This information was published on our original website in 2014. We are in the process of updating the information, as some of the contents may be out of date.

Water in the Ancient World

Water has been used to treat illness since before the era of recorded time. Bathing or immersion in water is called Balneotherapy whereas water treatment in general is termed Hydrotherapy. Several early civilizations believed that water had miraculous and spiritual powers and as a result medicine, magic and religion became intertwined. Springs were often identified as sacred and in some societies there were religious bathing rituals before entering a temple, as a means of purification before meeting the god of healing. As long as 5000 years ago the Egyptians used water treatments for healing, followed by the Babylonian civilisation (1800-1500BC) who advocated bathing in rivers and used hot and cold “compresses” to improve health. The Babylonian word for a physician was “A-zu” which means “one who knows water”.

By the time of Pericles in the 5th century BC, the Greeks believed that the healing power of water resided in its physical properties. Hippocraties, known as the father of medicine, followed the cult of Asclepios the God of healing and advocated hot and cold bathing, observing that cold baths were beneficial “for those accustomed to them”. The Greek centres of healing such as Epidaurus, usually consisted of a sacred spring, baths, a theatre and sometimes a library. The Greeks introduced water treatments to the Roman Empire, but for the Romans the bathhouse was the hub of communal and military life. From the 3rd century BC, Greek doctors came to Rome and some of them, notably Soranus, advocated water for the treatment of a variety of diseases such as gout, stomach disorders, skin irruptions and problems involving the urinary tract.

The Romans worshipped Aesculapius, their name for the god of healing who they adopted from the Greeks. Their temples to the god were often built near hot mineral springs but if no water was present they constructed sophisticated aqueducts and pipes over considerable distances to convey cold water to the site. The Caracalla Baths in Imperial Rome were said to boast 64 vaulted chambers, which could accommodate 3000 people. These bathing establishments spread through out the whole of the Roman Empire, even reaching Britain where the natural hot springs of Bath were developed as a Roman bathing complex. These establishments were composed of a series of bathing chambers ranging in size from a large vaulted hall which was slightly warm called the Tepidarium, set between a Calc darium – a hot communal bath heated by the sun and hot vapor – and Frigidarium with cold plunge pool. A Sudatorarum or Laconium was an even hotter dry room with under-floor heating designed to induce sweating. There were rooms for rest and massage, a gymnasium and gardens for promenading.

Water, Religion and Pilgrimage

As the Roman Empire declined so did the use of baths for hygiene purposes and medicinal use. With the coming of Christianity to England, the names of Pagan wells were swiftly changed into Holy Wells by dedicating them to a Catholic Saint or the Virgin Mary and became places of pilgrimage. During the Middle Ages (XX century AD) there were at least 30 major sites of pilgrimage, the most famous being St Winifred’s Well, a holy well in Flintshire, North Wales. The well building is the only one to survive the reformation and can be seen to this day. Over the centuries well worship had become a long-standing custom, an important part of every day life and every year many people made pilgrimages to healing springs. For instance there were baths for women on St John’s day and calendars containing the days and hours for bathing, all decreed by a learned physician who consulted the stars. During this time bathing was mainly under the control of the Christian Church; cold and sometimes warm baths were part of monastic life. But, by the 14th century cold baths had become neglected. Several writers have suggested that knights returning from the Crusades in the 13th Century, brought the idea of hot baths back to England as a result of hygiene problems. This gave rise to the “Turkish Bath” which was a communal bath for both sexes. By the 14th Century the thermal baths at Bath in Somerset were condemned by the Church because of nude, mixed bathing which contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. By the 17th century the hot baths in London were dens of vice and immorality, known as “Stews”. These factors contributed to the closure or strict regulation of bathing establishments by Henry VIII and this state of affairs continued for almost 150 years. As well worship was also considered to be steeped in the religion of Rome, the Reformation closed down most of the holy wells.

