Taking the Waters

This collection looks at the development of spa towns such as Bath, where for centuries visitors have flocked in search of medical cures. The project combines examples of early medical language with an exploration of the social culture surrounding the curative waters.

Changing times

During the 18th and 19th centuries spa towns like Bath were expanding rapidly. Thatched cottages were disappearing, replaced by classical style, sash-windowed residences. Elegant public buildings also appeared such as the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms which were soon buzzing with fashionable life. Bath became one of the chic places to be in the season, a place where visitors could bathe, drink the famous waters, gamble, eat, drink, dance, do business and broker marriages. The social mix encompassed all sorts of characters: aristocrats, merchants, bluestockings, respectable matrons, servants, chancers and fraudsters.

Precious waters

Many of these texts deal with Bath's most precious commodity – the water. In Thomas Guidott's Register, the case of William Howard, Viscount Stafford, cured of the 'Universal Palsey', is only one of many. George Cheyne (forced to publish for fear his work would be pirated by devious booksellers) blames rich diets and lazy lifestyles for the high incidence of gout amongst 18th century's rich Englishmen. The waters of Bath provide the cure.

The account by John Rutty of his academic argument over the presence or otherwise of sulphur in the waters of Aix-la-Chapelle, Bath and Bristol provides a fascinating example of scientific writing. And the real (1650) and satirical (1762) speeches of quack doctors give us a glimpse of a more dubious practice and discourse.


By the 19th century Bath was in competition with Continental spas and other genteel British spas. The Visitors Guide to Cheltenham indicates the amenities and activities on offer there, and the kind of visitors the town hoped to attract. One response from Bath comes in Mansford's specialised guide for invalids. He warns that standing around in the cold, wearing inadequately fashionable clothing, is not good for the 'languid circulation of the semi-animate valetudinarian'. But Bath's water is. A similar argument appears in Five Minutes’ Advice where the writer urges the reader to visit Bath