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The Purton Stoke Spa Anniversary

On Sunday the 20th of September 2009 sixty Purton Stoke villagers gathered together for a picnic at The Spa to celebrate the Anniversary of its public opening. When Karen and Ian, the new owners, came to the village they were keen to find out as much as they could about the history of the Spa and were delighted to find they had arrived in this special year, and were determined to celebrate it. Invitations were sent out, via the Purton Stoke Fund, to all villagers. On this mild sunny day at 3 pm the blankets were spread out on the lawns, the hampers were opened and everyone raised their glasses of champagne, not the spa water on this occasion, and reflected on that time 150 years ago when Purton Stoke had had the prospect of joining towns like Cheltenham, Bath and Harrogate as a place to “take the waters”.

Sadly (?) the upmarket hotels, the Crescents and Grand Parades did not materialise. Ian and Karen had also inherited two sets of earthenware jars and glass bottles that had been used to sell the water and they and the Sales ledger were available for inspection. Old photographs of The Spa and the village were passed around. There was a commemorative brochure produced for the occasion with a short history of the Spa.

It must have been very different in September 1859, when The Spa had been formally opened as a Gala Day amidst a blaze of publicity. A brass band had provided music and hundreds of people had flocked there, walking or driving in their carriages over the bridge and up Stoke Common Lane. 50 year old Dr Samuel Champernowne Sadler, J.P., F.R.C.S., of Purton Court, Purton was there to welcome his visitors and hopefully his future customers. His welcoming party would probably have included his wife Fanny, from Upavon, and their children, William, James, Samuel, Eleanor and Fanny. The locals would be there too with mixed feelings, since up to that time they had been used to helping themselves to the water. Because of this his ownership of the Salt’s Hole did not start well.

In the 1850s it was just a depression in the ground in which water kept coming to the surface. One elderly resident Mr Isaac Beasley, born in 1783 and living at Cross Lanes could recall that he, his father and many other villagers before him had drunk this spring water, as a folk remedy, for innumerable ailments due to its “magical properties.” He estimated it had been used for at least 200 years. Sadler however found these intrusions to be a nuisance and erected railings and a locked gate. It wasn’t too successful. The local story goes on to say, however, that he took seriously ill, and after trying the usual remedies, without success, was cured by taking the water. Whether that was true or not, as a doctor, he would be aware of the limited medicines and treatments available at that time and realised that this water could have commercial possibilities. He was responsible for creating the beautiful octagonal building to house the well, which was ten feet deep and had a constant level of water in it. Cottages were built for the manager, Mr Strange, to live in, and the garden was filled with ornamental shrubs and a few seats to help in “walking off the waters”. The Pump House also had the benefit of a two-seat toilet. Dr. Sadler himself provided the medical services.

Adverts soon appeared in the local paper. The Evening Advertiser, for example, on February 13th 1860, declares that

The public are informed that a Person attends the Spa every Wednesday from
ten to three when parties can be supplied with the waters on Application.

The inscription above the door still proclaims to this day that it was: sulphated and bromo-iodated Saline water Analysed by Dr Voeckler, 1860. The Dr Voeckler in question was at Cirencester Agricultural College at that time. Many pamphlets were produced by Sadler and articles published in medical journals and magazines in this country and in Germany about its wonderful curative powers. It was claimed to cure ulcers of the leg, liver and kidney disorders, scalp and stomach complaints, gout, rheumatism and arthritis. Rooms were available at Purton, in a property of seven acres, run by Mrs Dove, for guests to stay while they were partaking of the waters. One pamphlet included the comment that "a case in which nothing could be owing to the imagination, for what imagination has an agricultural peasant of eighteen". In 1874, the most successful in its operation, it was sold for 1d per pint, and the takings for the year were £175. Four years later they were down to £27.

Sadler didn’t give up and soon afterwards published a prospectus inviting investors to subscribe for shares in “The Purton Spa and Blunsdon Abbey Hydropathic Establishment”. Twenty two Patrons were identified on the prospectus including the Surgeon-General J R Kerr Innes, Honorary Surgeon to Her Majesty. All except Sadler and Fry from Swindon were doctors at London Hospitals. The Capital was to be 10,000 shares at £10 each. The Spa and Blunsdon Abbey would be bought for £61,000. The venture was unsuccessful.

The Spa’s popularity declined after that and by 1880 there were no longer any visitors. Still Sadler persisted and leased The Spa to J. J. Hirsch and Co. who paid £25 a year. That ended in 1886. Subsequently, between 1886 and 1889 sales were £17, £21, £4 and £7 per year. Sadler died in November 1889 and his brother and sons sold the Spa for £875 to a Mr Bosley. Other people tried to revive the trade. On 16th July 1917 Mr William and Mrs Elizabeth Kennett bought the property for £450. He travelled into Swindon carrying the water in vessels made to fit over his shoulder, one in front and one behind. At his usual stopping places in the town he would proclaim the wonderful nature of this natural mineral water, and its value as a cure for certain diseases. He sold the water at a penny a half pint. The next owner was Mr Fred Neville who took over in 1927. (He was concerned about the leaning pine and one of his first tasks was to cut off the branches overhanging the lane to prevent it collapsing completely). He continued to sell bottles of Spa Water in the area, delivering first by pony and trap, then by car, to the Swindon weekly market, selling them outside the Corn Hall in Old Town, for 9d a bottle. In 1931 sales were £35, and in 1936 they were £5.

The last entry in the Spa sales ledger is 1952, when a bottle cost 8d. The 2009 celebrations ended with entertainments, including barrel rolling, which adults and children enjoyed, as spectators and participants. The leaning lonesome pine is still standing, and has been cabled to prevent it from leaning any further. The recently renovated pump room, a listed building, is also still there in its own grounds, minus the two-seater toilet. From time to time visitors still appear and ask to fill up a container with the water. One significant ingredient in the water is Magnesium Sulphate better known as Epsom Salts, and this has subsequently been shown to be very effective, both internally and externally, in the treatment of many illnesses and conditions, some of which Sadler had claimed at the time.

James Caslaw October 2009