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The discovery of Cheltenham’s spa waters


Had it not been for retired sea captain Henry Skillicorne, Cheltenham would not have become a fashionable spa in the eighteenth century and it might well have remained a small, but prosperous, rural market town. Yet, although Skillicorne was the entrepreneur who developed Cheltenham’s mineral waters into an attraction, he did not discover them. That honour goes to a Quaker named William Mason.

In the early eighteenth century, a Mr Higgs of Charlton Kings owned land in Bayshill, near Cheltenham Ladies College. In one of these Bayshill meadows a spring gurgled to the surface. Whilst it is said that several people in the neighbourhood (including Mr Mason, the owner of an adjoining property) may already have been aware of the healing powers of this spring, Higgs failed to see the potential - this was despite spas becoming the very height of fashion - and in 1715 sold all his land, including the spring, to Mason. The accepted local legend is that the original Cheltenham spa was ‘discovered’ in 1716 when pigeons started gathering around the spring, pecking at salt deposits from the saline and mildly chalybeate water, thus alerting Mason to the water’s special qualities. Incidentally this is why the pigeon is a symbol of the town today, featuring on modern signposts appearing around the town. Ornamental pigeons are also perched upon the gateposts of a pair of iron gates found at the top of a quiet lane in Leckhampton, believed to have once stood at the entrance to Cheltenham’s original spa. 

At first the spring was left open and anyone who wished to do so could drink the waters, but later it was railed in and Mason began to develop the spa by building a small thatched cover over it, adding a bowling green and advertising the virtue of his spring’s purging powers. In 1721 Mason retired to Bristol and leased the well to a man named Mr Spencer for £61 per annum.

The original spa

On Masons’s death, his son-in-law, a certain Manx seaman by the name of Captain Henry Skillicorne, became proprietor of the Old Well and set about exploiting and expanding the business opportunity contained within the land. In 1738 Skillicorne deepened the spring to make a proper well, installed pumping apparatus and secured the spring from all extraneous matter. The thatched cover was replaced with a canopied structure resting on four brick pillars and a small assembly room was built, with a billiard room over it. Skillicorne then leased the spa to Thomas Hughes, who sent the water in large quantities to agents in various parts of the country, including the mineral-water manufacturer Mr Thomas Davies of St Albans Street. In 1739 Skillicorne made the Upper Walk, planting thirty-seven elm and lime trees and made a new orchard adjoining and in the winter of 1740 made the Lower Walk, planting ninety-six elms. According to Skillicorne’s diary he ‘had that summer 414 subscribers at the Wells at 12d per piece. Built a yard round it and 18 little houses. The summer of 1741 was very dry. Had 674 subscribers at the wells.’ According to some accounts the building was adorned with stone pigeons, representing the original discovery of the spring.

Although visitors came slowly to Cheltenham at first, the publication of Dr Short’s History of Mineral Waters, which declared Cheltenham’s waters some of the best in the land, roused national interest. The reputation of the spa’s waters grew, carried to London and beyond in bottles and programmes of entertainment were arranged for the well-to-do visitors As the number of visitors increased, more improvements to the well were carried out. In 1742 another room was built, two stories high and in 1743 the well was augmented by an avenue of elm trees, which went by the name of Well Walk and reached for 900 yards or so along the slopes of Bayshill. Cheltenham may still not have been more than a one-street country market town at this point, but it was starting to attract the rich and famous – visiting celebrities included George Frederick Handel, Samuel Johnson, the poet William Shenstone and various aristocrats.


The well continued to receive hundreds of paying visitors each year until the late 1750’s when a smallpox epidemic and the poor conditions of the roads stopped the fashion-conscious travelling to the town. When Henry Skillcorne died in 1763 his son William took over the spa, leasing it out to a William Miller in London and rejuvenating the area by building a new 60 ft assembly room, known as the Long Room, later a residence for the pumper Mrs Forty. Despite the drawbacks, Cheltenham’s spa waters continued to be recommended by doctors of the day as a cure for all manner of afflictions from pimples, to gout, leg ulcers and bilious disorders and the town gradually adapted to attract a tourist trade – a new theatre and assembly rooms were built, pavements and street lamps appeared and older public buildings, such as the market house (which stood on stilts) were demolished.

A royal visit

On 12 July 1788 King George III arrived in town to take the waters on the advice of his doctors, accompanied by Queen Charlotte and their three eldest daughters. Having suffered a bilious attack the previous month, the king was assured that the health-giving qualities of Cheltenham’s waters would soon make him better and so he and the royal party spent five weeks in the town whilst he recuperated. Unfortunately it turns out that the monarch was probably suffering the early stages of a rare genetic disorder as he also displayed symptoms such as rashes, cramps, difficulty breathing and mood swings. Nevertheless, whilst he was in town George appeared to enjoy himself and was seen quaffing at the well, going for strolls, attending the theatre and riding out into the countryside. Giving the waters a hearty endorsement, the spa became known as Royal Well, dramatically boosting its fortunes. Whilst they remained in town the royal party lived in a house in Bayshill loaned to them by Lord Fauconberg. The royal visit assured Cheltenham’s popularity as a leading spa, catapulting the town to the forefront of high fashion and celebrity and initiating an era of development and regeneration. The change was not immediate, however, owing to the blight of the Napoleonic wars and the resulting lack of cash for building, but by the early nineteenth century the town was once again booming as a spa resort and notables arriving in the town to sample the waters included Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Liszt. 