Malvern has its own Holy Well in Malvern Wells but we have little idea of when this name was attributed to it. I believe this site was on a medieval pilgrimage route from the Midlands to the shrine of St David in Wales and since that time it was almost certainly associated with “miraculous” cures. There is hearsay evidence of the monks from Little Malvern Priory bathing in the waters of Holy Well. The first definite records pertaining to the Holy Well date from 1558 when Queen Elizabeth 1st granted the spring to a local man, John Hornyold. Some 200 metres above the Holy Well lies the Eye Well, so called because of its ability to cure eye diseases. It is now almost completely silted up, but the spring still creates a tiny pool beside a path that runs parallel to the crest of the hills. It became popular in 1622 when Bannister wrote the following verse about the well in his “Breviary of the Eyes”:

“A little more of their curing tell
How they help sour Eyes with a new found Well,
Great Speech of Malvern Hills was late reported,
Unto which Spring People in Troops resorted.”

The Beginning of UK’s Bottled Water

At the same time in the early 17th century, bottling at the Holy Well began and with the exception of two intervals continued until end of the 20th Century. Today we think that the popularity of bottled water is a modern phenomenon, but records show that the Holy Well is the oldest water-bottling site in the country. Water was bottled in 1583 at the original town in Belgium named Spa (one derivation of the word Spa), only 39 years before it started in Malvern. Nash, the 18th century Worcestershire historian, publicised the fame of Malvern Water by printing a song of 16 verses in praise of Malvern, believed to have been written in the reign of James I (1603-1625). At a time when the main form of transporting goods was by cart or boat, the last verse describes the distribution of Malvern water throughout the nation:

A Thousand Bottles there
Were fill’d weekly,
And many Costrils1 rare
For stomachs sickly;
Some of them into Kent,
Some of them to London sent,
Others to Berwick went,
O Praise the Lord!

(1. A Costril was a pilgrim bottle which had two ‘ears’ so that it could be slung from a belt and used by pilgrims as a travelling water supply)

Types Of Spa

In the 16th Century it was feared that plots to overcome the English protestant monarchy could be hatched abroad under the pretext of “taking the waters” and so the government encouraged the creation of spas in England. Parliament issued licences from 1571 to regulate all visits to the Belgium town of Spa and the Privy Council encouraged the creation of spas at several sites in England – Bath in the west, Buxton and Harrogate in the north. Basically there were two types of spas- a) bathing spas such as Bath, Malvern, Matlock and later Droitwich. b) spas where the water was drunk, at Cheltenham, Tunbridge Wells, and Llandridnod Wells. Some spas recommended both drinking and immersion as at Buxton, Malvern and Bath. Also in the 16th Century, physicians became interested in the benefits of bathing in water and medicine played an increasing role in encouraging spa treatments.

Minerals in the Water

In the 17th Century with advances in chemical analysis, some doctors turned their attention to the minerals dissolved in water. These individuals were called “chymical doctors” and they attributed the healing qualities of various waters to their chemical content. This idea was first published by Dr Edward Jordan in his work “Natural Bathes” republished by Thomas Guidott in 1669. This listed minerals and their healing properties. His table of minerals mentioned stones, earth, metals, spirits, bitumen and “concrete juices2” said to be tinctures and spirits extracts from the minerals. As the taste varied and changed with transportation and temperature this gave rise to the recommendation that water was best consumed at its source. (2. “Concrete juices” gave the water its distinctive taste. Another author described the taste and activity as “salty, nitrous, aluminous, vitroline, sulphurous, and bituminous”) Spa waters were popularly classified as

  1. “Stinking” e.g. Harrogate due to the hydrogen Sulphide,
  2. “Salty” e.g. Cheltenham and Droitwich due to Sodium Chloride as in common salt,
  3. “Tart” or “Chalybeate” as at Tunbridge Wells due to iron.

