Please enter both an email address and a password.

Account login

Need to reset your password?  Enter the email address which you used to register on this site (or your membership/contact number) and we'll email you a link to reset it. You must complete the process within 2hrs of receiving the link.

We've sent you an email

An email has been sent to Simply follow the link provided in the email to reset your password. If you can't find the email please check your junk or spam folder and add no-reply@rcseng.ac.uk to your address book.

Nineteenth and Earlier Twentieth-century Health Resorts

04 Jun 2024

Maria Hunt

What do you look for in a holiday destination? History and culture? Great food? The presence of sulphurous or chalybeate baths?

Facilitated by the growth of industry and tourism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people were able to travel far and wide to seek treatments and cures for their illnesses in mineral-rich waters and favourable climates.

For example, sciatica could be helped by various types of waters, including thermal sulphurous waters and thermal saline waters. But how could the would-be traveller learn where to find treatment like this? Enter the health resort travel guide. These handbooks gave the reader all the information they needed to choose their health resort in a neat and concise format.

A good example of a comprehensive health resort guide is B. Bradshaw’s Dictionary of mineral waters, climatic health resorts, sea baths and hydropathic establishments. Published in 1888, this is an all-encompassing handbook for those seeking to travel to a health resort. Bradshaw’s coverage is extensive: the dictionary includes advice for both bathers and visitors to watering places, and an extensive table easily showing readers which resort is best suited to treating particular diseases, as well as other information relating to the resorts. Also included in this guide are advertisements, including those for hotels in spa towns or for the spa town itself, and a colour-coded map of Europe indicating the various types of water or climate to be found in certain locations.

A brown fabric book cover reading 'B. Bradshaw's Bathing Places Climatic Health Resorts'

Above: The cover of B. Bradshaw's dictionary of mineral waters, climatic health resorts, sea baths, and hydropathic establishments. London, 1888.

Two pages of a table showing 'name of disease', 'medium [of treatment]' and 'places [offering that medium]'

Above: One section of the table in Bradshaw’s dictionary showing where a condition was best treated. From: Bradshaw, B., B. Bradshaw's dictionary of mineral waters, climatic health resorts, sea baths, and hydropathic. London, 1888. p.xxxvi-xxxvii.

Scotland, Glenburn Hydropathic, Rothesay, Bute. [Includes an engraving of the resort and text decribing its offerings.]

Above: An advertisement for a hotel. From: Bradshaw, B., B. Bradshaw's dictionary of mineral waters, climatic health resorts, sea baths, and hydropathic. London, 1888.

However, if a more personal account was desired to make an informed decision, a traveller might have chosen to consult a text such as Sir Erasmus Wilson’s A three weeks’ scamper through the spas of Germany and Belgium. Published in 1858, this is a detailed narrative of Wilson’s “three weeks of change” in which he recounts his experiences in various German and Belgian spa towns. To spotlight one section of this text, Wilson was clearly affected by the waters at Wildbad:

I almost wished to have had a rheumatism, or a neuralgia, or a sciatica, or a stiff joint, or some other dolorous complaint, or a surfeit of the nerves, that I might feel it in process of being softened and dissolved away by these delicious waters; and I no longer wondered that Wildbad had become so favourite a resort for such affections.

One popular spa location for the health-seeker was the town of Aix-les-Bains, situated in the Savoy region of France. According to the Practical Guide to the baths of Aix in Savoy, Aix was in possession of a “mild and equable climate”, meaning that the location was particularly suitable for those “suffering from rheumatism or delicacy of the lungs”. Its thermal waters were the product of two springs: a sulphur-spring and an alum-spring. The Practical Guide details the many health-based services on offer at Aix for the nineteenth-century traveller. The town’s magnificent bathing establishment was promoted: baths of various types could be taken there, including douche-baths and vapour-baths, as well as thermal baths. There were also inhalation-rooms in the establishment – where vapour could be inhaled to treat conditions such as asthma or chronic bronchitis. The douche-bath – a type of shower – was particularly of note. The water could be applied in a directed way while the patient sat on a wooden chair or laid on a “canvass” bed and then massaged into the skin by a doucheur (an attendant). In this way, the douche could help “the large majority of chronic disorders, such as sciatica, atonic gout, stiffness of the joints, diseases of the skin, wounds, ulcers, scrofula, palsy, specific affections, nervous and female diseases”. The mineral water could also be consumed as another mode of treatment.

