The English Spa - Phyllis Hembry

Phyllis Hembry in her books “The English Spa 1560-1815” and “British Spas from 1815 to the Present,” puts forward other reasons –commercial, economic and political - for the popularity of springs and holy wells, that throw some light on the history of Reffley spring. 


Shedule A

The Chronological Development of the English Spa to 1815:

Dating is in many cases approximate, from evidence of use. Some spas are probably earlier than listed here.

1750-9  Reffley, Norfolk.


Initial Promoters of some Minor Provincial English Spas 1660-1815:

Late 18th Century  Reffley, Norfolk. Sir W.J.H.B. Folkes. 


She reveals …spas to have been not only centres of healing and recreation but also venues of political intrigue. In their day inland spas were of more significance than the later seaside resorts. The story of their development flowering in the 18th century takes us far beyond the history of leisure and touches upon political, religious, economic and social issues. In the Regency came their decline, as they began to face competition from the seaside and continental resorts.


Elizabeth 1 era.


“One of the activities of the English nobility and gentry which has received too little attention from historians was their practice in Elizabeth 1’s time and later, of taking relaxation in an inland watering-place. Most people of rank at some time faced the journey “to the baths” often to stay for a week or more, and many of their kind congregated at these alfresco gatherings, which presented new and unique opportunities for informal social intercourse, the exchange of political and religious information, intrigue and gossip. For Elizabethan society taking the waters ….had become an accepted summer custom (and the tradition) continued into the Stuart age. Here were the origins of the resort trade, but in a religious and political context. The alfresco assemblies at spas were a means of contact between central government and the local community. Interspersed with the gossip serious information was exchanged and privy councillors became aware of local problems. …the feedback from the informal gatherings around baths and wells was a significant means of communication between central and local government.


Henry VIII era.


At the English Reformation, under the orders of Henry V111 and Thomas Cromwell, the holy wells were suppressed, but when the English Catholic recusants began to leave the country for Spa in the Netherlands under the pretext of drinking the waters, the government’s attitude to the use of mineral waters was revised. The danger of allowing Catholic dissidents to emigrate under cover of taking the waters was obvious. As English intelligence agents reported, a potential fifth column of English recusants was being formed in the Netherlands,(which was under Spanish control at the time) and they might assist in the invasion of England.  Some English visitors travelled to the Spanish Netherlands in a genuine quest for health, but also using this excuse, did Catholic recusants who refused to conform after 1559.  It was this aspect of the question- the English Catholic refugees search for asylum at Spa where they could plot, intrigue and pass intelligence- that concerned Elizabeth 1 and her ministers. Faced both with this threat and the reluctance of English people to abandon their practice of using “holy” waters to cure illness, the policy of prohibition was abandoned. The government lifted its ban and promoted the use of a limited number (of sites), with a more secular and scientific approach, shorn of its religious context. n.b. “recusant” someone, usually a catholic, who refused to attend Anglican Church services.


Stuart-Cromwellian era.


By Stuart times, taking the waters at a provincial ‘spa’ had become an accepted social fashion adopted by monarch and court. This vogue for gathering at baths and wells under their patronage, often in a rural setting with the alleged intention of a quest for health, was free of restraints of ceremony. The generally relaxed holiday mood allowed the court nobility to fraternise informally with backwoods local aristocrats and gentry to their mutual enlightenment. The political and social implications of this easy and frequent means of contact between the capital and the local community has not previously been explored. 


Landowners............were quick to designate a local spring a spa, and owners would then sink a well and enclose it with a fence, enlist the aid of a physician or apothecary to publicize it and employ a native woman to be a water dipper. But owners as yet provided few amenities, such as a hut shelter or paved paths, for the water drinkers who gathered there. These early rural spas were very primitive, yet in good summer weather they were a welcome alternative to hot, overcrowded, insanitary (towns). A perpetual problem at (these) small spas was provision for the needs of nature, especially acute after imbibing potent mineral waters. ….both sexes were allowed to retire modestly behind the shrubs and undergrowth in an adjacent field. In some places a small business developed supplying salts of vitriol or steel, seeds of herbs such as coriander, lemon or orange pills and angelica roots to render the water more palatable, and cakes of cream of tartar.


Although there was an accelerating movement in spa foundation, provincial spas had tended to attract a mainly local custom, because of the difficulties of travel, but after 1660 a renewed effort was made to deal with the bad state of roads. The parish repair system was in 1663 supplemented with a new concept of road improvement: the Turnpike Authority under which travellers contributed towards road repairs by a system of tolls, but by 1720 there was little turnpike activity remote from the capital.


In the early Stuart period court patronage had led to an increased number of secular spas and to the fashion of drinking, rather than bathing in, mineral waters. So agreeable were these rural summar gatherings, and so convenient for informal contacts, that not even government suspicion of Catholic  plotting, military supervision, or the disruption of war could undermine the new social habit.


Civil War era.


