The water-doctors vanish

E.S. Turner

  • British Spas from 1815 to the Present Day: A Social History by Phyllis Hembry and Leonard Cowie
    Athlone, 292 pp, £50.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 485 11502 6

Welcome, then, to this historic spa town, once calling itself the English Montpellier. The cherished waters, ideal for restoring the ‘animal functions’, have been reduced to a trickle from a single tap, hidden away from all but the curious; the Regency assembly rooms are the scene of a one-week monster carpet sale; and the crumbled colonnade for water-drinkers houses boutiques called Smarty Pants, Just Bums and Going for Bust. ‘Call this a spa?’ the valetudinarian out of Europe might say. ‘Where is your Grand Parc des Sources? Where are your salles de pulvérisation? And your first-class gargling-room? Have you no radioactive muds? We do not ask for dew-treading meadows, but what about a quiet garden with rows of brine-soaked hedges?’

The hard truth is that Britons lost faith in the water cure – almost any form of water cure, internal or external – a long time ago, leaving the Europeans to go on believing what they liked (there’s a Bohemian spa which still claims to cure sterility in women). Our native sceptics had always said that drinking the waters to the music of an early morning band achieved nothing which could not have been induced by exercising self-discipline at home, taking plenty of baths and drinking water from the tap, with perhaps the odd pinch of salts from the apothecary. But the water-doctors who battened on the spa trade spread the notion that self-treatment held out as little hope of salvation as saying one’s prayers at home and never going to church. The ritual and the socialising, along with the change of climate and scenery, were part of the cure, if not all of it, as even the doctors sometimes admitted.

For about twenty years Britain’s National Health Service toyed with spa treatments, then virtually abandoned the idea. It was left to private health hydros to carry on the tradition of taking the cure, as they still do. Here, in scenes of grandiosity, the redundant belle dame joins the drained intellectual, paying heavily for intimate irrigations and whatever tactile novelties are going (these are likely to include aromatherapy and reflexology). Here the affluent share their exhaustions with their own kind, as once their predecessors did after taking the Old Gout Road to Bath.

Spa-building was always a terrific gamble. Transforming a smelly puddle, chance-discovered in the wild, into a temple of Aesculapius, with a smart town fit for carriage-folk rising round it, was the dream of many a speculative builder, but it was as elusive of attainment as a sailor’s hopes of intercepting the Spanish treasure fleet. For every Bath or Cheltenham or Leamington there were a score of abandoned enterprises – sad huddles of huts, with the rude well-house left as a sty for pigs. Other springs flourished to the stage when they could boast half a dozen lodging-houses, and visionaries talked of starting a circulating library; then they too collapsed.

In The English Spa 1560 to 1815 the late Phyllis Hembry gave a detailed, scholarly account of the rise and fall of a wide range of watering-places, great and small. Her second volume has been ably completed by other hands. This, too, is a story of boom and bust; boom in the first half of the 19th century, with the development of some seventy new springs, and unstoppable decline thereafter. These volumes do not concern themselves with the medical pretensions of spas or with the derisive accounts by visitors like Tobias Smollett and Christopher Anstey. They are sober accounts of planning, financing and building, of the labours of improvement commissioners; they offer analyses of population and of the proportion of masters to servants, along with statistics of blacksmiths, fly-proprietors, hawkers and hucksters. But if anecdotes are absent, it does not mean that Hembry overlooks oddities and piquancies along the way. What historian could fail to mention the opening, in 1816, of the Imperial Sulphureous Medicinal Font and Ladies’ Marble Baths, an institution worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the Grand Ducal Inhalatorium at Baden Baden? Cheltenham might be infested by Sabbatarians, spinsters, Methodists and teetotallers, but its redeeming passion for music was supported by such treasure-houses as Hale and Binfield’s Musical Library and Repository and Cooper’s Harp and Piano Repository. Tunbridge saw fit to found a Mendicity Society (not, as printed, a Mendacity Society) ‘to give vagrants a night’s lodging with bread, cheese and small beer’. In common with other spas, the gentry of Tunbridge furthered the cause of law and order by forming an Association for the Prosecution of Felons. In 1832 Bath ordered the town guards to be especially watchful against felons and beggars alike in a vain attempt to keep cholera out of the town. Bona fide visitors, suffering from less deadly illnesses, still presumably expected to be greeted by a peal on the abbey bells and qualified for a passing bell if things went ill.

