Forget Bath Spa… Taking the waters at Melksham

on Monday, 08 June 2015. Posted in Wiltshire Places

Some of the country’s towns and cities are renowned for their waters; Bath Spa, Cheltenham Spa and Leamington Spa to name but a few, but you may be surprised to know that Wiltshire had its own fair share of mineral springs and wells. Thirty one places in the county had water which contained minerals thought to contain curative properties: Biddestone, Box, Braydon, Broughton Gifford, Chippenham, Christian Malford, Clyffe Pypard, Cricklade, Crudwell, Dauntsey, Draycot Cerne, Heywood, Highworth, Holt, Kington St. Michael, East Knoyle (Upton), Limpley Stoke, Luckington, Lydiard Tregoze, Melksham, Poulshot, Purton Stoke, Rodbourne Cheyney, Rowde, Seend, Sheldon, Somerford (probably Great Somerford), Swindon, Trowbridge, West Ashton and Wootton Basset – wow, what a list! The vast majority of these sites are found at the junction of two or more geological formations.

The craze for spas first appeared in the late 17th to mid 18th century, with a revival towards the end of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century. In Wiltshire only four sites could be considered fashionable enough to be called spas; Holt, Box, Melksham and Purton. I shall be taking a look at Melksham Spa which became established around 1813. The water was discovered to have medicinal properties after a bore had been sunk in c. 1770 by individuals looking to find coal. Its properties were examined by Dr Gibbes of Bath and were described as ‘chalybeate’. Melksham Spa had hot and cold private baths specially created for those who wished to take the water. Advertisements claimed the waters could cure many ailments with the top cures being for skin diseases, running sores, and scrofulous ailments. In 1815 another bore was dug to search for an additional saline source, a valued medicinal property of spa water. The contents were also found to contain lime and magnesia.

At Melksham the site of the spa was less than a mile from Market Place on the road leading to Devizes with the baths and pump room laid out in the grounds of a house called Agra, set in ‘tastefully laid out’ grounds of nine acres. A ‘handsome’ veranda could be found in front of the pump room, to be used for shelter or shade. A ‘respectable gentleman’ formed the Melksham Spa Company in 1815 and advertising pamphlets were issued in 1813-1822. The water was bottled and sold, and biscuits made from the ‘miraculous water’ were sent to London. A guide for the Spa was produced in the 19th century by T. Ward. It used extracts of Dr. Gibbe’s report, including an analysis of one of the bores. “As the following analysis of this water, when joined to its known medicinal effects, certainly ranks it among the saline purgative waters of the most celebrated places in the kingdom; it cannot be deemed improper to apprize the public of the existence of so valuable a spring in the neighbourhood.” Cases of children being cured were cited. “It has come to the knowledge of the writer of this inquiry, that children affected with sores of a scrophulous nature, where no benefit accrued from the use of other remedies... have been completely relieved by the waters at Melksham; and that on their relapsing, after leaving the spa, a repetition of the cure took place on their return to it.” Interestingly, one of the ways that local inhabitants came to realise the water may have been of some importance was when they saw signs of medicinal improvement amongst the cattle who had been drinking it!

The facilities at the spa were comfortable. “Adjoining the pump room are baths for hot or cold bathing, well fitted up, and provided with every requisite.” “The saline water is abundant, and can be readily supplied at any degree of temperature. The dressing rooms are private and comfortable, and provided with stoves. There are two spare rooms appropriated for the convenience of rest or waiting.” Also included in the guide were things to see in Melksham and the surrounding area, and how to get to the town by mail and stage coach, errand cart, or wagon.

A terrace of Regency style houses were built (including a hotel) on what is now Spa Road. Balls and concerts were arranged for patients of the Spa with outings arranged to notable properties nearby such as Corsham Court and Bowood House.

“Melksham, thy healing waters claim

No secondary need of fame;

Where rival qualities combine –

The tonic steel and soft saline:

Bathonia-(boast of elder days,

Elic’ting e’en Roman praise)

Bathonia views with glad surprise

Thy health-restoring springs arise”

(verse by D. Cabanel)

The spa had gone into decline by 1845 when the historian John Britton noted that the waters ‘were formerly much used... fashion, that fickle goddess, has not given them the fiat of her approval’.

Julie Davis

Local Studies Assistant

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