Drinking Stinking Spa Waters in Early Modern Britain

The "King's Spring" in the Pump Room, Bath UK

Visitors to the Roman Baths Museum in Bath, UK spend most of their trip learning how Roman Britons swam, plunged, and sweated in thermal pools in order to maintain fitness and well-being.  But the museum tour ends at the site of a very different kind of health craze: the Pump Room, where seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women and men gulped down gallons of spa water in the hopes of curing disease.

In early modern Britain, visitors to spas such as Bath swam just like the Romans had, but they also drank the waters, filling glass and ceramic bottles at street-level pumps that purported to offer access to liquid not already paddled in by bathers.  That didn’t mean that people considered the waters to be pleasant.  Bath visitor Celia Fiennes complained in the 1670s that water from the spring was “very hot and tastes like the water that boyles eggs, has such a smell.”[1]

Believing that divine intervention was a necessary component of health and healing, patrons were also encouraged to pray while they drank spa waters.  A spa preacher named Anthony Walker recorded “short meditations and ejaculations to be used whilst the Waters are drinking” in his book on devotion at the spa.[2]  Most of Walker’s recommended spa prayers were quite short, presumably to make them easier to utter while gulping.  One read simply, “Lord, bless these Waters to us” and another modified the well-known Lord’s Prayer by asking “Give us this day our daily Bread; whatever is needful for Health or Strength, whether Food or Physick.”[3]

Despite their distinctly unpleasant smell and taste, spa waters were rarely modified, altered, or included in recipes.  Early modern medical practitioners thought that spa waters were most powerful and efficacious in their pure form, directly out of the ground.  One spa doctor, Dr. William Oliver, even complained that gauche spa visitors who added “milk [or] a variety of medicines into the waters at the pump” were “offensive” and “disturbing,” and that their ill-advised concoctions created “disagreeable sights, and ungrateful smells.”[4]

Sick or incapacitated people who found themselves unable to travel were in luck, because spa waters were available for sale in bottles.  In the late seventeenth century, Mary Parker wrote that although she didn’t “design to drink the waters,” at Bath, she would instead “take some waters hear which the dockter says will doe me as much good.”[5]  Declaring that water from a spring at Rousham had been good for her health, Anne Dormer wrote c. 1690 that “the spaw water…had been sent downe before I went from home.”[6]  And in 1716 Grisell Baillie paid for “12 botles Spa water” to be sent to her home in Scotland.[7]

But how to preserve the warmth, fizz, and mineral taste that made spa waters so unique?  Entrepreneurs at spa cities experimented with many different methods and materials for sealing the water in bottles, including corks, wax seals, and bungs.  In the 1670s Celia Fiennes reported that the waters from Tunbridge Wells were even “filled and corked in the well under the water.”  After submerging the bottles, workers would “seale down the corks which they say preserves it.”[8]

Today you can still “take the waters” at Bath.  For a few pounds, a Pump Room attendant will happily draw you a generous glass of malodorous, lukewarm water directly from Bath’s famous springs, and you can sip it while pondering the early modern history of the spa.  Prayers are optional, but might be necessary to get through the entire glass.

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Image courtesy of Alan Pennington [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[1] The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. Christopher Morris (London: Cresset Press, 1949), 20.

[2] Anthony Walker, Fire out of Water: Or, An Endeavour to kindle Devotion, from the Consideration of the Fountains God hath made (London, 1685), 141.

[3] Walker, Fire out of Water, 161-162.

[4] William Oliver, A Practical Essay on the Use and Abuse of Warm Bathing in Gouty Cases (Bath, 1751).

[5] Mary Parker, letters to Sarah Churchill, 1677-1689, Blenheim Papers, Add MS 61474, ff 1-5b, 10, British Library.

[6] Anne Dormer, letters to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull, 1685-1691, Add MS 72516, ff 156-243, British Library.

[7] The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie, 1692-1733, ed. Robert Scott-Moncrieff (Edinburgh UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1911), 107.

[8] Morris, Journeys of Celia Fiennes, 133.


8 thoughts on “Drinking Stinking Spa Waters in Early Modern Britain”

  1. Good question, Stephanie! Like many natural springs, the spa water at Bath contains salts, minerals, and metals (such as iron), so if a person was/is deficient in any of those, it could provide nutrients. In the seventeenth century, most people didn’t drink a lot of water – it was often contaminated and could make people sick – and so being at a place like Bath afforded the opportunity to hydrate, which in turn could have helped to ease complaints like constipation, a problem for many early modern people. Bathing in the buoyant, warm water could have helped people with sore joints and limbs (sufferers of gout, arthritis, etc.). But generally speaking, it’s hard to “diagnose backwards” in history; people in the past understood and described their bodies and symptoms very differently than we do today. We can say for certain that early modern people believed the spa waters had health benefits, as they traveled across huge distances to visit the spa and wrote extensively about their experiences.

  2. When I was a child in Bath back in the 40s I remember pestering my mum for “a drink of water from the fountain” when we were in town, You drank it from thick smooth iron cups which were fixed to the fountains by iron chains. All you did was hold the cup under the water and slurp it down. It was warm and had a not unpleasant taste, rather metallic. Was this metallic taste due to iron in the water? If so, did it have beneficial effects?

  3. Hello Margaret — Thanks for reading, and for sharing such a great memory. Mineral springs can contain metals as well as mineral salts. At the Pump Room in Bath, you can still drink from one of the springs. They claim that their water contains 43 minerals! (https://www.romanbaths.co.uk/pump-room-restaurant) As a historian, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer your question about whether or not it has beneficial effects, but I can tell you that women and men in early modern Britain absolutely believed in the curative powers of the waters.

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