Horace Walpole said: ‘The English are like ducks; they are for ever waddling to the waters.’ That was in 1790. The English were about to undergo a collective change in behaviour: the waters to which they would increasingly waddle were the coastal breakers. Belatedly, the sea was viewed not merely as a fund of fish and a barrier to Frenchmen but as a source of good, clean fun. At the same time mountains were ceasing to be objects of terror and moors were no longer howling wildernesses. Perhaps the English were growing up. At Brighton the first curistes even drank sea-water for their health, in a day when it was tolerably free of sewage. The craze for sea-bathing was a potent challenge to the inland spas. In 1815, according to Hembry, there were about forty viable spa centres in Britain, many of them newly prosperous because the French wars had put Aix-la-Chapelle, Vichy, Plombières and the rest out of bounds. Bath was easily the foremost British spa, with Cheltenham and Leamington competing hard for those haughty ‘half-pay yellows from the Indus and the Ganges’, and Harrogate had introduced the happy idea of hiring nymphs instead of crones to dispense its tincture of rotten eggs. Buxton was being developed and nursed by the Duke of Devonshire; Tunbridge Wells, having failed to cure barrenness in women, was stagnating; and the London spas, like Dulwich and Streatham, were already menaced by the capital’s slow suin. The coming of the railways had raised hopes that respectable health-seekers would pour into places like Cheltenham and Leamington; instead, the trains carried them from those towns and their catchment areas to Brighton and Scarborough, or even to those Continental spas where lax ways and gambling tables insidiously beckoned.

The Duke of Devonshire was not the only great landowner to have a spa or two on his hands, but this was in truth no great asset; far luckier was the duke who owned a coalfield. The Marquess of Hastings, an old soldier, owned both a coalfield and a spa – the Moira Spa on the outskirts of Ashby de la Zouche. It prospered sufficiently for the Marquess to decide to shift it into Ashby itself, which he did after much costly labour in the field of hydraulics, but the result did not repay the effort. Among many other aristocrats who went in for spa-building was the Earl of Lonsdale, who at high expense built the fashionable Shap Wells Hotel (still operating) in a howling wilderness.

It was not necessary to be an aristocrat to enter this game. Hembry introduces us to Dr Henry Jephson, whose ‘professional income was said to be £20,000, the largest in the world’. He not only brought fame to Leamington’s waters, but toiled mightily in banking, railways, gas, beer, insurance and farming; when his health failed at fifty he became blind and ‘took little part in affairs, except as a governor of nearly every blind asylum in England and a life governor of 43 such institutions’. Samuel Smiles, the apostle of self-help, would have been proud of him. Equally, Smiles would have commended Cheltenham’s great benefactor, Joseph Pitt, who as a lad used to hold gentlemen’s horses for a penny. After becoming an attorney and a Member of Parliament, he bought a hundred acres from the Earl of Essex and built the ‘new town’ of Pittville as a rival to its parent town. The Pittville Pump Room was not the standard octagonal fancy but a model of the Temple of Illisus, with statues of Aesculapius, Hygeia and Hippocrates. Pitt’s timing was good. Cheltenham had advanced too far to fail; even if its waters lost favour its fine hotels could be painlessly converted into colleges and boarding schools (Phyllis Hembry was head of the history department at Cheltenham Ladies’ College).

