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Healing Cultures, Medicine and the Therapeutic Uses of Water in the English Midlands, 1840-1948

Professor Hilary Marland & Dr Jane Adams

This project explores the use of water in English medicine between 1840 and 1948, taking as a case study the English Midlands. It will challenge the assumption that spas declined in importance from the mid-19th century and highlight water’s role as a continued mainstay of a rich and varied spectrum of therapeutic approaches.

The study examines the complex process through which the water cure became increasingly medicalised, characterised by greater specialisation and a proliferation of medical institutions. These trends were influenced by an expanding medical marketplace in which a range of non-medical actors, including local authorities, mutual societies and private businesses, became increasingly active as services were targeted at specific publics, including the poor, the middle classes, women and the chronically ill. The importance of broader public and private cultures of health will also be examined, in particular how health and social reform movements and political and religious attitudes affected the patient’s view of the water cure. The project will, additionally, explore the relationship between the medical uses of water and wider social and cultural changes, including public health and hygienic campaigns, expanding domestic supplies and increased commodification of water.

The emphasis on the English Midlands provides a geographical bridge between old and new systems of healing with water, with the inclusion of both established watering places and new spas and hydropathic towns. The project will entail detailed comparative analysis of the traditional spa towns of Cheltenham, Leamington and Buxton, Malvern and Matlock with their booming hydropathic establishments, Droitwich (the only inland brine spa in Britain), and several smaller mineral spas (e.g. Woodhall and Tenbury Wells). During the period under review the region saw large-scale industrialisation, which opened up new market opportunities in terms of the growing working- and middle-class populations. The sites of water cures were presented as healing environments in contrast to polluted, unhealthy urban communities. Continuous efforts were made to update facilities and to develop state of the art therapeutics within strikingly different settings, from the subdued pleasures of genteel, urban Leamington and Cheltenham Spas to the rigorous natural backdrops of Malvern and Matlock. In a quest to mould an appropriate but distinctive image, each town offered a range of leisure activities and public amenities, leading to the creation of very different micro-environments.

The main outputs of the project include a monograph study, journal articles and public outreach activities, some of which will be developed with our collaborative partner, the Art Gallery and Museum, Royal Leamington Spa. Selected research findings will be summarised on the Centre for the History of Medicine website.

 Events Events
  • Jane Adams and Hilary Marland, ‘Kill or Cure: Water and Health in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, Two-day Workshop, Venice, March 2007.
  • Jane Adams and Susan Aspinall (University of Warwick), ‘Regimens of Health: Perceptions, Representations and Practices, 1880-1950’, University of Warwick, 13-14 December 2007.
  • Dr Catherine Cox (University College Dublin) and Hilary Marland Workshop ‘The Medical Marketplace and Medical Tradition: The Interfaces between Orthodox, Alternative and Folk Practice in the 19th and 20th Centuries’, held Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin, February 2008.
 Publications Publications
  • Hilary Marland and Jane Adams, 'Hydropathy at Home: The Water Cure and Domestic Healing in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 83 (2009), 499-529.
  • Jane Adams, ‘Accommodating the Poor: The Role of the Voluntary Hospital in Nineteenth-Century English Spas’, in Annick Cossic and Patrick Galliou (eds), Spas in Britain and in France in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006), 161-91.
 Confs   Conferences / Seminar Papers (PDF Document)
  • Hilary Marland, '"Wherever Rain Falls, Springs Bubble, or Rivers Run": Hydropathy at Home in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain', presented at European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Conference', London, September 2007.
  • Jane Adams, ‘Health Crusaders and Commerce - the Case of Hydropathy’, presented at workshop ‘Health, Well-being and Commerce 1500- 2000’, University of Wolverhampton, 25 March 2009.
  • Jane Adams, ‘Stagnant waters? Medical Hydrology in England 1914 to 1970’, presented at European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Conference, Heidelberg, September 2009.


Image courtesy of the Royal Pump Rooms and Museum, Leamington Spa.