Royal Leamington Spa: The Flourishing Spa Town of the Victorian-era

The growth of the small village of Leamington Priors into the flourishing spa resort town of Royal Leamington Spa was largely due to the discovery of saline water.

The mineral-rich River Leam had been already known in Roman times, and was rediscovered in the Victorian era. As the therapeutic qualities of the water were popularized, the town experienced one of the most rapid expansions in 19th-century England.

Originally, there was a small mineral water well in Leamington adjacent to the Parish Church owned by the 4th Earl of Aylesford. This spring occurred naturally and the Earl wanted the water to remain free for everyone to use. Benjamin Satchwell, the village cobbler, discovered a second spring in 1786 on William Abbott’s land. Their entrepreneurship led to the commercialization of the saline water. By 1788, Abbotts’s Baths had opened and a succession of other facilities were then built to accommodate visitors who paid to drink and bathe in the water chasing health and pleasurable pursuits. Satchwell became a local celebrity through his poetry and articles about the village and its spa water.

One of the most notable buildings of the town is the Royal Pump Room and Baths. This bathhouse, intended to be one of the greatest in the country, opened in 1814 and was extended in 1864 with a Turkish bath and swimming pool. (The video for Mick Jagger’s 1992 song ‘Sweet Thing’ was filmed in the baths.)

The most popular physician in Leamington, Dr Henry Jephson, began practicing at the Royal Pump Room and Baths in 1823, by which time the town was flourishing as a health resort. He prescribed different ways of drinking and bathing in the water in conjunction with strict diet and regular walks. His treatments became very popular and attracted many wealthy and famous patients to the town. Jephson’s contribution to the community of Leamington was acknowledged by naming the Jephson Gardens after him.

In the 1840s, the viability of the saline spas in Leamington was threatened by the growing popularity of hydrotherapy – which used pure water rather than mineral-rich waters – and the growing popularity of spas in continental Europe and seaside resorts. By the 1860s, all of the spa town’s bathhouses had closed down except the Royal Pump Room and Baths, which was used for spa treatments up until the 1990s.

Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum info panels

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