Taking the waters

Saltwells Spa, c.1920
Saltwells Spa, c.1920

The eighteenth century was, for many of the new middling sorts and gentry, the era of leisure. If you were very well-heeled of course, you had nothing to do but leisure, and the historical traces of Pensnett Chase, for instance, hark back to the royal hunting grounds that once covered large swathes of the Black Country landscape. But this is the area that produced, for instance, the magnificant gardens at William Shenstone’s Leasowes in Halesowen, a neo-classical landscape that sadly no longer exists in anything like its original form.

Across the country sprang up spa towns, where it became fashionable to “take the waters” for medicinal (and social) purposes: Bath was the grandaddy, but Cheltenham, Buxton, Matlock, Malvern and many more vied for the trade. If you were part of the new industrialist set in the Black Country, your closest spa was probably Droitwich, well-known since Roman times as a source of salt, its brine now doubling as a cure for rheumatism.

But wait! What if I could find you somewhere closer, perhaps “in a romantic vale, agreeably diversified with plantations of firs… a spring of salt water, called the Lady Well, highly esteemed on account of its medicinal qualities, and in summer it is very much frequented”? What if I could tell you that its water was tested by the famous Lunar Society man, James Keir; that it was visited by real celebrities; that a hotel existed on site to cater for all your accommodation needs; that in fact people had been taking the water here for hundreds of years?

That’s right: alongside the famous Georgian crescents of Bath, or the by-royal-appointment wells of Cheltenham, we can now rank the Saltwells Spa, nestled idyllically between Cradley, Brierley Hill and Netherton.

Map of Saltwells Spa, 1884 (via Edina Digimap)
Map of Saltwells Spa, 1884 (via Edina Digimap)

That’s right, just yards from one of the most polluted rivers in the country, tucked behind a mineral railway leading to some of the 33 pits of the Saltwells Colliery, the enterprising owner of the Saltwells Inn decided to try and launch his local spring onto the fashionable spa market. The spring had been visited for its healthy waters since the Dr Plot wrote about it in 1636, but this does seem to be based on purely circumstantial evidence of any benefit. When the aforementioned Keir visited in 1798 his report was hardly glowing, and the decision was made instead to try extracting salt. This flopped too, but that didn’t stop Thomas Holloway. He advertised the waters (next to his Saltwells Inn) from about 1823, and even local legend William Perry, the Tipton Slasher, is reputed to have visited.

Although it’s thought that members of WBA and Aston Villa visited in the early twentieth century, it’s hard to imagine such a site thriving as a resort. With the best will in the world, the picture at the top of the post is extremely clever in making this area look quaint and rural; but Saltwells Wood is pitted with the remains of coalmining from the massive Saltwells Colliery, and the other side of Pedmore Road was the Wallows Colliery and Round Oak steelworks. This can hardly have had the gentility and tranquility of the better known spa towns.

Saltwells Spa, via Black Country Muse
Saltwells Spa, via Black Country Muse

I can tell you for certain that I never expected to find anything like this in the midst of Black Country of the nineteenth century, but you never know what you might find, really! For the full story, have a read of Cradley Links, Black Country Muse, or the Saltwells Inn website.

5 thoughts on “Taking the waters

  1. That’s a coincidence. I was only telling someone about the Saltwells recently. Back in 1980/81 it used to run lunchtime strip shows. One of my more senior colleagues dealt with a carrier who had offered to take him out for a lunchtime meal and drink, (different times, as they say). My colleague had heard about this pub and the lunchtime entertainment and persuaded the rep to include me in the “jolly” and also make our destination the Saltwells.

    I won’t go into the details but I didn’t enjoy the experience and never repeated it. I am quite open minded but its difficult to describe it. Sordid isn’t quite the word because it wasn’t that bad. Sad? Well, a lot of people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Not for me, I guess.

    Never heard about the spring by the way.


  2. Another Lady’s Well, but did not take the water…although some have!


    Another famous local well, which has fortunately escaped the destructive hand of time, is that near Wombourne, known by the name of Our Lady’s Well, or Lady Well. It is cut out of the solid rock, which crops out at the top of a lofty hill, situated between Wombourne and Lower Penn. The well is of considerable antiquity, and several species of cryptogamic plants give to the surface of the stone a venerable appearance. It is supposed to have been sacred to the virgin in mediæval times, and its waters to have possessed curative properties. Here, ages ago, a holy hermit is said to have dwelt, and to have been visited by many persons in search of consolation and instruction.
    The well is still a favourite resort of local pleasure-seekers, who go to drink of the cooling and delicious beverage, and ruralize in the adjacent wood.–Ibid.
    Hope’s Legendary Lore

    Liked by 1 person

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