map of France and the Faulty Nutrition (Overeating) Map of France are studded with welcoming old spas, their resources judiciously updated.

Sceptical Britons wrote off the spa cure the best part of a century ago. It had long been suspected that gaseous waters could do as little for the pox as for tedium vitae, and that a concussive cold douche was not necessarily the treatment for an unstrung cleric. But the spa towns lived on as a graceful architectural legacy, to be cherished long after the medical fallacies on which they had been built were exploded. In times of world war the inland spas have proved a national asset: in 1939, for instance, the residue of hypochondriacs was tossed on to the street overnight and the hotels were stuffed with refugees from Whitehall. Where else could Fuel Controllers and Wool Controllers have been put up in safety? The Admiralty packed its thousands into Bath and is only now pulling out. In Llandrindod Wells, as one well remembers, the Army erected notices warning officer cadets not to drink the water: the war was not going to be won by incontinent artillerists.

Dr Phyllis Hembry re-creates in meticulous depth the heyday of the English spa, ending in the early 19th century when the fashion of sea-bathing was challenging the supremacy of the inland waters. Let us not forget the splendours of that heyday, in Bath: ‘The most fashionable library before 1800 was James Marshall’s in Milsom Street, where from 1793 to 1799 the mostly aristocratic and upper-class subscribers included two princes (the Prince of Wales and Frederick, Prince of Orange), five dukes, four duchesses, seven earls, 14 countesses, many other nobles and 43 knights. Professional customers were three admirals, four generals and many service officers down to 26 majors and 71 captains, and also ecclesiastics: one arch-bishop, six bishops and 11 other clerics.’ One does not readily think of princes and dukes as book-borrowers and Ruskin’s words spring to mind: ‘We call ourselves a rich nation, and we are filthy and foolish enough to thumb each other’s books out of circulating libraries!’ But Bath was supposed to be a pool of Bethesda, not a Pierian spring. How many coroneted book-borrowers derived real physical benefit from their stay in Bath? The Earl of Chatham, as we know, was for ever dragging his gout from London to Bath, and much good it did him. Dr Hembry mentions two dukes who died at Bath and adds that ‘the corpses of four successive Earls of Suffolk were carried away for burial.’ As Taine said of the spa at Baréges, ‘one must be very fit to take the cure there.’

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