The Royal Beulah Spa And Gardens: how the spa water was discovered

The following is a story circulating in 1948. The owner of the Manor of White Horse took pity on a poor old horse that was being taken to the knacker’s yard. He turned it loose in a meadow that had a pool of water. To everybody’s amazement the horse grew sleek and fat. The owner, Mr Davidson Smith, being a shrewd man concluded that the change must be due to the water. So he sent a sample of the water to Professor Michael Faraday for analysis. Faraday sent back the analysis with the added note:- ‘This water is equal to, if not superior to, the waters of Bath or Wells.’ This idea started the dream of a Spa. Decimus Burton was employed to landscape 25 acres of land around a well which was enclosed in a wigwam arrangement.

So wrote Hilda Franks in 1983; in 1834, the ‘Guide to Beulah Spa’ maintained that the Spa had been known to the inhabitants of Norwood from time immemorial, but only, the anonymous writer hastens to add, in the form of a bubbling spring to which the locals resorted to cure their lesser maladies. It certainly had a local reputation in the latter part of the seventeenth century but it was not until the 1800’s when the land came into the possession of Mr John Davidson Smith as the new owner of the Manor of Whitehorse that there was any attempt to commercialise its healing waters. So the delightful story of the horse is based on fact whoever may try to decry it.

John Davidson Smith was an enterprising man, and something persuaded him that he could exploit the medicinal properties of the Beulah spring. He employed a well-known architect who was briefed to design buildings necessary for a spa and pleasure ground and to lay out the grounds so that the natural beauty of the spot would be increased. This architect was Decimus Burton, but all that remains of his grand design to-day (1985) is the lodge house at the entrance to the ‘Spa’. Originally called the ‘ Rustic Lodge’, now ‘Tivoli Lodge’, it “combined the Gothic and Elizabethan styles of cottage architecture” (so says the Brochure). To-day, its thatched roof has been replaced by one of slate, and it has been restored to private occupation following a fire, but it has not changed much from its original appearance. It was here that, when the grounds were finally thrown open to the public on the 1st August 1831, every visitor was supplied (if they wished) with a bottle of the spa waters. It could also be delivered to houses at 2/- a gallon, and even sent frozen by Masters Freezing Apparatus in bottles or in blocks to the big houses in London.

What was so special about this water? It was described as being beautifully transparent and sparkling, distinctly bitter to the taste but not at all disagreeable. Two distinguished chemists of the day, Faraday (Professor at the Royal Institute) and Hume analysed a quart of water as follows:-

  • Sulphate of Magnesia 123
  • Sulphate of Soda and Magnesia 32
  • Muriate of Soda 19
  • Muriate of Magnesia 18.5
  • Carbonate of Lime 15
  • Carbonate of Soda 3

Another source, S. Sunderlands’s ‘Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells’ gives Professor Faraday’s analysis of a pint of the water as follows:-

  • Sulphate of Magnesia 61.35
  • Chloride of Sodium 17.74
  • Muriate of Magnesia 9.28
  • Carbonate of Lime 7.80
  • Carbonate of Soda 1.90
  • 98.07 grains

The temperature of the water at the bottom of the well was 52 degrees Fahrenheit and its specific gravity 1011. The well never froze.

The water was drawn from a rockwork enclosure by a glass vessel shaped like an urn which was lowered into the well by a pulley. The whole structure was enclosed in a thatched hut built in the form of an Indian wigwam, in the centre of which the water rose to the height of 14 – 15 feet, falling amidst a grotto of rocks.

In 1832, Dr Weatherhead, sometime medical director of the Beulah Spa, published his ‘Account of the Beulah Saline Spa’ which was dedicated to William Archbishop of Canterbury in commemoration of the “favourable manner in which Your Grace has been pleased to regard the Beulah Saline Spa.” This Account, according to Allan Galer, is “more or less of a medical work, and the list of diseases which this worthy Doctor asserts the waters will cure is simply marvellous.”

However, it was not just the healing properties of the water that attracted the fashionable public to the place - it is said that Queen Victoria brought all her children to the Spa and also her foreign guests including Kaiser Wilhelm who planted a linden tree - nor even the beauty of the setting or the wonderful air of the Norwood Heights, although they each contributed to the whole, it was also the variety of the amusements laid on to beguile the visitor and to keep him entertained all day. Pleasure gardens were a feature of the social life of the time and John Davidson Smith saw to it that the Beulah Spa could rival the best of them.Carriages entered the grounds by the Rustic Lodge, already mentioned, and having put down their passengers proceeded along the Sylvan Road attached to the Spa which extended for a mile and a half along the flank of the hill.

Passing the Rustic Lodge, “an extensive prospect presents itself; the bright grassy fields, divided by dark green hedges, the feeding cattle, and the landscape stretching itself to the dark blue hills that distantly bound the horizon create within the bosom of the emancipated citizen sensations of pleasure and delight.” Descending a winding path, one came first to the Octagon Reading Room, a rustic building used for refreshments as well as for reading. It is interesting to note that even in those days visitors were not allowed to picnic haphazardly in the grounds and leave their litter behind them: they were encouraged to bring their picnic meal there but it had to be eaten in a large booth provided specifically for the purpose where they could hire cutlery and plates should they so desire.

On the left of the reading room was the wigwam construction sheltering the Spa well itself, and to the side, the Orchestra, where in the season a military band played from 11am till dusk. A small lawn in front of the Orchestra gave ample space for those who wished to “trip it on the light fantastic toe”. More dancing space was provided on the lawn in the middle of the Rosary, and nearby the Wilderness provided all the excitement of a maze. There was also an Archery Ground with butts and targets and an attendant to supply bows and arrows, a camera obscura, and a terrace from which the beautiful views could be admired.

Extract from ‘Down at Beulah’ by Joan Warwick, published by the Norwood Society

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