Commonwealth leaders accepted the practice of ‘taking the waters’, but more for health than pleasure.  Civil war broke out in 1642, but the new vogue for going to baths and wells was by no means diminished. Although rural spas were difficult of access, had crude facilities, and almost totally lacked lodging accommodation, they offered a new kind of relaxed , informal social life to the leisured classes, as an alternative to the more restricted company of the country houses. In 1648, after the collapse of the Kentish rising, Cavaliers met in the wild heathland south of Tunbridge and the Council of State repeatedly instructed the justices to dissolve ‘dangerous meetings’ at the popular wells near Tunbridge. During the interregnum they were well aware that ‘drinking the waters’ could be a cover for royalist plots at Tunbridge and Epsom….. From June to August (the Tunbridge Wells settlement) offered country pleasures in a picnic atmosphere and beautiful sylvan surroundings as a retreat from the languourous heat of the (capital). So in the reign of Anne (1702-1714) earlier their patron, the well remained fashionable, though even by 1750 the township had only a few hundred inhabitants.


The civil War by no means disrupted the spa trade…The government no longer tried to monitor the life of the watering-places: religious and political supervision was abandoned in favour of a purely secular approach and free enterprise by local landowners in minor capitalist ventures……But the medical men did not dominate the spas. A new type of social life evolved around wells in the late 17th century, as health resorts were largely transmuted into pleasure grounds for people of importance and fashion when they dispersed from the capital in the summer months. Spas provided a novel kind of rural public life with varied social intercourse, a welcome alternative to the boring limitations of the country house…..Investment in the spa industry was a part of the commercialisation of leisure in the 18th century to which J H Plumb has drawn attention. It was bolstered by the better security of property rights after the 1688 revolution, the increasing provision of horses for transport, and the better roads to ease the way of travellers. The average speed of coaches, between five and seven miles an hour in the 1780’s was double that of 1750 and encouraged spa visiting….


Spa creation was (now) stimulated by improvements in travel, especially the introduction of turnpike roads which made remote areas accessible. Before 1720 there was little turnpike activity far from the metropolis, but trust investment boomed in the mid-twenties and there was a spurt of spa promotion between 1740 and 1770. During the two most active decades 1751-72 389 Turnpike Acts were passed. Not all new spas were on a turnpike road, but the better highways helped to create a travel mentality and increasing numbers of people became adjusted to the notion of mobility. Personal travel in vehicles or on horseback by well-off families within their own county or region, or even beyond, grew as the use of horses spread and many more became available. The more careful breeding of them for work led to a “horse revolution” between 1680 and 1750 and the number of horses multiplied many times, as did stagechoaches, postchaises and private coaches. (based on Englands Travelling Circus by J H Plumb in the Listener 1978.) By the mid-18th century there was a general movement towards the writing of town histories (and travellers guides). Local sources of information from the mid-18th century, were the proliferating local and county newspapers….


The English habit of going to a domestic spa to drink or bathe in the waters was re-inforced during the wars against France which ended in 1815 , when the continent was closed to English travellers. The attraction of the spas to many visitors was, however, the enjoyment of their social life, rather than the search for health. This was aided from about 1750 by the increasing network of improved roads and more regular and commercialised transport services. However, by 1815, many minor spas, ceasing to attract long distance better off customers had fallen into disuse. Such now neglected spas were Astrop in Oxfordshire, Wellingborough in Northamptonshire and Richmond in Surrey, where the wells were now closed.  These had attracted royalists and had been centres of political intrigue- (in Cromwell’s time).


Commercialisation of Leisure.


This vast leisure market provided new opportunities for capital investment. The better security of property rights after the Revolution of 1688 encouraged a more positive attitude to investment in spas. Spas were important centres of communication about matters political and social and facilitated the exchange of gossip. Another form of investment was the pleasure garden laid out on the model of Raneleigh or Vauxhall Gardens (in London).

Landowners and other proprietors were careful in founding spas. They considered their possible returns from fees paid by visitors. An economically sound venture was important, so the concept of the seasonal subscription was born, a financial device never before used on such a scale, by which the consumer paid for goods and services not at the point of consumption but in advance, and so a new economic feature of social life became common – the Subscription Society. Subscription could be used to anticipate revenue and underwrite the cost of new ventures with comparatively little risk to the entrepreneur.


Subscription was a sure way to commercialise leisure and was applied to all manner of projects. Commercialisation….was often achieved by the concept of a seasonal subscription, a device never used before on such a scale, by which the consumer….paid in advance for a fixed period, not at the point of consumption…..and so the subscription society was born.  Between 1700-1750, 34 new spas were established. The second half of the 18th century, from 1750 until the outbreak of war in 1793, saw the most remarkable expansion of this holiday industry, helped especially by improvements in transport, the provision of more horses, an expanding coach industry, and the turnpike mania of 1751 to 1773. Although the impetus to road improvement then declined, it revived sharply in the 1790’s. Improvements in water transport also helped the movement of building materials, coal and food,….(all of which led to the development of towns, such as Lynn.)


The outbreak of war in 1793 caused a recession in spa promotion (and from 1815) when peace brought hopes of a more active social life.The development of the English spas should be seen in the context of the growth of the English provincial towns in general in the 18th century. Their original monopoly of the holiday trade was increasingly challenged by the seaside resorts, of which there were 15 by 1806.

By 1815 the position of English spas seemed secure. Although they were under challenge from the seaside resorts, and the consequences of opening up the continental spas to the English visitor when peace came in June (1815) had yet to be experienced.   From Phyllis Hembry’s books, The English Spa 1560-1815, and British Spas 1815 to the Present.

For a another perspective, focusing on Spa's in  Norfolk, see Norfolk in the 19th Century: Holiday and Health Resorts. in the MORE section above.