Monday, September 29, 2014

Cheltenham Spa

by Lauren Gilbert

The location is excellent.   On the edge of the Cotswalds, in a valley with good arable land and water, it is surrounded by defensible hills.  Originally an agricultural settlement, the area has been occupied for hundreds of years, with the original settlement taken over by Romans, subsequently Saxon, Norman, etc.  Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the town was awarded a market charter in 1226 and was a royal gift for centuries. The excellence of the site was enhanced by the number of roads that went through the area. However, the town remained a fairly small town occupied by and visited by farmers and local gentry for markets and fairs.

Salt springs were discovered 1716. People drank the waters for health, found them good, and more came. After a while, the waters were sold. The original site was enclosed in 1721. Then Captain Henry Skillicone, owner of the spring, turned the spring into a well with an avenue of trees leading to the well, a pump room, and assembly rooms between  1738-1742. This is the beginning of the development of Cheltenham as a health center and the growth of the town to a thriving medical and social center.

In 1740 a book was written about the healthful qualities of the waters by a Doctor Short. More new spas were built in the area. Gradually the spas were visited by more upper crust and celebrities. Handel and Samuel Johnson visited. However, a visit by George III and the royal family for a month in the summer of 1788 put the town on the map and allowed the appellation “Royal Cheltenham Spa”.

Constitutional Club-satire shows
George III with a jug of Cheltenham Water,
Constitutional Restorer 

The Prince of Wales (later George IV) visited in 1806. He gave a ball attended by leading nobility and gentry, one of the largest and most elaborate gatherings. He visited again as George IV in 1821.  Other royalty visited. The Duke and Duchess of Angouleme (daughter and son-in-law of late King Louis XVI) visited in 1811 and 1813; Louis XVIII visited in 1813. Visits by aristocracy and royalty continued well into the Victorian era.

Education was always a major focus. The city’s motto is “Salubritas et Eruditio” (Health and Education). The Free Grammar School was established in 1574 by Richard Pates and endowed by Queen Elizabeth.

Richard Pate, later in
life by an unknown artist
Wikimedia Commons

Sunday School was established in 1787 at the parish church only 7 years after the first of the nation was established in Gloucester. The Duke of Wellington made donations to the National School and School of Industry during his visit in 1816.

During the Georgian/Regency era, the baths were the major draw.  The waters were supposedly good for skin ailments and scurvy.  The baths included salt baths and hot and cold baths. In 1803, a sulphur spring was discovered by Dr. Thomas Jameson and was supposedly good for jaundice and diseases of the liver, dyspepsia, and conditions resulting from living in a hot climate. The Duke of Wellington took the waters during his visits, and Jane Austen visited Cheltenham Spa for 2 weeks in 1816 with her sister Cassandra. Nearby spas included Montpellier Spa (about ½ mile away) and the Imperial Spa which opened in 1818.  Dr. Jenner (of vaccination fame) was a local practitioner for some years.

The inside of the rotunda
of Montpellier Spa
Wikimedia Commons

Of course, while taking the water people expected to be entertained, especially gentry, aristocracy, and royalty. Although never attaining the status of Bath for its social season, Cheltenham Spa certainly provided entertainment. There was a circulating library: Mr. Harward proprietor of a subscription service also let harpsichords, piano-forte’s, and other instruments and provided people to tune them. The social bustle became significant enough that there were elected masters of ceremonies to regulate amusements. The first one was Simon Moreau, Esq. who greeted George III at his visit and held the position until his death in 1810. He wrote the first guide to Cheltenham.

There were assembly rooms used for balls, card parties, and other entertainments.  The Long Room was the original and smallest of the rooms. The Upper and Lower Rooms opened in 1791. The Assembly Rooms were opened July 29, 1816, by the Duke and Duchess of Wellington with a ball attended by 1400 of the aristocracy.

There is a long history of drama in Cheltenham. The Manor Rolls contain an entry in 1612 regarding the production of a play at the Sign of the Crown. Cheltenham saw performances by Mrs. Siddons, Kemble, Kean, and others.  Dramas and tragedies seem to have been especially popular in Cheltenham, particularly works of Shakespeare.  The original theatre in the early 18th century was located in Coffee House Yard.

George III and his family attended the Cheltenham Theatre in 1788, and he constituted it a Theatre Royal by letters patent. Mrs. Jordan performed in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” during the King’s visit. Lord Byron also patronized the Cheltenham Theatre. Nightly performances were held. The professional troupe of actors was considered extremely proficient. Regular amateur performances also held. Could over-wrought amateur performances, especially if in plays or readings of works by local residents be the origin of the use of “a Cheltenham tragedy”?  The Sadler’s Wells Puppet Theatre was established in 1795 by Samuel Seward, who made automaton figures and marionettes.

Horse racing became established in 1815 with the first organized Flat race held on Notthingham Hill.  In 1818, races were held at Cleeve Hill, and the Gold Cup was established.  (Racing was extremely popular for the next ten years, until religious objections to the evils of horse racing resulted in the grandstand being burned to the ground, and the racecourse was relocated in 1831.)  Other events also were celebrated, such as a balloon ascension in 1813.

Cheltenham was known for its elegant buildings and the wide range and quality of its accommodations. Georgian crescents, houses, villas etc. were constructed. (It is today considered a Regency town). Royal Crescent was built between 1806-1810, and the Promenade (a tree-lined walk that was then developed) in 1818. In 1786, the Paving Commissioners were established to pave and light the streets and keep them clean. The Commissioners’ Act of 1786 allowed 120 oil lamps to be established in the streets. In 1818, gas lamps were put in to light the streets. Hotels and inns were constructed to accommodate increasing number of visitors (up to 15,000 during the season).

Cheltenham maintained its popularity as a spa well into the Victorian era supported by the growth of the railroad. The popularity of horseracing at the nearby track continued, and a music festival was established in 1902. Visitors continue to have a major impact on the town, thanks to the popularity of the music festival and racetrack.


British History On LineA Topographical Dictionary of England, Samuel Lewis, ed. Published 1848. Pages 562-569.

Internet ArchiveNorman's History of Cheltenham (with Eighty Illustrations) by John Goding.  1863. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green.  Cheltenham: Norman.

Medical Humanities website.  “Jane Austen’s lifelong health problems and Final Illness: New Evidence points to a fatal Hodgkin’s disease and excludes the widely accepted Addisons.”  By A. Upfal.  March 1, 2005.

Political cartoon from Wikimedia Commons

Images from the Library of Congress PD 1923
Files generated with WMUK equipmentContent media by years - Supported by Wikimedia UK - 2014

Picture of Richard Pate Wikimedia Commons


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Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel. She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on another novel which is coming out soon.Visit her website HERE.

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