Spa Town

Cheltenham was little more than a village until the early 19th century, with the river running down the High Street (for “river” read “stinking sludge”) with stepping stones across it, and stray farm animals milling about, its principle employment opportunities being brewing and the knitting of stockings. Its massive building boom was precipitated by royal patronage of its healing waters, transforming it rapidly from a provincial backwater to a classy spa resort. Unlike Bath, however, whose focus and growth has always centred around its ancient steaming pools, Cheltenham had a multitude of smaller spas, each making its own local focal point and offering its own mineral composition. The generous reserves of underground water in the area meant that almost anyone could sink a well on their property and charge visitors for access to it.

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The spas went into decline from the 1830s onwards and most of them are gone. The town became a total non-spa in 2003 when the last functioning well at Pittville (pump room pictured above) was found to be leaking, and the spa water was being diluted by groundwater to the extent that it wasn’t spa water any more. Fortunately Cheltenham Borough Council, generously subbed by local business Kohler Mira, committed to fixing it and in 2005 a new borehole was successfully brought into use to restore the supply.

Such is the diversity of spa water dispensary in Cheltenham I’ve been giving myself a headache for years trying to piece together the confusing identities of the many different wells and aquatic establishments, some of which changed names and locations and even used each other’s names at different times. I’m still working on it, but here is a history of them so far, in approximate chronological order of their opening.

Old Well, Royal Well, Royal Old Well, or King’s Well – off Bayshill Road, opened by 1720

oldspa1786The original Cheltenham spa dispensed a saline and mildly chalybeate water from a spring discovered in 1716 by local farmer William Mason in one of his fields. It became popular with local residents as a healing well, so he began to charge them for using it. The field in question was where the Princess Hall of the Ladies College now stands, between present day Montpellier Street and Bayshill Road. The little thatched cover Mason built for it was later expanded considerably by his son-in-law Henry Skillicorne, a retired sea captain. Skillicorne deepened the spring to make a proper well and built a pump room in 1738, and a brick arched canopy over the well itself. The building was adorned with stone pigeons, representing the alleged original discoverers of the spring … pigeons pecking at the water’s salt deposits in the field. In 1743 the well was augmented by an avenue of elm trees which led for 900 yards along the slopes of Bayshill, and went by the name of Well Walk.

oldspa1813Henry Skillicorne died in 1763 and his son William took over the spa, leasing it out to a bloke called William Miller from London. In 1775 a 60ft long mini-assembly room was added, known as the Long Room. It was later adapted as a residence for the pumper, Mrs Forty. The print on the right dates from 1813.

The waters were recommended by doctors of the day as a cure for all kinds of afflictions, from ‘pimples’ and ‘ulcers of the legs’ to ‘female diseases’. It was also acknowledged to possess stimulating properties for the bowel regions, providing much opportunity for toilet humour in satirical cartoons.

kingvisitsroyalspaThe spa’s fortunes took a dramatic boost in 1788 when King George III came to take the waters during a five-week visit (pictured right), and gave them a hearty endorsement. The spa became the Royal Well or King’s Well (not to be confused with the other King’s Well or Royal Spa in Overton Road). Such was the influence of royalty at that time, the entire town was catapulted into an era of complete change and regeneration. Not immediately, because the blight of the Napoleonic wars from 1792 to 1815 limited the cash for building, but by 1820 the town was well into a massive boom as a spa resort.

In 1849 Skillicorne’s old buildings were demolished and replaced by a much larger ballroom and theatre. By that time spas were in decline, and the taking of waters there became secondary to its use as an entertainment venue. The waters were dispensed from a conservatory attached to the main building. The adjacent street had become increasingly built up too, giving rise to what is now Montpellier Street.

A most unfortunate development came in 1897, when the Ladies College bought up the site and demolished the whole lot. So the Old Well now languishes under the Princess Hall, the waters banished underground.

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1806 map showing the Well Walk with its avenues of trees, alongside the road which is now Montpellier Street, with the River Chelt running over it at the bottom end. The Old Well is the cluster of buildings in the middle.