Business is booming

By the start of the 1800s, Cheltenham was attracting thousands of visitors. In order to meet growing demand, further spas began to appear. After the original Royal Well came the Montpellier Baths, the Montpellier Spa, the Sherborne (or Imperial) Spa, Cambray Spa, Alstone Spa and Pittville Pump Room amongst others. The oldest remaining example is found in Vittoria Walk and was founded by London financier Henry Thompson. Thompson, who bought the land upon which the Montpellier and Lansdown estates were developed, built Hygeia House as his own private residence in fields along the Bath Road and sunk around eighty boreholes to have water piped and dispensed directly to the property. The house, now solicitors’ offices, was renamed Vittoria House in 1813 and the road it stands in was named Vittoria Walk. Crucial to the Hygeia House spa development was the Montpellier Baths on the corner of Bath Road and Oriel Road, now the Playhouse Theatre. The baths were constructed by Thompson as a laboratory for the distillation of the Cheltenham spa salts, which were then sold to customers all over the world. In later years the baths became a hydropathic establishment offering medicinal baths before later becoming a swimming pool and public baths. By 1809 Thompson had also opened the Montpellier Spa at the top of Montpellier. Initially covered by a wooden structure, it was later replaced by a grand, porticoed stone building suitable for balls and assemblies and a rival to the original Royal Well. When Henry Thompson died in 1821, the estate was left to his son Pearson who commissioned the renowned London architect John Buonarotti Papworth to design and add a dome to the spa’s long room. The resulting 160 ft diameter copper rotunda still exists today and is the building’s defining feature. Now occupied by Lloyds Bank, the establishment is known simply as the ‘Rotunda’.

Fit for a Queen

On ground now occupied by the Queen’s Hotel stood the Sherborne, or Imperial Spa. Founded in 1818 by local architects the Jearrad Brothers, the design was modelled on on the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. Until the Sherborne Spa’s opening, the Promenade, upon which the spa was situated, was a soggy marshy trackway. This was transformed into an attractive tree-lined avenue and the spa itself was set amongst extensive pleasure grounds, most of which still survive as Imperial Gardens. Around the same time the name was changed to Imperial Spa. Unfortunately, by 1837 the spa was running out of water and so the building was dismantled and rebuilt further down the Promenade, just behind where the Neptune Fountain now sits. The original site was redeveloped with the Queen’s Hotel which opened a year later at a cost of £47,000.

The last and largest of the spas

Arguably one of the most important, and certainly the most enduring of Cheltenham’s major spas is Pittville Pump Room. Commissioned by wealthy landowner Joseph Pitt as the centrepiece to his ‘new town’ of Pittville, work started on the opulent and prestigious spa in 1825. Pitt’s vision was of a pump room to surpass all others, from which gracious villas would line an avenue sweeping down to an artificial lake. Space was also reserved for a grand crescent, church and tree-lined walks surrounded by 600 houses in an assortment or architectural styles. The Pump Room was designed by John Forbes (later arrested for forgery) and it remains one of Cheltenham’s finest regency buildings; a two-storey domed building with Ionic columns set within magnificent and unspoiled gardens. Unfortunately, by the time the Pittville Pump Room and Gardens opened, spas were already passé and Pitt ran into serious financial difficulties, forced to sell off the land. Upon Pitt’s death the pump room became the property of a bank in part settlement for his debts, but in 1890 the Pump Room and Gardens were bought by Cheltenham Borough Council. By 1924 the Gardens were known as Pittville Park.

Little maintenance was carried out on the building, despite it being used as an American army depot during the Second World War, when Nissen huts were erected on the lawns and Jeeps appeared in the car park. After the war, damage and neglect almost caused the decrepit Pump Room to be demolished but it was restored and re-opened in 1960. Pittville Pump Room now serves the public as a venue for concerts, exhibitions and celebrations and the park today has been named as one of the finest public ornamental parks in Britain.

Located within the park, Little Spa at Essex Lodge was a subsidiary spa to the pump room and provided an alternative site to sup the waters. Opening in the 1820s Little Spa actually pre-dates Pittville Pump Room and may have been conceived as a temporary source of water whilst the main pump room was under construction. Essex Lodge was demolished in 1903 and replaced with a refreshment kiosk which is still in use today.

From the 1830s onwards, spas went into decline and most of Cheltenham’s are now gone. In 1849 Skillicorne’s old Royal Well buildings were demolished, replaced with entertainment venues and, by 1897, the waters had been completely banished underground as a result of Cheltenham Ladies’ College buying the site. The town became a non-spa in 2003 when the last functioning well at Pittville Pump Room was found to be leaking, but fortunately Cheltenham Borough Council, generously subbed by local business Kohler Mira, fixed the problem and in 2005 the supply was restored. Today, the spa waters can still be sampled for free at Pittville, however it is said that, despite their medicinal properties, they are not very pleasant in taste!

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