Cheltenham is a Regency-period spa town in Gloucestershire, south-west England. And this is a warts-and-all celebration of the town and its unique heritage. Cheltonia is an ongoing street-by-street history and biography. It’s illustrated with photographs I’ve taken over the last decade or so and some old maps I’ve lovingly hand-coloured. This site is not about the corporate Cheltenham, nor the touristy Cheltenham, but small focused vignettes of the town as it really is (or was in the past).
I worry that Cheltenham is suffering a slow and irreversable loss of character. Insensitive planning and get-rich-quick property speculation have taken their toll in the last few years. Even now the secluded lanes of Lansdown are alive with the clanking of lorries and the whine of angle-grinders as people defy the credit crunch for one more makeover spree. My pictures cover the last decade and a half but I wish I’d started my photographic efforts earlier, as so many beautiful things in the town have disappeared in the last 15 years … and more losses are happening all the time.
I’m not making Cheltenham out to be some heritage utopia which has to be preserved at all costs and in every detail. I’d just like to see the developers and councillors show a little respect for the town instead of shitting their profit-driven cram-’em-in development portfolios all over it, and destroying a heritage landscape for short-term economic gain. Of course historic Cheltenham was itself built by extravagant (and greedy) property speculators, often taking stupid risks – its finest landmarks are the legacy of people whose building schemes were so overblown they bankrupted themselves. But the things they left behind them are treasures, buildings of inspiring beauty and lasting craftsmanship. How proud will the next generation of Cheltonians feel about the monstrous multi-storey slab of “luxury” hamster-cage apartments splattered over the Waitrose site, a blighted area which until recently was the location of one of Cheltenham’s last working spas? It’s a mean-spirited legacy.
In 1795 Cheltenham became the home of Dr Jenner, an early pioneer of vaccination whose famous legacy is the discovery of the smallpox vaccine. The crusade which freed the entire human race from smallpox began in Cheltenham in the humble premises of Alpha House (formerly called the Pest House) in St George’s Road, an 18th century building where Jenner devoted his resources to giving free vaccinations to the poor – eventually saving millions of lives. In September 2011 this 200-year-old house was demolished. Why was it not protected?
I found in the far corner of Rodney Road car park a single remaining fragment of a very old garden wall from a house long since demolished, probably Wellington Cottage which is marked on some old maps. It wasn’t really a wall, just a ghost of one, a brick arch studded with moss standing precariously balanced by its own weight over the River Chelt. I didn’t have my camera with me so I made a mental note to go back and photograph it another time. When I went back a couple of months later it was gone.
I keep taking the photographs because I never know what’s going to disappear next.
Cheltonia is structured like a blog, but it isn’t a blog: it’s a collection of articles, slowly becoming a street-by-street and feature-by-feature biography of the town, indexed by area. It uses a blog template simply because WordPress is a very convenient platform for adding and organising content. My work on the site is often (by necessity) seasonal … so don’t worry if it looks like nothing has been posted for ages. I haven’t given up, I’m just more likely to post stuff in bursts of activity rather than with blogesque regularity.
Much of the information in the articles is founded on the research of others. This site would absolutely not be possible without the online historical gazetteer of Cheltenham freely provided by James Hodsdon and Ray Wilson of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society – it is a priceless resource. Also very helpful is the beautifully researched Gloucestershire Pubs site by Geoff Sandles, which has info on pretty much every known pub that ever existed in the town. Other useful websites can be found in the links sidebar.
I’ve also drawn on a number of useful books including:
The Book of Cheltenham by Steven Blake and Roger Beacham
A History of Cheltenham by Gwen Hart
Cheltenham’s Lost Heritage by Oliver Bradbury (thanks Simon for recommending it)
A Cheltenham Companion by Aylwin Sampson and Steven Blake
Cheltenham’s Ornamental Ironwork by Amina Chatwin
Cheltenham Betrayed by Timothy Mowl
The Story of Cheltenham by Robin Brooks
Cheltenham, A History by Sue Rowbotham and Jill Waller
The Story of Tivoli by Brian Torode
Cheltenham’s Churches and Chapels 773-1883 by Steven Blake
St George’s Place by the Cheltenham Spa Campaign
I’m grateful to everyone who takes the time to leave comments and feedback, especially the regulars – it is hugely appreciated. Deepest gratitude to those who have helped me out with their kindness and generosity, especially Maggie Rayner of Michael Rayner Books and Paul Slater at the University of Gloucestershire, and Daniel Staniforth for encouragement and support.
The main maps you’ll see on Cheltonia are Mitchell’s 1806 map, Cossens’ Post Office map of 1820 (pictured below), Merrett’s 1834 map and a 1927 map from Kelly’s Directory. Supplemented by others such as Bacon’s 1880 map and a large-scale 1921 OS map. All hand coloured in acrylic paints (on a photocopy not an original!) If you are in Cheltenham, there is a brilliant portfolio of historic maps in the reference section (upstairs) in Cheltenham Library. Alternatively a large-scale two-part 1920s map of the town is available from Alan Godfrey Maps.
So who is behind Cheltonia? Well, it doesn’t matter much, but if you’re curious I am a Cheltenham born (and resident) graphic designer, co-founder of the small Cheltenham-based publisher Skylight Press. Cheltonia is all the work of one person – flattered though I am by the occasional assumption that there’s a whole team of people behind it!
If you want to contact me directly, you can reach me at “spa.didah” at “gmail.com”. Apologies that in the last year or so I’ve been too busy with work commitments to be able to offer much direct assistance to people researching family history, but I always love to receive comments … and any additional historical detail which can be added to individual articles (from memories, house deeds etc) are always welcome, though please be patient with me if it takes me a while to add them to the site.
© Rebsie Fairholm 2008-2016. All text and photographs on this site are copyright. Please ask permission before using them elsewhere. Thanks.