Cold Bath – on banks of River Chelt near present-day Waitrose car park, opened by 1763

Not a spa but a companion establishment for the Old Well, offering the medicinal baths which were sometimes recommended by physicians in conjunction with the taking of spa waters. It may have been founded shortly after the original spa was developed but was certainly in use by 1763 when it was run by Miss Stapleton and offered cold and warm baths. It seems to have fallen out of favour by 1780, and was disused by 1787 when a rival hydropathic establishment began offering warm and tepid medicinal baths from premises in the High Street, but none the less it was still present on the 1806, 1820 and 1825 maps.

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1806 map showing the Cold Bath beside the River Chelt. Sadler’s Wells is not a spa, it’s a puppet theatre!

King’s Well, Royal Spa – Overton Road near Fauconberg Lodge, opened 1788

Fauconberg Lodge, also known at various times as Fauconberg House, Bay’s Hill Lodge and Bayshill House, was built in 1781 and used as lodgings by King George III when he visited in 1788. Around this time a saline well was sunk nearby just off present-day Overton Road, known as the King’s Well (probably on or near the present site of a house called Stoneville). It was a subsidiary of the Old Well and not to be confused with the original, which was also sometimes (confusingly) known as the King’s Well. The salty spring was apparently discovered by accident while digging for a fresh water supply for Fauconberg Lodge, and was made into a well for the convenience of King George during his stay, and to help conserve the water supply at the main well which was running rather low.

It appears on the 1806 map as the Royal Spa, but had closed by 1809. There is, however, a “King’s Well” still shown in the area more than a century later on the 1921 OS map, but slightly further over in Douro Road. Not bad for a spa originally made to be used for five weeks.

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1806 map, Bays Hill Lodge and the Royal Spa. “Lad’s Lane shut up” survives in the form of Lansdown Terrace Lane, behind present day Malvern Road.

Chalybeate Spa, Chalybeate Spring Villa, Original Chalybeate Spa, Field Lodge – Sandford Park, opened 1801

One of the most difficult to research, because although it’s clearly marked on all the early maps and indeed still partially survives today, the Chalybeate Well in Sandford Park is among Cheltenham’s forgotten spas.

This is quite surprising because it was in its time quite an important spa, the first new one to be founded in Cheltenham since the Old Well and the first since George III’s visit, thereby representing the start of the town’s spa boom. It was located just south of the High Street in a field behind Cheltenham Mill (now Barrett’s Mill) and close to the River Chelt. The area is now part of Sandford Park, and College Road, which didn’t exist until the 1840s, later cut through beside it.

chalybeatespaOpened in 1801 by the miller William Humphris Barrett and later run by a chemist called Mr Cruikshanks, the chalybeate spring had been in use informally for years by local people who attested to its value in healing eye disorders. Barrett built a spa house over it, laid out gravel paths around it and charged a fee for use of the waters. Its reputation was assured after it received the endorsement of a well-known politician of the day, Sir Francis Burdett. Later a fine dwelling house was built just behind it.

As the spa grew in popularity, a row broke out over access to it. It was only accessible by way of footpaths from Barrett’s Mill, and in the 1820s the town’s Paving Commissioners were keen to establish a new piece of road connecting it to the High Street. But Barrett flatly refused “on any terms” to allow the new road on his land, and so nothing happened until 1842 when the land was in the possession of the Wood family who had aspirations for property development. At that time, College Road was carved through beyond the spa (which was no longer of great importance) and connected up with Sandford Road.

Chalybeate is the word used to describe iron-rich water, and the rusty-red mineral content made it a useful medicinal alternative to the mainly saline waters of the Old Well. It was diuretic rather than laxative, which you could regard as a preferable alternative. Contemporary medical opinion suggested its use for nervous diseases, convulsions, chronic inflammation of the eyes and ‘sterility in females’. (Yeah right.)

fieldlodgeA few years after it opened, a rival chalybeate spa was opened round the corner in Cambray Place (see Fowler’s Cottage below) which was also sometimes called the Chalybeate Spa. So the Sandford Park one was renamed the Original Chalybeate Spa at this time. The 1834 map shows it as Calybeate Spring Villa, presumably dropping the ‘h’ by mistake. By the 1850s it had closed and the building nearest to the Chelt became a private house known as Field Lodge. Once a beautiful house, this mutilated stump shown here covered with graffiti and ivy is all that remains of it.