Malvern’s Pure Water

Because of its purity Malvern water is unique in contrast to all other spa waters. This was first scientifically authenticated by Dr John Wall, a founding physician of Worcestershire Infirmary and co-founder of the Worcester Porcelain Company. In 1756 he analysed the water of the Holy well and compared it with water from the Pouhon Spring in the Belgian village of Spa and the British waters of Bath, Cheltenham, Bristol hot wells, Scarborough, Tunbridge Wells and the purest spring in Worcester. His book “Experiments and Observation on the Malvern Waters” concluded that “the Efficacy of this Water seems chiefly to arise from its great purity”. This led the wits of the 18th Century to compose the following couplet.

“The Malvern water says Doctor John Wall
Is famous for containing just nothing at all”

The book became a best seller and readers persuaded him to print an appendix containing 51 cures, 47 of them from the Holy Well and 3 from the Chalybeate Spring, an iron bearing spring arising below Swan Pool, the lake still in Priory Park in Great Malvern. Dr Wall advised his patients “to drink freely of the Waters for some days or weeks before they used them externally and to wash sores, tumours etc under the spout several times in a day”. He also used cold compresses and treated a wide range of diseases including cancers, leprosy, ringworm, ulcers and “The King’s Evil” (tuberculosis involving lymph nodes, usually in the neck).

Subsequently Dr Wall’s son, Martin, added to the many editions of his father’s book and the proceeds from the sales were spent improving “the accommodation” at the springs. An example of this is the well house built in 1740, situated just below the Holy Well spring itself, with new baths added in 1773. Today the building is being converted into flats.

Malvern Wells versus Great Malvern

In the days of Dr Wall, visitors lodged in Great Malvern and usually walked to Malvern Wells to take the waters. One famous visitor Benjamin Stillingfleet who gave the term “Blue Stocking” to the English language (meaning an academic lady), astutely observed in 1757 “I do not doubt that the air and exercise which is absolutely necessary here, the Well being more than two miles from the town, contribute very much towards restoring the health of the patient”.

St Ann’s Well above Great Malvern does not appear to have been important to the village spa until 1805 when Dr A. Phillips Wilson a Worcester physician, repeated Dr Wall’s earlier work analysing the mineral content of the water. As a result, St Ann’s Well became increasingly popular and the little cottage seen today was built there in 1815. This popularity reached its peak in Victorian times when the Cold Water Cure arrived in 1842. The octagon to the left of the building as you face it was built in about 1860 because of the number of “The Cold Waterers” (as Charles Dickens called them), congregating there for their pre-breakfast walks and water drinking.

To encourage village spa visitors to stay in Great Malvern instead of Malvern Wells, accommodation and amenities were improved with the building of the Foley Arms Hotel (1810) and the classical style Royal Library (1819), which contained music, reading and billiard rooms in addition to a bazaar and library. This building is now Barclays’ Bank at the top of Edith Walk. The Cobourg Baths next door were erected in 1823 and now house the Nationwide Building Society offices.

Water Changes Malvern Forever

The advent of the Water Cure in 1842 transformed Malvern. This was due to the enthusiasm of Dr James Wilson who, having heard about the miraculous cures wrought by Vincent Priessnitz, (a Silesian farmer’s son), travelled to Graefenburg in Germany, where Priessnitz practised. During the eight months that Wilson observed Priessnitz, he was immersed in five hundred cold baths, drank three thousand five hundred tumblers of cold water, and spent four hundred and eighty hours in cold wet sheets. James Wilson returned to London “filled to the brim with hydrotherapy” as his friend, Dr James Gully later described him. Apart from James Gully no other doctor would listen to him and together they decided to search for “Graefenburg in England”.

The Water Cure comes to Malvern

For this Doctors Wilson and Gully required hills, unpolluted fresh air, and pure water. Having heard about Malvern, they decided to visit the village in July 1842 and immediately decided that this was the ideal place for them. On July the 9th 1842 they took the lease of the Crown Hotel on Belle Vue Terrace and renamed it Graefenburg House. Wilson set about curing his first patient, a local gout-ridden carter who was soon back at work, so Wilson’s fame was soon established. Gully wound up his London practice and together they wrote “The Dangers of the Water Cure and its Efficacy Examined and Compared with the Drug Treatment of Diseases”. Their cures were attributed to the action of pure water, pure air, proper diet, and regulated exercise on the nervous system of the body. This regime was one of the first health packages, which treated the patient in a holistic way. There were none of the terrible side effects of the drug treatments used at that time.