An engraving of an attendant spraying a patient with water in a room full of pipes and other equipment

Above: An illustration of someone being treated by an Aix Massage in Aix. From: Despine, Claude Joseph Constant, Practical guide to the baths of Aix in Savoy. Paris, 1871. p28.

Also included in this guide, which was written especially for British and American tourists, are details about accommodation, transport, other nearby springs and establishments, and the casino in the town. The casino was home to “ball, concert and card rooms, a reading room, a café, a restaurant, gardens and sheltered arcades”. The traveller even had the option of taking a thermal bath without even having to leave their hotel! Therefore, Aix could clearly be enjoyed as both a source of treatment and as a more traditional holiday destination.

An engraving of a map titled 'Carte Itineraire Des Environs D'Aix'

Above: A map of Aix and its surroundings. From: Despine, Claude Joseph Constant, Practical guide to the baths of Aix in Savoy. Paris, 1871.

An engraving showing a building surrounded by lawns against a backdrop of mountains, with a number of people walking in its grounds

Above: An illustration of the Casino in Aix. From: Despine, Claude Joseph Constant, Practical guide to the baths of Aix in Savoy. Paris, 1871. p16.

A traveller seeking relief from chest or breathing difficulties may have not needed water treatment, and so may have opted for a resort noted especially for its climate. For example, San Remo, located in the north-west of Italy, was observed by W.B. Aspinall in 1865 as a particularly good location for the ill in winter. Aspinall suggests that “San Remo combines, in a modified degree, the invigorating qualities of Nice with the warmth of Mentone, but without its closeness” with its favourable geographic qualities, including mountains and olive groves. He ventured to San Remo in search of treatment for his lungs and stated:

So deeply was I impressed with the very great advantage it possesses over every other situation on the Riviera to those requiring a very balmy, and, at the same time, a bright exhilarating air, and unusual freedom from dust, that this, combined with a feeling of gratitude for the very great benefit I derived, induced me to make public my impressions of San Remo, in the hope that other invalids might profit by my experience.

A tinted engraving of a small bay, with a group of buildings on the slope and top of a ridge on the far side. There are mountains in the background.

Above: An illustration of San Remo. From: Aspinall, W.B., San Remo as a winter residence by an invalid 1862-1865. London, 1865.

Another holiday location somewhat closer to home that might have been chosen for its climate was Glengarriff in Ireland. In Remarks on the advantages of Glengarriff as a health resort and sanitorium, various endorsements of the location were made by physicians and the press. For example, Gilbart Smith (physician to the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest) wrote in 1875 from personal experience that he had, “when in a state bordering consumption” some years prior, benefited greatly from a two-months’ stay in Glengarriff. Smith also wrote:

To that class of diseases of the chest which requires a winter residence in a warm and moist atmosphere, the climate of Glengarriff presents unrivalled qualifications.

'Glengarriff Harbour & Bantry Bay. From the Pleasure Grounds of the Eccles Hotel.' A tinted engraving of a calm bay against a backdrop of mountains. Two women are shown in the foreground, with a small group of buildings behind them, in front of the bay.

Above: An illustration of Glengarriff Harbour and Bantry Bay. From: Remarks on the advantages of Glengarriff as a winter health resort and sanitorium. London, 1877.

