Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Thurrock Local History Society: Hidden Spa Landscapes of Essex

Hidden Spa Landscapes of Essex

Dr Emma Cannell – 18 November 2022

FOR our November meeting we welcomed Dr Emma Cannell, who worked with the Essex Garden Trust research group during lockdown, concentrating on resorts and spa towns.  It involved a lot of detective work, using vital sources including maps and photos. She gave us the background of Christian and pagan spas, citing Bath, Baden Baden and Kos. It was thought that waters from spas and holy wells had healing properties, using hot or cold water, either drunk or used for bathing. Some of this has been backed up by scientific evidence, minerals being shown as curative in some cases.  Many spas had large windows and people also went there for the social scene, even from the Iron Age.

Emma looked at Essex spas and wells, including Runwell, and Cash’s well at Fobbing, the earliest being that at Wanstead in 1629. She set the scene for Thurrock, looking at why spas and wells did not survive, sometimes a street name or school giving a clue of their existence.

Her first example was at Hockley, found in a back garden and at its peak in the 17-19th century. Asthma symptoms were better when the water was drunk, up to 1½ pints of water four times a day. It boasted that the water cured all, including kidney problems and rickets, supplemented by sea bathing at Southend, with pleasure grounds opened in 1843. A hotel was built, with sometimes 150 guests sitting down to a meal, including clergy from London. It passed through several hands and was saved from demolition in 1967; it is now a pub, Grade II listed. Maybe it failed for lack of leisure experiences nearby as Hockley was rural.

Next Emma covered Dovercourt. This was small and insignificant, but as sea bathing grew in popularity the local MP saw the possibility of development into a spa town after finding a chalybeate spring. It opened in 1854, the same day as the railway connection and also accessed by paddle steamer. It included a reading room, library etc., with patients being encouraged to exercise. Ambitions for a spa town were dashed, being declared bankrupt in 1859. After that there was reduced access. It was used in WW1 but after this the building was considered unsafe. There was a competition to decide what to do next, but there were no entries. It was demolished in 1920 and there is still a public park on the site, with information boards.

The last spa examined was that at West Tilbury, the most successful well in the county. Mr Kellaway had a well dug and felt better after drinking the water; also if calves were given this water they had fewer stomach problems. Its properties, said to cure heartburn etc., were looked into in 1740. It was recommended by several doctors, including Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians. Tilbury was different from other spas; the water always being sold off site.  Sales increased, even exported to the East and West Indies. The water was stable, not effervescent but in 1803 Joseph Schweppes started selling sparkling water, brought to England – maybe the competition was too much and it lost its popularity.

Emma’s enjoyable talk gave us an insight into past pleasures, long forgotten.

Our next meeting is on Friday 16th December at St John’s Church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays, when we will be celebrating Christmas with food, a raffle and a quiz.

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