A Day in the Life of a Water Cure Patient

As a patient, whether you were living in a Water Cure establishment run by an individual doctor or staying in one of the many lodging houses, you would be woken at five or six o’clock in the morning, stripped naked and wrapped in cold wet sheets from the neck down to the toes. As one patient put it, “Fancy me at five am every morning, transformed in to huge bale of cotton, as helpless as a chrysalis, swathed in wet sheets, blankets and a feather bed with my head popping out at one end like a cork from a bottle…you must wait until someone peels you though only to fling you into a great bath of cold water”. This wet sheet packing lasted an hour by which time the heat of your body had dried out the sheet and you had become completely relaxed! The “great bath” was actually a shallow bath where more cold water was poured on you and a bath attendant rubbed you down with a rough towel to administer a “friction rub”. You were then sent to climb up the hills without breakfast and drink a glass of water at every spring. Your breakfast at eight consisted of dry toast, butter, boiled rice, treacle, milk, cold meat and more water. The rest of the morning was taken up with reading, writing and “generally lounging about”, interspersed with the Sitz bath where you sat fully clothed in a hip bath for 15 to 60 minutes.

After being in Malvern for two to three weeks patients were fit enough to endure the down or up douche. The more common, down douche consisted of a room with a cistern of water in the roof and this water fell twenty feet onto the naked body of the patient from a two or three inch diameter pipe. Patients allowed the cold column of water to pound various areas of their anatomy culminating on the head, with their fingers interlaced break the column of water. This was necessary because one hogshead (52 � imperial gallons or 158 litres) of water per minute fell on you for about three minutes. Next was dinner at 2 p.m., which consisted of roast mutton, beef or chicken, potatoes, rice, macaroni, marrow and French beans. For pudding you were offered more rice, sago, tapioca, stewed apples and bread and butter. After this one went on an excursion walking or riding around the surrounding district. At 5 p.m. there were more baths! Tea was served at 7 p.m. and this was the same as breakfast except that there was no meat. In the evening entertainment was provided where you could dance the time away at a “Hydropathic Ball”, with music from the German Rhine String Band adding an authentic European spa atmosphere. Patients were then sent early to bed to be ready for the next five o’clock wake up call and were expected to endure this ‘treatment’ for at least three weeks!

Malvern after the Water Cure arrived

After the Water Cure came in 1842 Malvern mushroomed in size. The Victorians copied a variety of architectural styles for their water cure establishments and boarding houses. Many of these buildings still exist but have since been converted into blocks of flats, hotels and schools, so Great Malvern remains a superb example of the architecture of a Victorian Spa town. Even the Great Malvern railway station complex built in the 1860’s, was designed to impress the wealthy visitor to the town and it remains the most ornate small station in the British Isles. The Railway Hotel was the largest of its kind built by the Great Western Railway and boasted baths in the basement containing Droitwich brine, which was brought regularly by rail to a small siding nearby. Visitor’s luggage was transported up from the London platform via a corrugated iron tunnel direct to the hotel. This tunnel is affectionately known as “the worm” and is unique in the rail network. The hotel is now Malvern St James’ Girls School. So as not to spoil the magnificence of Malvern with noise and smells, the railway line from Malvern Link to Great Malvern station was hidden in a cutting that at the time cost £22,000.

The Water Cure Doctors who Changed the Town

Soon, the small hotel on Belle Vue Terrace where Lloyds Bank now stands, was too small for the increasing number of patients of Doctors Wilson and Gully. In 1845 Wilson built the first purpose built Water Cure establishment in the United Kingdom, which was “often filled with above sixty invalids – besides many others who would be preferred to be treated in lodgings”. For many years this handsome building on Priory Road was called The Establishment, but is now called Park View and has been converted into apartments. Originally it contained seventy-two rooms including a thirty-metre dining room and a twenty-three metre long drawing room. There was also a gymnasium “for the application of Swedish Medical Gymnastics under a professor from Berlin”.