However, for those requiring thorough water treatment, and who also did not want to travel too far from home, Bath was a great choice. Bath had four establishments for private bathing and three springs. The traveller could also experience a favourable climate thanks to the shelter provided by hills, combining with fresh air from the south and south-west. The author of the Medical Guide to the Hot Mineral Baths of Bath, published in 1901, even went as far to say that, due to the range of services on offer at Bath at this time, it was “no longer a necessity for English people to visit foreign Spas for the mere sake of mineral water and medical treatment”.

Numerous types of bath were in use at Bath in this period. For example, aside from swimming baths, there were deep or “chair” baths that allowed the patient to move around in the water and experience almost complete submersion. For the patients who could not descend the steps into the bath, a chair hanging from a metal rail could be let down into the water. Bath also had reclining baths if these were preferred by the patient. Both types of bath also had an “undercurrent douche” which could be used underwater.

A black and white photograph of a man in a deep, walk-in bath, surrounded by pipes

Above: A photograph of someone in a deep or “chair” bath. From: Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet. Bath, 1901. p39.

Moreover, the same douche-baths as used at Aix-les-Bains mentioned previously were taken up at Bath. Bath also adopted the Nauheim system, which was suitable for the treatment of several diseases, but was especially suited to “chronic diseases of the heart”. Electric hot air baths were also used, which, when used in tandem with the waters, could treat “stubborn rheumatic and arthritic cases” in particular. The waters could also be consumed for health benefits, with a fountain in the Grand Pump Room being a major supplier for this purpose. Conditions that Bath could treat included, but were not limited to, gout, rheumatism, joint diseases, and skin diseases.

A black and white photograph of a patient sitting on a chair while being massaged and sprayed with water by two attendants. The room is tiled and several pipes are visible.

Above: A photograph of someone being treated by an Aix Massage at Bath. From: Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet. Bath, 1901. p41.

A black and white photograph of a patient in a tiled bath, with a thick pipe running into it.

Above: A photograph of someone taking a Nauheim bath. From: Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet. Bath, 1901. p53.

Two black and white photographs of patients with their limbs encased in metal devices. One is in a chair, with her shoulder and legs enclosed, the other is in a bed with his legs encased.

Above: Photographs of people experiencing an electric hot air bath. From: Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet. Bath, 1901. p54-55.

An engraving of a large Georgian building, with pedestrians in the foreground

Above: A photograph of the exterior of the Grand Pump Room and Roman Promenade in Bath. From: Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet. Bath, 1901. p79.

The above examples highlight some of the alternatives to conventional medication that were pursued in this period and emphasise the health benefits of our natural world. The RCS Library and the UK Medical Heritage Library hold extensive material concerning health resorts in the UK, Europe, and further afield.

Maria Hunt, Information Assistant

Sources

Aspinall, W.B., San Remo as a winter residence by an invalid 1862-1865, London: John Churchill, 1865.

Bradshaw, B., B. Bradshaw’s dictionary of mineral waters, climatic health resorts, sea baths, and hydropathic establishments : giving the summer and winter residences of doctors, hotels which can be recommended with confidence, and other useful information; with a map, shewing all the stations named, and an itinerary of the quickest and cheapest routes by rails, boats, carriages, etc.; and several smaller maps and plans, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1888.

Despine, Claude Joseph Constant, Practical guide to the baths of Aix in Savoy: with all necessary information for reaching Aix and taking the baths, Paris: Victor Masson et fils, 1871.

Kerr, J.G. Douglas, A popular guide to the use of the Bath waters: with useful hints of visitors, notes on the climate of Bath, and its advantages as a health resort and place of residence, &c., Bath: The Bath Herald, 1884.

Medical guide to the hot mineral baths of Bath: with extracts from the report of the Special Commission of the Lancet, Bath: Herald Office, 1901.

Remarks on the advantages of Glengarriff as a winter health resort and sanitorium, London: R.J. Bush, 1877.

Wilson, Sir Erasmus, A three weeks' scamper through the spas of Germany and Belgium: with an appendix on the nature and uses of mineral waters, London: John Churchill, 1858.

Wood, Neville Thorold, Health resorts of the British Islands, London: University of London Press, 1912.

Share this page: