Spas, Wells, and Pleasure-Gardens of London

Drunken, bawdy, creative - English character owes much to 18th-century pleasures, says Timothy Mowl

August 26, 2010

This groundbreaking book is a study of an astonishing 59 or more 18th-century spa gardens within the grim, sooty bounds of London and its Home Counties suburbs, the capital's answer to contemporary eclectic Arcadian landscapes in the green counties. Its 198 illustrations, many in colour, with detailed street maps from John Rocque's 1746 Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark, will give active readers the pleasure of relating the reservoirs and spires of contemporary engravings to the maze of city streets. It will also encourage readers to become spa hunters, treating with new respect the ill-smelling premises of London's countless pubs and converted theatres.

James Stevens Curl has divided his spas into those north of the Thames, with a dense cluster in St Pancras, Clerkenwell and Finsbury, and those south of the river, with a lesser scattering in Southwark. An introductory account of London's geology - its sands, mud and gravels - makes some sense of this concentration. But the book's real value for the general reader lies in the endlessly changing variety of what the spa gardens offered. Their social culture supplied a vital need that is now just about satisfied by a combination of health and leisure clubs, pubs, television and mobile-phone texting.

That creative, scabrous, bawdy, hard-drinking culture explains the English character today in all its eccentric diversity. The spa gardens took over where the Elizabethan theatre left off, easing a constrained and stratified class structure into a togetherness where everyone, from royalty to pickpockets, cultural elitists to whores and deviants to hypochondriacs, could dance, wrestle, play ball games and, above all else, get enjoyably drunk together and indulge in sexual encounters.

Under changing proprietors, spas such as Sadler's Wells experimented with organ music and ballets of The Birth of Venus concluding with The Loves of Zephyrus and Flora. Then came Signor Spinacuti's "funambulistical monkey", who performed on a tightrope; and, when the stage was flooded, naval battles would alternate with epic tales of Newfoundland dogs rescuing drowning children. The "Hibernian Cannibal" took to the stage daily, eating a live cockerel, feathers and all, with a sauce of vinegar and oil, washed down with brandy.

What made the watery life of the capital so profuse was the 1604-13 construction of the New River by the Myddelton brothers, Sir Hugh and Sir Thomas. This brought in lavish supplies of pure water from Hertfordshire chalk to the new geometric reservoirs and cleansing pools at Clerkenwell. After that, water could be taken for granted - not only to drink, but, as at the Clerkenwell Cold Bath and the City Road Peerless Pool, in which to bathe. This last was marble-lined, with a lion's-head spout, a changing room and a library; submerged 4ft deep was a "lettice" work to prevent bathers from drowning. Merlin's Cave Spa, near the New River Head, was used in the Regency period by Henry "Orator" Hunt to preach radical revolution to angry mobs; in 1752, John Wesley converted the grand New Wells Spa on Bridewell Walk into a Methodist tabernacle.

Of all of them, Bagnigge Wells on the King's Cross Road was perhaps the most popular and eclectic. It had the Fleet River winding through its rural oasis, a Chinese, a Gothic and a classical temple, and not one but two mineral waters - one chalybeate and ferruginous, reportedly able to purge virtually every known ailment, and the other cathartic and bitter.

The NHS could make enforced economies by reopening a few of those spa gardens - but the tale of one poor soul who bathed his eyes in St Pancras Spa water and promptly fell in and drowned suggests that insurance premiums could well be substantial.

Spas, Wells, and Pleasure-Gardens of London

By James Stevens Curl

Historical Publications 280pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781905286348

Published 19 July 2010

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