There was also a Chalybeate Cottage nearby on the High Street (mapped in 1820) but this was probably swept away when College Road was built.

Both parts of the Chalybeate Spa still survive as a parks department property in the corner of Sandford Park next to College Road, a pair of single-storey buildings aligned sideways on to the road (because, of course, they were built before the road was there).

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1806 map showing the original ‘Chalybeat’ spa building … a second house was built later, close to the Chelt.

Sherborne Well, Lord Sherborne’s Well, New Well – around site of Gordon Lamp in Montpellier. Opened 1803

An early forerunner of the Sherborne Spa (see below) opened by Dr Jameson – author of a book about the medicinal Cheltenham waters – some time around 1803, near Galipot Farm (soon to become Suffolk Square). It was mentioned by Griffith as being ‘at the top of [Badgeworth] Lane’, thought to be a reference to Lansdown Road. It’s shown on the 1806 map as the New Well, which marks its location slap bang in the middle of the road, on the site of the present-day elongated roundabout at the top of Montpellier, where the Gordon Lamp now stands. Although it was popular to start with, use of this well was short-lived because it ran dry within a few years.

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1806 map showing the original Sherborne Well as ‘New Well’

Hygeia House – Vittoria Walk, opened 1804

hygeiahouse1813This was the earliest development by London and Liverpool financier Henry Thompson, who built Hygeia House as his own home in the spacious fields along the Bath Road (pictured here in 1813). He bought a substantial amount of land in the area in the early 1800s (which became the Montpellier estate) and made a concerted effort to tap into its copious supplies of medicinal water. Around eighty boreholes were sunk in various places and the waters piped to Hygeia House, where they were pumped and dispensed.

In 1809 the best of the wells was opened formally as the Montpellier Spa (see below) and Hygeia House was then used solely as Thompson’s private residence. It was renamed Vittoria House in 1813, and the road it stands in was named Vittoria Walk.

The house still stands today, sans chimneys, now used as solicitors’ offices; and the once glorious walks and rides are filled in with development including the hideous and ill-conceived Eagle Star tower block of 1968, which has for 40 years been Cheltenham’s most obtrusive and despised landmark.

Montpellier Baths, Salts Laboratory – Bath Road, opened around 1806-10

montpellierbathsAnother crucial part of the Hygeia House spa development was the Montpellier Baths on the corner of Bath Road and Oriel Road, a curious wedge-shaped building constructed some time around 1806 by Henry Thompson as a laboratory for the distillation of Cheltenham spa salts. The salts were produced by a complicated and laborious process and then sold in bottles to customers all over the world, so they could consume the healing properties of Cheltenham waters without having to come to the town. For this purpose the spa water was pumped in through lead pipes from eighty different wells across the Montpellier estate.

montpellierbaths2In later years the laboratory became a hydropathic establishment offering a range of medicinal baths, and later still a swimming pool and public baths. For the last 60 years it’s been the home of the Playhouse Theatre, whose auditorium is built over the old pool with the stage over the deep end and the original tiles still intact underneath. For those who aren’t afraid of sinister underground passageways, there’s still a large network of brick arched tunnels underneath the building, probably a relic of Thompson’s water storage, and used in the 1970s for firemen’s training exercises.

1820 map. “Thompson’s Laboratory & Baths” is shown towards the left on the “New” Bath Road. The River Chelt originally passed right beside it but shortly afterwards was diverted to run through the gardens of Wellington Mansion (now demolished). Notice also the huge pond on the site of present day Rodney Road car park.

Fowler’s Cottage, Fowler’s Spa, Chalybeate Spa – Rodney Road, opened 1807

The first Cambray spa was set up in a house in Rodney Road, known as Fowler’s Cottage, which stood in the angle formed by the footpath running from Cambray Place to Rodney Road. It was a chalybeate well, rivalling the one already operating in Sandford Park which then became known as the Original Chalybeate Spa. The 1820 map (right) shows the building facing onto Rodney Road – then known as Engine House Lane – and marks it as “Chalybeate Spa”. Another map of 1825 marks the site as “Two Simple Chalybeate Wells”, one either side of the road.

When the neighbouring big house, Cambray House, was bought by Baynham Jones, the spa became his property and he moved it to a new site on the junction of Rodney Road and Oriel Road (see Cambray Spa below). A new well was made on that site, but it was saline rather than chalybeate. Fowler’s Cottage was apparently demolished in the 1960s.

Montpellier Spa – the Rotunda, Montpellier Walk, opened 1808

montpellierspa1813As Henry Thompson developed his Montpellier estate in the early 1800s, the spa at his own home, Hygeia House, became inadequate and he opened a new one at the top of Montpellier in 1808. Initially it was covered by a wooden structure (shown here in an engraving from 1813).

In 1817 a more permanent stone building was erected, designed by George Underwood as a “long room” suitable for balls and assemblies, and thus becoming a serious rival to the original Old Well spa.

rotunda-interiorHenry Thompson died in 1821, leaving his estate to his son Pearson, who was then in his mid 20s and carried on his father’s work with great gusto. He commissioned the famous London architect J B Papworth to add a dome to the Long Room, which has since then been known as the Rotunda. The focal point inside was a marble pump case and counter, surrounded by 16 Corinthian pillars (shown here in a print of c.1834). A motto carved above the entrance reads “Infirmo capiti fluit utilis utilis alvo”, or, “Our waters cure head and stomach aches”. Gardens were laid out and an avenue of trees formed a walkway towards the town centre. The gardens included formal plantings and rustic paths, a Chinese pagoda and a looted Italian fountain. Gradually the area around the Rotunda was developed and the formation of Montpellier Walk in 1836-8 gave it a more urban setting, replacing the avenue of trees with a row of shops. When Pearson Thompson ran out of money, the development was continued by the Jearrad brothers.

By 1876 the spa was pretty much redundant, and the marble counter and pump were removed so that the building could be utilised more as a social venue. The waters were instead made available from a lodge across the road in Montpellier Gardens.

Although now a busy urban spot, the Montpellier Spa is not much changed. The Rotunda building has been occupied for many years by Lloyds Bank, and the Montpellier Gardens also still survive, though denuded of some of its decorative buildings and its shrubberies and serpentine paths.

Essex Well – Montpellier area, opened before 1809

Shown on Daniel Trinder’s map of 1809 but so far I haven’t found any other references. It shouldn’t be confused with the well at Essex Lodge in Pittville, at the opposite end of town.

Bescroft Saline Well – Lansdown area, opened before 1809

Another unidentified well marked on Trinder’s 1809 map. It is marked as being “For Salts”, so perhaps it was part of Henry Thompson’s salt distillation enterprise.

Orchard Well – Bayshill Road area, before 1809

Appears on Trinder’s 1809 map, with no other references found so far. It may be synonymous with the Sulphur Spring below, as it’s in approximately the same area.

Alstone Spa – Great Western Road/Millbrook Street, opened 1809

Situated a little way out of town, in the grounds of Alstone Villa, close to Alstone Mill on the banks of the River Chelt. It was founded by the owner of Alstone Villa, Mr Smith, when he discovered a spring on his property in 1809 and built an octagonal pump room over it and laid out some pleasure gardens. Jung & Schneider’s Alstone Spa Nursery Gardens were opened in front of it. It was never a major spa and closed in 1834, but a revival took place many decades later (see below). In the 1880s the building was renamed Brooklyn, before returning to the name Alstone Spa House. The site is now changed beyond recognition thanks to the 2002 Waitrose development, which destroyed the original streetscape as well as the spa house.

1820 map. The Alstone Spa stands in what was then still a rural area close to Alstone Mill. The road shown here is present day Great Western Road leading into Milbrook Street – the mill stood approximately where the big white bridge is today.