Early in the 1840s taking the cure entered a new, absurdist phase with the cold-water cult of hydropathy. This was the system devised by the Silesian peasant Vincent Priessnitz at Gräfenberg (now jesenik, in the Czech Republic). Intended to restore the overfed and the overworked, it involved the application of cold water to the body in jets, sprays and cataracts, as well as enveloping the patient in chill wet sheets. The shock of a column of water descending twenty feet onto the shoulders (likened to standing under a falling load of gravel) could hardly fail to have some effect on the circulation, but it was not really the best treatment for a clergyman suffering from Doubt. Nor, for that matter, was the ascending douche, resembling a demented bidet. But there was no lack of candidates for punishment. Because the pilgrimage to Gräfenberg was an arduous one, a brace of doctors at Malvern decided to turn that spa into the English Gräfenberg. Both Dr James Wilson and Dr James Manby Gully made quick fortunes, though Gully was eventually disgraced by his involvement in the Charles Bravo murder mystery. Hembry records that those who undertook the cold-water cure at Malvern included Gladstone (a glutton for self-discipline), Macaulay, Dickens, Tennyson, Carlyle, Darwin and Florence Nightingale, but she forbears to tell us how these patients reacted, and whether they experienced the ‘Priessnitz crisis’, which precipitated ‘popules and pustules’. Such information is, of course, available elsewhere. Darwin, though deeply sceptical of the benefits of hydropathy, went home and ordered his butler to continue the treatment.

It had been prophesied that hydropathy would be ‘the downfall of the druggists’ and ‘the ruin of spas’. Many spas ignored it, though Matlock greedily embraced the craze. In Scotland a number of heavyweight hydros were rushed up, notably at Crieff, Pitlochy and Bridge of Allan, all much patronised by overwrought clergy. The Craiglockhart military hospital where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were treated in World War One was once a hydro; fortunately, the high douche was never invoked for the shell-shocked.

Disillusion with hydropathy accelerated the decline of the spa habit, though there were one or two late flowerings. Droitwich, with salt waters four times as dense as those of the Dead Sea, offered genuine relief to the semi-disabled. Thanks to the Maple furniture heiress, Lady Weigall, Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire achieved social distinction in the Belle Epoque; the patroness always took the last two coaches of the Boston-London train for herself and her servants. The mansion she built for herself became the officers’ mess for the Dambusters in World War Two. Which is a reminder that in both world wars the spa towns with their spacious hotels were invaluable bolt-holes for evacuated bureaucrats – wool controllers, fuel rationers, Navy administrators and the like. There was a rare to-do in 1939 when the last of the ancient hypochondriacs were tossed onto the street to make room for the embusqués.

It is fair to say that belated break-throughs in medical science, at the end of last century, contributed powerfully to the spas’ decline. The old-time water-doctors vanished with the old-time pox-doctors. A great irony is that the British, while spurning their spas, have now taken to drinking enormous quantities of spa water, often from obscure and improbable Helicons. This addiction would have astounded the good Dr Struve who, in George IV’s Brighton, operated his German Spa with a row of taps offering the ‘factitious’, or homemade, waters of Ems, Baden Baden, Pyrmont and the best Bohemian springs; an enterprise which saw him widely patronised and widely reviled. At least it was better to drink ‘factitious’ solutions than Brighton’s sea-water. The British rage for sea-bathing has dwindled somewhat, partly because of the level of pollutants. It was left to the French, all of 99 years ago, to convert sea-bathing into thalassothérapie, which is undergone in enclosed sea-water, warmed and filtered and with artificial waves; there is also the added boon of algothérapie (application of seaweed). For mystico-scientific reasons (as a current pamphlet seeks to explain) thalassothérapie must be conducted within three hundred metres from the shoreline. Britons on holiday may have sampled these specialised marine spas. They will certainly have noticed that the best of the old inland spas of Europe have looked after themselves singularly well, making the most of their setting, climate and relaxed attitudes, even if in the off season they have to depend on arts festivals and the equivalent of one-week monster carpet sales. It is unlikely that the syndicat d’initiative of any Gallic sulphur spring has ever voted to call the place the French Harrogate; or that any pot-bellied bather, coated in black mud, lying on his back in the Dead Sea reading the Jerusalem Post pretends that he is the beneficiary of an Israeli Droitwich. There is still a British Spa Federation, which sooner or later, one suspects, will go the way of those Associations for the Prosecution of Felons. Bath, Queen of the Federation, has seen her glories much reduced by ball and chain, but there is enough left to provide background for the occasional Jane Austen film. There is little chance that we will ever see a film called L’Année dernière à Leamington.