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.’

Dr Hembry begins with the drive to close down holy wells which accompanied the dissolution of the monasteries. Primitive Britons had begun by worshipping water deities and then transferred their loyalties to saints; this dangerous nonsense had to be stamped out. Medical science obliged by dreaming up new superstitions, ascribing ‘sanative’ and curative properties to trivial springs. Nevertheless, Roman Catholics clung to their saintly lore and Queen Elizabeth suspected that they hung about such springs as Holywell, in Flintshire, plotting her downfall. The richer Catholics sought to travel to Continental spas, where dubious contracts abounded, and this traffic had to be regulated by a system of permits. Eventually a compromise was reached: if only the more notorious spas in England were closed down, the rest might be allowed to cater for those who would otherwise have striven to go abroad. Elizabeth made only one visit to Bath, where she seems not to have been bucketed by those ‘extreme water-pourers’ she disliked. She asked for a tun of Buxton waters to be sent her and then complained that the sample had lost its virtues in transit; nor was she pleased when the news got around that she needed the waters to treat her sore legs. Surprisingly, the Queen allowed Mary Queen of Scots to take the waters several times at Buxton. Mary was under the control of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was accused by Elizabeth of making a good financial profit from his Buxton operation.

Others had seen a future in curative wells. By the late 1570s, according to Dr Hembry, there was ‘a mania for well-finding’. Many of those discovered had never been lost and were well-known to those living near by; others had been wisely neglected by man and cattle alike. The smallest spring could be used as a commercial starter, equipped with no more than a rude well-house and a woman dipper. It was desirable to get a doctor or parson to vouch for its qualities, and perhaps a water poet to write a doggerel about it, with suitable aspersions cast on the claims of any rival wells. Gradually the amenities could be extended, but it took hard work and great good fortune to reach the stage of the circulating library and the assembly rooms. At Bath, in mid-17th century, the scene was inelegant to a degree: an observer complained that people of all kinds ‘appear so nakedly, and fearfully, in their uncouth naked postures ... and put one in mind of the Resurrection’. Not the least problem was discouraging beggars, parasites and the poor who fouled the waters Providence had laid on for their betters. Bath had to employ two men to drive the beggars out of town.

Dr Hembry, alert to detect evidence of politicking at spas, thinks that ‘the revolution of 1688 was perhaps precipitated by Bath,’ but the evidence is not over-strong. Bath certainly befriended James II and his Queen, supporting him up to a late stage. At the showdown, eminent Bath citizens fell from grace, but the city welcomed the coronation of William III with suitable gusto. A hundred years on, and patriotic Bath was proudly forming the Bath Association for Preserving Liberty, Property and the Constitution Against Republicans and Levellers.

The new ‘leisure industry’ was well under way in the 18th century, as small landowners and gentry competed in the spa game. Many ventures failed, because they were unsuitably sited, or were under-funded, or under-praised; some, like Glastonbury, overplayed a promising hand. At Melksham, in Wiltshire, a spring was discovered after several unsuccessful attempts to find coal. Dr Hembry has tracked down a profusion of small spas, some of them involving little more than a single well-house. At Braceborough, in Lincolnshire, a modest spring was befriended by Dr Francis Willis, who also ran a private madhouse. This – though the author does not say so – was surely the notorious Rev. Francis Willis, doctor and clergyman, who was summoned to the capital with a straitjacket and a trio of keepers to attend George III during his first mental collapse – a disorder which the waters of Cheltenham and Weymouth were powerless to alleviate.

For many, if not most, the spa peregrination was never a serious quest for health, or relief of gout or barrenness: it was, as Dr Hembry suggests, a welcome change from formal country-house visits, offering a wider circle of acquaintances and more stimulating entertainment (by 1815 seven spas had their own theatres). It was an unwritten rule, however, that acquaintanceships made at spas, as in pleasure-gardens or bawdy-houses, were not to be presumed on elsewhere. The regular wars with France usually brought a spurt in business at English spas, but many missed the high gambling and other excitements for which resorts like Spa, in the Ardennes, were famous – after the French Revolution the streets of Spa grew grass.

Dr Hembry has unearthed much intimate detail about the social life of spas: the cost of lodgings, what people ate at the suppers of the Bath Catch Club and so on; there is even an appendix comprising the floor areas of various assembly rooms. It must have taken a strong resolution on the author’s part not to quote any of Smollett’s satirical passages on Bath (were they thought to be unfair, or too hackneyed?) and to leave Jane Austen (‘Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath!’) out of the chronicle. More comments by visitors, satirical or otherwise, would have been welcome. It was no small feat to track down some 173 spas which came and went before 1815, but in essence one small spa is very like another.

There are many incidental delights. One takes with a certain wariness, however, the advice in a 1796 guide to spa behaviour which says that controversial subjects of conversation, like politics or religion, are banned on penalty of supplying a pot of coffee to fellow guests, ‘but that Irishmen are given a second chance.’ The guide also says that a duke should address an inferior as ‘honest man’ or ‘honest woman’, that a marquess, earl, viscount, baron or bishop should use the blunt address ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and that a baronet, knight or physician should say ‘friend’. This sounds like a hack etiquette writer running wild.