Sherborne or Imperial Spa – Promenade, on site of Queen’s Hotel, opened 1818

sherbornespaUntil the opening of the Sherborne Spa (not to be confused with Lord Sherborne’s Well, above) the Promenade was a soggy marshy trackway which was barely passable. Thomas Henney and Samuel Harward established a right of way over it, which was initially known as the Sherborne Walk, and transformed it into an attractive tree-lined ride down to the River Chelt and up the slope on the other side to their newly developed Sherborne Spa. Founded in 1818, the opulent and magnificent spa was a low temple-like building with a statue of the goddess Hygeia on the top, shown here in a print of 1826. Some time shortly afterwards it changed its name to the Imperial Spa. It was set amongst extensive pleasure grounds, most of which still survive as Imperial Gardens, with broad paths and rides around it which soon became Imperial Square.

By 1837 the Imperial Spa had a problem: it was running out of water. A fall in the water table had rendered the well pretty much dry and useless. The building was dismantled and rebuilt in another part of the Promenade, just behind the site where the Neptune Fountain now stands (minus the Hygeia statue). The original site was redeveloped in 1838 with the Queen’s Hotel building, and from the upper windows of the Queen’s you can still appreciate the original tree-lined Promenade at its best.

The new site was certainly not short of underground water … it stood directly above the culverted River Chelt. But the spa heyday was on the wane and the building found an alternative use as a tea room, a dancing school, and a piano warehouse at various times. It occupied this spot for exactly a century before being demolished in 1937 to make way for the ABC cinema. The cinema itself was demolished 50 years later and replaced (despite initial plans for a hideous black glass office block) with Royscot House, a 1980s Regency-replica which you would probably not recognise as an office building, so beautifully does it blend in with the rest of the 1800s streetscape. Only the car park in its basement gives away its modern origins.

1820 map showing the Sherborne Spa on its original site in its opulent heyday. The ‘Old Lane to Gallipot Farm’ is now Montpellier Street.

Sulphur Spring – somewhere around site of Bayshill Road, before 1820

The 1820 map shows a modest sized building called the Sulphur Spring, reached by way of a tree-lined path leading at right-angles from the old well walk. The area was undeveloped at that time but its location must have been somewhere around the top of Bayshill Road or Parabola Road. No further information at present.

Essex Lodge, the “Little Spa” – Central Cross Drive, Pittville Park. Opened 1820s

littlespasiteWithin view of Pittville Pump Room, the Little Spa at Essex Lodge was a subsidiary spa located at the town end of Pittville Park and provided an alternative place to sup the waters, no doubt useful for those patrons who weren’t quite up to staggering up the slope. Its opening in the 1820s predates the pump room itself, which was a long time in development and the Little Spa may have been initially a temporary source of Pittville water while the main pump room was under construction. Essex Lodge was demolished around 1903 and replaced by a refreshments kiosk (right) which is still in use today. No spa water available these days though.

Pittville Pump Room – top of Pittville Park, opened 1830

Arguably the most important and enduring of the major spas, Pittville Pump Room is an architectural treasure which retains its magnificent setting in unspoiled gardens. Commissioned by wealthy landowner Joseph Pitt as the centrepiece of his “new town” of Pittville, and designed by talented local architect John Forbes, the two-storey domed building with Ionic columns along the front still adorns the majority of postcards and tourist guides in the town today. Unlike the large bolt-on dome added to the Rotunda in Montpellier, the Pittville Pump Room dome is small and beautifully proportioned. The extensive parkland was laid out by a much respected local nurseryman of the day, Richard Ware.

pittvillespa1Pittville Pump Room was designed to be the most prestigious and opulent spa in Cheltenham. And indeed it was, but it suffered from two drawbacks. For one, it missed its chance as a spa because the taking of waters was already in decline by the time it opened. Secondly, its location at the top of sloping parkland some way north of the High Street made it inconvenient. Maybe if Pitt’s new town had taken off the way he had intended, the area would have been more at the heart of the town’s social life. But as it was, the area was so far out of town that few people were inclined to trek up there. Pitt ran into serious financial difficulties and was forced to sell off most of his land, which was then developed by others. His loss is the town’s gain, however, because the undeveloped walks and rides in front of the pump room have become a public park instead. The pump room itself became the property of a bank after Pitt’s death in part settlement of his enormous debts. It was leased to Edward Shenton in 1887 who promoted it more for its pleasure gardens than its spa waters, offering “cosmoramic views from the dome” and a 20ft long boa constrictor, “the largest Specimen in Europe.”

