1st November 1838. ‘Taking the Waters’.

Welcome to November.

Fashion entered medicine in the 18thc and the lack of knowledge of physicians resulted in nervous disorders  being ascribed to the spleen and vapours and largely due to a treatise by the Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh; before this ‘nerves’ as such were unknown.

Then ‘taking the waters’ became fashionable and so it was that Charles Dickens in late October 1838 visited  the Copp’s Royal Hotel in the spa town of Leamington.

He described the visit in a letter dated Today in 1838: ‘We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us’.

Copp's Hotel demolished in 1847

Copp’s Hotel demolished in 1847 for railway development.

Dickens also visited Harrogate where he found, ‘the spa the queerest place with the strangest people in it leading the oddest lives, dancing, newspaper-reading and dining’.(1)


Pickwick in the Bath Pump Rooms at cards. ‘Phiz’ Hablot K Browne. April 1837.

Not surprisingly spa-towns feature in his novels as in 1837 when Mr Pickwick visits Bath where his faithful servant Sam Weller describes the sulphurous waters as having a: ‘very strong flavour 0′ warm flat irons’.(2)

Then in 1848 Mr Dombey goes to Leamington by the new means of transport-the train-after the death of his son Paul, with his friend Joe Bagstock. He stays at the Royal Hotel and visited the Pump Room several times.(3)

As a physician to the society of 18thc Bath, McKittrick Adair was able to observe the ‘golden age’ of ‘fashionable disease’, noting the change from where ‘once disease was malign and to be feared, now it was becoming an age of heroic sufferers’.

Adair was also frustrated by the widespread Galenic purging in the spring and fall which he said ‘was very general in the country’. Adair as a practitioner in Bath also commented on these supposed ‘healthful’ places which were in fact putting health at risk ‘in the climate of unwashed bodies, stale perfume, alcohol, coal smoke and toxic miasma, not to mention the steam emanating from the baths of the spa towns’.

There were many charlatans operating on the fringes of medicine, as described by R. S. Surtees in his fictional Handley Cross where one Roger Swizzle an apothecary of modest means , learns of a mineral spring at Handley Cross capable of ‘curing everything’.

On analysing the springs he finds the ingredients as expected and sets himself up as an experimenta (quack) practitioner and recommends a regime for wealthy dyspeptics.

Rosedale Cliffs Chalybeate

Rosedale Cliffs stained by Chalybeate water.


Advert 1860.









Spas had springs which varied in the strength of mineral content so one went according to different ailments.

Tunbridge and Cheltenham are high in the iron of Chalybeate, Buxton high in Magnesium and Harrogate, sulphur.(4)

Bath was the place to take a plunge for the rheumatics, but all had a full range of minerals for all manner of general ailments.

The medical fashion today is for fitness, eating the ‘right’ food and the great default worry: cholesterol. Enjoy!

(1) Yorkshire Post 15.7.2014. Peter Tuffrey. Taking the Water.

(2) Pickwick Papers. Dickens 1837.

(3) P.323. Dombey and Sons. C. Dickens. Serialised between Oct 1846-Apr 48.

(4) Chalybeate containing salts of iron (II) Carbonate (Fe Co3) and known as Ferruginous Water from Latin Chalybs (steel).


dralunwordpress.com/Essays Fashionable Diseases. Dr Alun Withey.

victorianweb.org/phiz/pickwick. Image of Pickwick by Philip v Allingham.


wikipedia.org/chalybeate. Pics of mineral and advert.

bath.co.uk. they-came-to-bath/dickens.


circumlocationoffice.com/trail/leamington/Pic of Copp’s.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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