At what point in history did people start to believe that water from one source was healthier than that from another? The Greeks held that particular springs were sacred, the home of nymphs (dwindled local goddesses, according to Harrison and Frazer: the latter gives many examples worldwide of the power of water spirits over families and fertility). Horace (Odes, III, xiii) offered the ‘fons Bandusiae’ the sacrifice of a kid, whose red blood would mingle with its clear waters. Elsewhere – Lindow, Tollund – the sacrifice appears to have been human.
But the attribution of cures for specific ailments, whether by drinking the water or bathing in it, has a long history in which myth and (possible) fact are intertwined. Catherine of Braganza, long-suffering wife of Charles II, visited both Bath and Tunbridge Wells in an effort to cure her infertility, and the indefatigable Celia Fiennes made several visits to baths during her travels around Britain (part of the purpose of which was to recover her health).
Holy springs or wells, today named after saints, such as St Anne’s well at Malvern, St Winefrid’s well, depicted by Edward Pugh, St Bernard’s well, near Edinburgh, and the many wells dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland, seem to have had a continuous local following since pre-Christian times, but only a few such springs were developed (either because of their proven efficacy or because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the locals) to become baths, watering places, or spas.
The original Spa, in Belgium, is a chalybeate spring (i.e. the water contains iron salts). Illnesses stemming from anaemia could be helped by drinking it, and the benefits of Spa water were famous from the fourteenth century, when a local iron-master proclaimed a ‘miracle’ cure. In the late sixteenth century, a similar chalybeate spring was found at Harrogate, and its location was named ‘The English Spaw’. As the health-giving properties of spa water were recognised by the medical profession, the watering places extended their facilities to provide the sort of accommodation that could cope with wealthy invalids, their families and their servants. As early as 1704, the legendary ‘Beau’ Nash was Master of Ceremonies at Bath, running the various entertainments, ruling on whether newcomers could join the society of the elect, keeping an eye on the gambling and when necessary acting as a chaperon. (He later ‘took over’ Tunbridge Wells, regarding it as a colony of his ‘kingdom’ of Bath.)
By the end of the eighteenth century, the alleged virtues of sea air and sea-bathing, as opposed to taking the waters, were gaining the upper hand, especially when George III visited Weymouth (and, says Fanny Burney, he had no sooner popped his head under water than a band of musicians, concealed in a neighbouring bathing machine, struck up “God save great George our King”). Jane Austen, in her unfinished Sanditon, had a great deal of fun with the boom in the building of seaside resorts. Scarborough and Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool (especially after the development of the railways made these coastal places accessible to the many) ceased to be destinations only for the sick (though who can forget little Paul Dombey fading away at Brighton?) but developed into holiday resorts for the healthy.
But could the waters cure? German physicians seem to have taken the lead in producing scientific arguments (mostly for hot and cold bathing, rather than ingesting), but an early British proponent was Sir John Floyer, whose The Ancient Psychrolousia Revived, or, An Essay to Prove Cold Bathing Both Safe and Useful, published in 1702, was very influential. A vicious circle had the unfortunate tendency to arise: a doctor would establish himself in Bath, Matlock or Malvern, develop a regimen of bathing and taking the waters, and take in paying patients to experience his cure. Having got this far, he was hardly likely to undermine his own system by serious scientific investigation of the quality of the product.
We have just reissued two books by scientists, a generation apart, who investigated the chemical composition and properties of the waters of various spas (either doing the analysis themselves or relying on earlier published data). The first is by the unfortunate John Elliot, who, before being driven mad by jealous love, had published An Account of the Nature and Medicinal Virtues of the Principal Mineral Waters of Great Britain and Ireland And Those Most in Repute on the Continent. It first came out in 1781: our version is the posthumous 1789 edition, which includes Elliot’s ‘advertisement’ to the first edition, and an anonymous note explaining that some passages have been updated and enlarged, but with no reference to Elliot’s fate.
The first part of the book is a straightforward lifting of chapters from the second volume of Joseph Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, in which Priestley describes (and argues for the primacy of) his discovery of the way in which water could be impregnated with ‘fixed air’ (carbon dioxide), which he believed might help cure scurvy among sailors. To this is added a section of ‘recipes’ for adding different ingredients to the treated water, to make it resemble more closely the product of the famous European spas: common salt, natron, magnesia, iron filings…
There then follows an introduction to the main work, in which Elliot explains the properties of the different types of spring, the diseases they will cure, and the method of application, internal or external. (The unfamiliar ailment ‘gleets’ occurs frequently: the medical dictionary suggests that this is the discharge resulting from gonorrhoea. To be prescribed water was presumably as ineffective as ingesting mercury, but in itself less harmful.)
The introduction lists the various springs under medical/chemical headings such as ‘Chalybeate waters’ and ‘ Chalybeate purging waters’, describes the differences between taking the waters warm or cold, and discusses warm and cold baths, and the brutal-sounding process where the water was raised up by a series of pumps and deluged down on to the patient’s head. (This was the process undergone at Malvern by Charles Darwin, which he believed helped him but which he was often too frail to endure.) Elliot also explains how his chemical analysis of the minerals in the waters was carried out, and then presents the results of his research in an alphabetical gazetteer of the mineral springs he or others had examined across Europe, from Abcourt near Paris to Zahorovice, ‘in Germany’ (now in the Czech Republic).
Bath, Matlock, Malvern, Harrogate, etc. are dwelt upon at length, but I was surprised at the number of now obscure springs which are listed: Drig Well, near Ravenglass in Cumbria, Shadwell (St Chad’s Well, apparently), ‘near London, situated in Sun Tavern Fields’, or Somersham, Cambridgeshire (who knew?), where the water was ‘drunk in the morning to the quantity of several glasses. It is recommended in debilities of the stomach and bowels, in dysenteries, haemorrhoids, and worms, in nidorous crudities, in obstructions of the liver and spleen, in uterine complaints, in the stone and gravel, in the scurvy, in hysteric and hypochondriacal disorders, and many others…’
The other book is by the physician Charles (later Sir Charles) Scudamore. He published it in 1820, the same year that he was appointed medical advisor to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Gotha, and one of his motives was that, having travelled to various watering-places in England, he was perturbed by the inaccuracy of published information about them, which was ‘more or less erroneous as to the chemical properties of most of the waters’. He carried out his own investigations, and used the findings of trusted colleagues (including Alexander Marcet, physician and husband of the famous Jane), and the geologist Leonard Horner, to publish his findings about the most popular English spas: Buxton, Matlock, Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Bath, Cheltenham, Leamington, Malvern, and the Isle of Wight. That Buxton comes first is explained by the fulsome dedication of the work to the duke of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth: ‘so entirely have all the arrangements, made for the comfort and advantage of the invalid of every rank, sprung from Your Grace’s family, and so manifestly do they continue to flourish under your patronage and direction…’.
For each watering-place, Scudamore provides a history of the spring, a chemical analysis, with details such as temperature range, a ‘medical history’, which includes the diseases for which the waters offered a cure, notes on the correct dosage and the remedial steps to take in case of a reaction, and a section on the ‘rules of bathing’. He interestingly adopts a holistic approach, commenting on the air, the accommodation and even the scenery of the place as likely to improved the spirits and health of the patients quite as much as the waters. ‘If my subject permitted me to indulge in romantic description, I should find it difficult to confine my imagination when engaged in any account of Malvern; so striking are its natural beauties; so pure and restorative the air; so perfect, indeed, is the whole in every object which the mind solicits in a rural scene.’ Well, I thoroughly agree with that, even though I’ve never actually tasted the Malvern waters!