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Some years later it was bought by Cheltenham Borough Council and now serves the public as a venue for concerts and exhibitions. The waters are still available there, now re-opened following restoration work to rescue the old well.

Pittville Pump Room had a narrow escape from destruction, because the British and US armies commandeered it during WW2 as a storage depot, erecting a series of nissen huts in its gardens and neglecting the fabric of the building to such an extent that it became infested with dry rot. There was some doubt whether it was actually possible to save it, but a heroic effort was made and by 1960 it was restored and thriving.

Cambray Spa, Turkish Baths – Oriel Road/Rodney Road, opened 1834

The acquisition of Cambray House by Baynham Jones led to the removal of the Cambray chalybeate spa at Fowler’s Cottage, and a new saline well was opened in 1834 on the corner of Rodney and Oriel Roads. It was served by an octagonal Gothic building, pictured below in a George Rowe engraving of c.1845.

rowe_cambrayspaThe heyday of spas was over by now and the Cambray Spa limped on until 1873 when it was bought up by William Ruck, who converted it into a Turkish Bath. In its early days it was promoted as the Cambray Spa Turkish Baths & Medical Galvanic Institution, offering “purest quality” saline and chalybeate waters and a range of “vapour, mercurial, sulphur, salt, alkaline, warm or cold, galvanic or electro chemical baths”, and massage. Men and women had to use the baths on different days, and it was only open to women on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Turkish Bath seems to have thrived and continued into the 1930s.

Unfortunately some bright spark decided to demolish this lovely building in 1938. Its site is now the bottom end of Rodney Road car park. Oh joy.

Freeman’s Hydropathic Institution, Cheltenham Water-Cure Establishment – Sherborne House, Albion Street, opened 1842

As spas declined in popularity, medicinal baths became more popular. Dr James Freeman opened this one in a house just north of Albion Street and offered cold water cures. It wasn’t a huge success and by 1847 it had changed hands and was being run by Dr John Balbirnie, “with great Improvements in the Baths, Douches, and the various processes and appliances”. Accommodation could be provided for £3. 3s. a week with no extra charge for servants, and free advice was offered to the poor on Mondays and Thursdays. The venture still failed to take off and it closed around 1864.

Lansdown Terrace Well – no information at present, but presumably somewhere near Lansdown Terrace in Malvern Road. Opened 1857.

Chadnor Villa Well – Well Place, opened 1857

This minor saline spa is marked on the 1921 Ordnance Survey map but despite being (presumably) the inspiration for the naming of Well Place, it failed to have much impact on the town. It was at one time apparently run by a Miss Ann Webb, but further information is sketchy. The well and its pump house are long gone.

Fulshaw Lodge Well – Christ Church Road, opened 1885

No other information at present.

Central Spa – in the Town Hall, Imperial Square. Opened 1906

Part of a brief attempt to resurrect Cheltenham’s status as a spa town, the Town Hall in Imperial Square was equipped with a fourfold pump system from which different types of spa water, including those of Montpellier and Pittville, could be dispensed from a single circular counter. For the first few decades spa-maids were employed to dispense the waters. The counter is still there and so are the pumps, but in recent years only one has been working, and even that has since been shut down.

Alstone Spa II – Great Western Road/Millbrook Street, opened early 1900s

A revival of the old Alstone Spa (see above). The building was an old and very pretty cottage with a pump house attached. It was demolished in 2001 to make way for the restructuring of Millbrook Street, and is a very sad and unfortunate loss to the town. Its site is now a triangle of grass (so far remaining as a public open space despite developers having their beady eyes on it) between the bottom of Great Western Road and the newly grubbed out Honeybourne Way, overlooked by Waitrose’s ugly concrete car park. In my view this attractive building should have been saved, but there you go. Thus Cheltenham’s last spa is flushed down the toilet of economic development.

Want to try taking the waters? Pittville Pump Room is now the only surviving working spa in Cheltenham.

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