Melanie King – The Secret History of English Spas

Bodleian Library Publishing, UK, 2021
Cover design Dot Little, Bodleian Library

This book is a pleasure both to hold and to read, its exquisite production just what we might expect from the Bodleian. The aim of this press is to make accessible things which otherwise might be the province of academic research, to bring to the public some of the ‘riches of Oxford’s libraries’ ( I for one am deeply grateful for this.

Barbie spoke to Melanie King about The Secret History of English Spas

I found Melanie King’s history of the English spa to be a fascinating read, full of information but lightly crafted, with many a humorous moment. The modern spa goer can but be appalled at the depravity and filth that characterised their early manifestations – so far from the glamour and richesse of the luxury hotel with pamper treatments galore on offer.

The fact is that the history of the spa is also a history of medicine, religion and society. With beginnings as places of worship to nature spirits, over time the spa has also taken on the role of servant to the church and monarchical power, playground of all and sundry, place of healing with royal and/or pseudo scientific imprimatur, site of medical experimentation, sanitarium for restoration of the wounded and holiday venue.

Mineral elements have long been considered beneficial to human health, without a lot of sound scientific evidence but with plenty of observational and anecdotal ‘proof’. Nevertheless, an array of treatment regimes has sprung up around natural springs and waters – with everything from cold wraps and drenchings to Turkish steam baths. All have had their successes and all their failures.

An equal measure of suspicion has surrounded the practice of bathing. Cleanliness has not always been considered next to godliness; nor has swimming always enjoyed a reputation for healthful and respectable exercise. Ocean bathing had its day well before the era of the surfer, but with a variety of approaches, given that most people in earlier times could not swim and that modesty ruled the appearance in public of the human body.

With a fine collection of drawings, paintings, maps and documents to enhance the historical accounts, The Secret History of the English Spa is both highly entertaining and hugely instructive. The ease of its reading is a credit to its author, who both titillates us with gossip about debaucherous shenanigans and crime, and enlightens us with her insights into the development of modern medicine and the benefits to the general population and deficits to the spa industry of the British National Health Scheme.

The author’s account of Droitwich Spa and the magnificent Chateau Impney has whetted my appetite and sent me to my search engine with wistful longing for the return of safe overseas travel to places of wonder. I am confident in this desire that nobody would wrap me in freezing cloths or dunk me in cold water!

I am happy of course to soak up the history of the place, built by the salt king, John Corbett, between 1869 and 1875, for his homesick French wife, and apparently closed permanently during the Covid-19 pandemic. We can but hope that plans for its revival are successful.

I thoroughly recommend Melanie King’s history of the English spas and am inspired to search out her back catalogue:

Thank you to Bodleian Library Publishing for my review copy of this glorious book and to Melanie King for speaking with me about English spas and her work as a writer of accessible histories.