Wisely, Dr Hembry makes no attempt to assess the individual virtues of any given spa water, whether cold, hot, gaseous, stinking or holy. The medical analysis of the day involved much guesswork. Did minerals go to work on the human system, or was it the accompanying water that sluiced away all impurities? Dr Johnson jeered at the idea that chemicals played any part, or that powerful medicines could be infiltrated through the pores (which, if feasible, could have been lethal). There was never any way of checking what had caused a ‘cure’: it could have been the waters, or the healing power of Nature, or the effects of rest, change of diet, company and surroundings. A resolute invalid could have taken the cure at home in his own bathtub. These doubts and uncertainties were as old as the history of spas. Andrea Bacci, writing from Venice in 1571, summed it all up when he said that there were three kinds of persons who went to the baths.

First were the thoughtless, who tried to save expense by not consulting the doctor, only to find that the baths were the scourge of the skinflint. Second were those whose lives were despaired of by the doctor. Mostly they died, blaming both the doctor and the baths. Finally there were those who went to the baths with the advice of the doctor and who returned consoled and sometimes cured. But did they thank the doctor? No, they praised the baths.

Bacci’s disenchanted view is quoted by Dr Richard Palmer in one of the ten essays in The Medical History of Waters and Spas. The knowledgeable contributors deal with a wide span of subjects, including the difficulties of analysing mineral waters, the treatment of lead poisoning at Bath and the transformation, in our own century, of spa doctors into rheumatologists and medical hydrologists (the National Health Service cast a cold eye on the pretensions of spadom). The book is not all scientific dissertation: there are glimpses, for example, of the watery ordeals undergone by Madame de Sévigné at Vichy. Unromantic aspects of taking the cure are not overlooked – all that voiding of waters in quiet alleys, the need to measure one’s intake and conter ce qu’ on pisse.

Madame de Sévigné’s tribulations invite comparison with the experiences of Charles Darwin at Malvern, described here by Dr Janet Browne. This was the period of the heroic cold-water cure popularised by the peasant Vincenz Priessnitz at Gräfenberg in Silesia and profitably taken up by the doctors James Manby Gully and James Wilson. Darwin’s trouble was diagnosed, with his own concurrence, as dyspepsia, which in those days ‘had come to include ideas of physical weakness, loss of appetite, and, most particularly, a depression of spirits, morbid despondency and gloom’. Gully’s form of hydropathy took no account of chemical properties in the water. He held that ‘all chronic disorders were caused by a faulty supply of blood to the viscera and that the application of cold water to the skin would restore the circulation to normal and alleviate the condition.’ Treatment involved standing under cataracts of cold water, being packed in cold wet sheets, sitting over ascending douches, breasting horizontal rain, submerging in cold baths and, of course, imbibing water – good Malvern water – by the gallon. Gully (later to be disgraced for the part he played in the Charles Bravo murder case) pulled in fees from Darwin over a long period. The patient by no means lost his faith in the cure even after his young daughter Anne, also a supposed sufferer from dyspepsia, died under Gully’s care, ‘succumbing to some wasting fever while Darwin watched helplessly’. In the garden of his home at Down he built a species of bath-house, where his butler continued the rubbing and sluicings he had learned at Malvern. Not many butlers, one fancies, would have seen this as part of their function.

The Malvern doctors were avid to treat ‘the prodigious intellects of overworked, broken-down eminent Victorians’ (Dr Browne’s phrase). All the high intelligentsia seem to have turned up sooner or later at Malvern. Carlyle, nursing his nervous dyspepsia between wet sheets, said: ‘I foresee this “water cure” under better forms will become the Ramadhan of the overworked unbelieving English in time coming, an institution they were dreadfully in want of, this long while.’ Tennyson, Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Reade were among those who took their nervous breakdowns to Malvern. Dickens sent his wife there, saying she had ‘a nervous illness about her’, and then wrote a comic play about the place. Florence Nightingale arrived too, to cure nervous prostration brought on by her labours on the Royal Sanitary Commission.

Intellectuals did not monopolise the Malvern waters. By now the town ranked as a spa and a flourishing one, but drawing its clientele from a class very different from that which had frivolled at the Georgian spas: it included middle-class visitors who were not cerebrally exhausted but who liked to keep up with current fads and rather enjoyed scampering up and down the hills. As with the Georgian spas, any resultant cure probably arose, not from hydraulic bombardments, but from change of routine – plus an order to ‘put away that book’. Malvern soon had its rivals. In Scotland, numerous great hydros were erected to minister to the overwrought and the overfed, many of them in holy orders, is unlikely that the habitués of our modern health farms – today’s nearest approach to spas for the élite – could ever have withstood the rigours of the Victorian water cure, and that applies almost certainly to the current literary establishment.