Friday, June 3, 2011

Cheltenham -- a Notable Spa

"For walks and for waters, for beaux and for belles,
There's nothing in nature to rival their wells."
So says The English Spy in writing of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in the Cotswold Hills.

We met 'Bernard Blackmantle', The English Spy, a couple of months ago. His real name was Charles Molloy Westmacott. His book The English Spy is a compendium of scurrilous tales and gossip with bits of useful information for the researcher. When I browsed the book I was struck by the illustrations of Cheltenham. I discovered that in the chapter titled "A Trip to the Spas", Blackmantle/Westmacott devotes several pages to Cheltenham, and includes several illustrations by Cruickshank which combine scenes of the town with ribald details.
I must admit that I was not aware of Cheltenham's fame as a spa during the Regency. It was visited by King George III in 1788, and its popularity soared in the following years. It was largely rebuilt, beginning in 1800, and still exists as a lovely Regency town. It was a popular place for retiring military officers, and was according to 'Bernard Blackmantle', home to a large Irish population.

The mineral wells were considered particularly efficacious (causing, according to The English Spy, abrupt exits from the Pump Rooms) and the Montpelier Spa and the Sherborne Spa were accounted 'splendid' and 'elegant' structures of their type. Below is the Royal Wells, with some users hurrying away as others flock in.
The English Spy calls the inhabitants of the town 'Chelts', praises their virtues and revels in describing the eccentrics of the town. He also devotes two or three pages to describing the 'travellers' or 'commercial men' who visit the town. These were travelling salesmen, dealing in everything from jewellry to coffins to wine and timber--'knights of the saddle-bag' the author calls them. They had their own chamber--the Commercial Room--at the Bell Inn in Cheltenham and Cruickshank drew their company with keen observation.
Despite the fact that 'Bernard Blackmantle' and Cruickshank's illustrations stimulated my interest in Cheltenham, they are not the most accurate of guides to its charms. For more realistic and useful information on the spa town, I turned to Google Books and I found some delightful guides. Here is the 1814 title page of one that displays the effusive sentiments of Cheltenham's admirers.
It really is interesting reading, and another (from 1803) titled simply "The History of Cheltenham and its Environs" is also charmingly readable. "Griffith's New Historical Description of Cheltenham" of 1826 includes detailed information about lodging houses, and remarkable analysis of the mineral content of the waters! The engravings in all of these books are captivating and give a wonderful picture of the town in the Regency. I wish I could reproduce them all here, but they will eventually find their way on to the 'Regency World - Villages and Towns' page at my website.

One guide I cannot recommend, except with a giggle, is "Cheltenham; its Beauties and Advantages Attempted in Blank Verse". A sample of its poetry will suffice to explain my laughter (the errors in possessives belong to the original):
It's beauties and it's pleasures,
I fain would raise them higher,
Attracting Whigs and Tories,
In concert to admire,
Forgetting party feelings,
Hail Nature's high display,
It's Waters confer healing,
And chase disease away.
I cannot leave Cheltenham or The English Spy without mentioning 'Blackmantle's' reference to the Berkeley Hunt and the nearby Oakland Cottages. The latter was a 'snug convent' with a 'lady abbess and the fair sisters of Cytherea', and the former would set off from the Cottages and if they failed to find a fox they would return--to enjoy other (!) activities. Such is the salacious nature of The English Spy.
I am grateful to 'Bernard Blackmantle' for making me aware of the importance of Cheltenham in the life of Regency England. It is, I think, the perfect setting for a Regency story. In fact, the spas of England could lead to a series of stories....

'Til next time,


Sources From Google Books:

Griffith, J. K. "A General Cheltenham Guide" 1814
Ruff, H. "The History of Cheltenham and its Environs" 1803
Campbell, C. E. "Cheltenham; Its Beauties and Advantages" 1824
Griffith's "New Historical Description of Cheltenham" 1826

Blackmantle, Bernard "The English Spy" (also from, a more complete version)


Patricia K said...

This stuff is great. The pictures
are wonderful. This is so so neat.
I can put pictures in my mind for the books I read from this period.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed my post, Pat! I really like having these pictures in my mind also--makes the reading experience richer, I think.