Spa Culture, Recipes, and Eighteenth-Century Elite Healthcare

By Katherine Allen

Earlier this month I took a day off from my thesis (or so I thought) and went to the spa at Bath. While relaxing in the rooftop pool I couldn’t help but imagine myself as an eighteenth-century elite woman, floating around in my sodden gowns with servants towing japanned bowls of sweets in my wake. This got me thinking about what my experience would have been like as an eighteenth-century visitor in pursuit of health.

The Comforts of Bath, 1798. Thomas Rowlandson. Image Credit: Wikigallery.org
The Comforts of Bath, 1798. Thomas Rowlandson. Image Credit: Wikigallery.org

Bath was an epicentre of elite culture in the Georgian period, and spa visits were an integral part of the social calendar. The savvy spa-goer could build patronage networks, discuss business and politics, peruse marriage prospects, attend parties, and hear all the latest gossip. More central to my research interests, Bath lay at the heart of eighteenth-century elite healthcare. The spa was touted as a space to recover and to preserve good health. Bathing and drinking the mineral water were two of several bathing-centred regimens, with sea bathing and cold water bathing also gaining popularity as therapeutic treatments championed by individuals like John Wesley and William Buchan. While visiting Bath, one could seek the medical advice of physicians, purchase drugs from apothecaries and proprietors like booksellers, and exchange medical knowledge with fellow spa-users. In this post I discuss one aspect of eighteenth-century recipe books that is linked to spa culture, the acquisition of medicinal recipes at Bath.

In eighteenth-century recipe books, there are a number of recipes citing Bath, or from a person associated with the spa town. Recipes were exchanged between friends and acquaintances as part of a social obligation to share knowledge and establish patronage connections through networking. In one collection, a Mrs Wright of Bath is cited alongside a purge ‘that may be taken when with child’ (ambiguously either a safe medicine, or an abortifacient).[1] In the Arscott family recipe book (from Devon), Mrs Ball of Hamilton, Lancashire provided recipes for deafness and for the itch.[2] Another remedy from a Mrs Ball is cited as being from Bath in the Arundell family’s recipe book (from Wiltshire).[3] This is suggestive that she is the same Mrs Ball who visited Bath and communicated recipes to both the Arscotts and Arundells while at the spa, since the town is near both estates.

Roman Baths. Image Credit: Katherine Allen
Roman Baths. Image Credit: Katherine Allen

Recipe books are littered with evidence that proprietary medicine was purchased by elites while visiting Bath. A Mr Moore of Bath provided advice on curing warts to the Arscotts and a Miss Moore of Bath provided a recipe for deafness to the Arundells, which supposedly cured Mrs Seymor from Hendford, Somerset.[4] Both citations to the Moores are likely referencing eighteenth-century apothecary, John Moore.

Recipes and medical advice were also frequently associated with physicians at Bath. Royal gardener Henry Wise consulted Dr George Cheyne regularly for his medical complaints, including indigestion. These regimens were subsequently recorded in the family recipe books. The first recorded instance of Cheyne providing advice was for Henry’s ‘Distemper being a Cholick from Superfluous Nourishment’. Cheyne recommended rhubarb pills as a laxative. If this remedy proved too aggressive, Henry was to try was an infusion of gentian, zedoary, orange and cinnamon mixed with rhubarb in Mountain wine. In a subsequent letter, Cheyne claimed that the rhubarb brandy may be ‘too hot’ and that ‘The Cassia Chocolate you must needs lay aside because your Bowels being sluggish and Tight’.

Dr Cheyne’s prescription for Henry Wise. Photo Credit: Warwickshire CRO
Dr Cheyne’s prescription for Henry Wise. Photo Credit: Warwickshire CRO

Henry’s regimens also mention the use of drinking spa mineral waters for health. Interestingly, Cheyne first states that ‘The Bristol waters will be of no use to you, but to increase your Costiveness. If any Waters, Germain, Spa, and Pyremont are the Best.’ Yet, in another prescription for Henry dated 23 October Cheyne wrote ‘I would have you get Bristol water and Drink them with Red wine to your Meals constantly; only after your Chocolate if you could bear it’. [5]

As records of domestic medicine, recipe books reveal through their citations that visiting the spa at Bath was an important means of gaining and exchanging medical advice such as domestic remedies. We can view recipes and manuscript collections as documentation of elite healthcare activities beyond the home, and as testaments of the fashions and methods of attaining health used by elites, which were central elements of culture in Georgian England.

[1] Wellcome, WMS 4646, f. 47r.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 981, ff. 64; 79.

[3] Wiltshire and Swindon CRO, 2667/12/40, ff. 32, 33.

[4] Wellcome, WMS 981, f. 131; Wiltshire and Swindon CRO, 2667/12/40, f. 107.

[5] Warwickshire CRO, 341/300, f. 3r.; f. 108.


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