Taking the waters

The supposedly curative powers of water from a spring at the foot of a cliff in Scarborough’s South Bay were discovered in the 1620s, and they became widely known following Robert Wittie’s book on ‘Scarborough Spaw’ in 1660. While the spa was well frequented by the ‘quality’ both to take the waters and for amusement, its facilities don’t seem to have been quite as comfortable as those as Tunbridge Wells or Bath, as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough makes clear in this fascinating account:

I have been at the place where they assemble to drink the waters, very different from Tunbridge or the Bath, very dirty and expresses vast poverty in every part of it. It is besides so extremely steep and disagreeable to get to either in a coach or chair, that I resolve to go no more, but to take my waters at home. But there was one thing I saw to-day which is such a curiosity that I must tell you of it. There is a room for the ladies’ assembly, which you go up a steep pair of stairs into, on the outside of the house, like a ladder. And in that room there is nothing but hard narrow benches, which is rather a punishment to sit upon than an ease. When the waters begin to operate, there is a room within it, where there is above twenty holes with drawers under them to take out and all the ladies go in together and see one another round the room, when they are in that agreeable posture, and at the door, there’s a great heap of leaves which the ladies take in with them. This sight I am sure, diverted the Duchess of Manchester extremely, but it made me very sad. And I came home as fast as I could for fear of being forced into that assembly.

This was 1732, so the sight of fashionable women with their hooped dresses and high-heeled shoes climbing up those stairs must have been something to behold.

The Duchess, who doesn’t seem to have been particularly sociable, described how she spent her day:

The morning is the best, when I drink my waters and at dinner [about 3pm] I have a very good stomach. Soon after that a little room is filled with visitors, most of which I never saw before, and to avoid having it as dismal as a funeral, in such a circle, I play at quadrille for half a crown a fish, which is well enough, for I can’t win whatever I played for, and it makes it more easy to play than it would be to have more conversation.

Quadrille was a trick-taking card game very popular at the beginning of the eighteenth century, until whist superseded it. The half-crown stake she was laying down each round was a sizeable amount, 2s 6d, which would have paid for a whole pig or dinner sent in from a tavern. Keeping oneself entertained was an expensive business!

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