Many of the large houses in Great Malvern and along the Wells Road were lodging houses where cheaper cures could be administered. One can imagine in the light of early morning, bath attendants in Malvern Wells and Great Malvern scurrying about making clanking sounds as they transported their portable galvanised iron baths to patients!

Dr Wilson was the most popular of the doctors but also the most reviled. One “friend” wrote to Wilson asking how many patients he had killed, the answer was a resounding “none”, as Wilson always refused to accept terminally ill patients. The Reverend Samuel Warneford a philanthropist, proclaimed “Doctor Wilson, the water cure doctor of Malvern is a complete quack. He converts, I hear, the bodies of his patients into walking water casks”.

Doctor Charles Hastings the Worcester physician who started what later became the British Medical Association, published a scathing criticism in ‘The Provincial and Surgical Journal’ which he edited. Wilson on his part bemoaned the fact that he lived too near “this man of drugs”. Another doctor dissuaded his patients from the Water Cure saying “the first chill of cold water will be certain death every drop of water will be a nail in your coffin.” Despite all this, be-whiskered Dr Wilson became more and more popular. However, balding Doctor Gully had the most charisma and amongst his many patients were Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and his youngest daughter Annie.

The success of the water cure attracted more doctors to Malvern. Dr Edward Johnson came from Birmingham to Ellerslie on Priory Road, now part of Malvern College. His son, Walter settled at nearby Malvernbury (now rebuilt) where Florence Nightingale fled when she was exhausted after her work with the Royal Sanitary Commission on the health of the British Army during the Crimean War. She later confessed the “I owe three years of (not useless) life to the Water Cure at Malvern” and she went on to live into her nineties.

The 19th Century Spa Boom in the UK

Malvern’s success encouraged the spread of the cold water cure to Ilkley in Yorkshire, Matlock in Derbyshire and Strathpeffer in Scotland. This was at the same time as a boom in the established spas of Cheltenham, Leamington, and Harrogate, Buxton and the rise of Droitwich with its dense brine. Eventually travel to European spas became easier and this contributed to the decline of British spas, hastened by two World Wars.

Decline of the Water Cure

In January 1867, Dr Wilson died at Ilkley Wells Hydropathic Establishment in Yorkshire. No one would fill Wilson’s place. Gully became infatuated with a patient called Florence Richards whose husband died from alcoholism. After his death Florence and Gully embarked on a doomed affair, which ended when she married a young barrister, Charles Bravo. After only five months of marriage Bravo died a horrible, lingering death from poison. The antimony tartrate, which killed Charles Bravo was traced back to Malvern and Gully was drawn into the inquest into the cause of his death! The “Bravo Murder” has become one of the most famous, unresolved crimes of the Victorian era. Gully left Malvern on New Year’s Day 1872, much to the consternation of the town, to live near Florence in Balham (London). Things were never the same after this charismatic doctor left.

Eventually, only one doctor remained – Dr John C. Fergusson – practising at Dr Wilson’s old “Establishment” building. In 1905, the water supply to “The Hydro” as it was now named, became contaminated and three patients caught typhoid. The National Press had a field day exaggerating the situation into an epidemic with “three or four deaths”! No one died and The Hydro staggered on for another eight years before bankruptcy finally forced it to close.

The Legacy of Spas in Modern Medicine

Swedish Gymnastics was really a form of therapeutic massage, which had been practiced for centuries and this exercise regime evolved into Physiotherapy. A surgeon called Hubbard invented a tank in the 1920’s in which patients could perform remedial exercises and this became the basis of the physiotherapy pools of today. As exercise in water is easier than in air, it is now used in rehabilitation to strengthen muscles and ease joints after injury, surgery and strokes. Brain damaged children can also be helped by special exercises in water and research is ongoing to discover ways to help in other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Dr John Harcup March 2007