This commission was adapted and used as a children's play in activities run by the Route to the Hills Project.
The aim of the Route to the Hills Project was to promote Malvern's heritage to help boost tourism and the local economy.
So That’s How They’re Treated!
A Story about the Malvern Water Cure from a Laundry Maid's Perspective...
You could hear hollering all through Dr Wilson’s Water Cure Establishment. When the windows were open, cries from startled patients travelled as high as the garret rooms. I couldn’t help laughing in front of the other maids!
"They’re insane volunteering for this," I blurted out on my first day as we stretched and ironed the laundered sheets ready for the treatments.
"Shh! Agnes," Jane warned. "Miss Birch will hear your nonsense and consider you feverish, and then you’ll be under that douche…just stop your boyish behaviour!"
"It’s hard not to laugh," I replied, pressing a sheet in preparation for making a Neptune Girdle. "Anyway, what’re the girdles for?"
"If you must know, the sheet is folded into a type of belt contraption and then saturated with water for a patient to wear around the…to cover the waist area! They’re only taken off at mealtimes." Images of Christ crucified in a loincloth flashed before my eyes.
"Fat, wet drawers! Only a fool would choose to wear those!"
"Mind your tongue!" Jane reprimanded. "The good and the great come here to correct their health – they can’t all be wrong – even Miss Florence Nightingale has taken the waters." After opening up about the 'Girdle', Jane soon became tight-lipped again.
On Sundays we walked to Christchurch for Evensong, and I would try and talk to Jack, one of the bath attendants about what went on in hydrotherapy and the bathhouses, but Jane was always within earshot and intervening.
I noticed that every morning, when we were smoothing bed sheets, her grave face would scan the road towards the Priory Gateway for her intended, Walter. He was a donkey-chair driver with the ‘gift of the gab’ I was told.
"Do you think it’s better to have a charmer and worry all day, or be an old spinster and not worry a jot?" I asked her one-day.
"Get a move on with that iron!" came the rattled reply. Jane had been working in the establishment as a maid for ten years. She was fourteen when she started (the same age as me). For not letting me talk to Jack, I would quiz her until scalded air bled my throat.
I was certain that she knew all about the different treatments. I wanted to know why Father wasn’t happy with my position; I felt sure it had something to do with the treatments. He had said I wasn’t to work in a place of quackery. He said that the Hydropathic Palace, as many locals called it, was an unsuitable environment for a decent woman’s eyes, but Mother had stumped him with, ‘Better she work for a known quack than an unknown gentleman!’ Saying that, they’re both too old fashioned when it comes to modern ideas – they say you can’t beat a physician bearing leeches for giving you vim and vigour. They say those wanting this new-fangled treatment must harbour a death wish!
One afternoon, when Jane came in bright-eyed after snatching a few words with Walt who happened to be passing, I managed to prise it out of her: the un-starched sheets, which never looked as tidy in the linen cupboard as the starched ones, were for the 'packing’ regime. She told me in a gabble:
"Patients are woken between 5.00 and 6.00am by a bath attendant, and ordered to remove their clothes while the attendant spreads blankets on the bed and uncoils wet linen to spread on the blankets. The patients then lie on the bed inside the cocoon of folded layers and go back to sleep."
"Naked as a newborn!"
"An hour later," Jane continued without a flicker, "they’re woken up and given a shallow bath and a rubbing down, then they walk up the zigzag to St Ann’s Well for a drink from the spring." St Ann’s seems to be everyone’s favourite. As early as sunrise, the band plays up there and the place fills with visitors sipping water and catching the dawn chorus.
Luck was with me one brisk morning on the back stairs. Jack was coming up as I was on my way down, my arms barrelling linen.
"You still keen, Ag?" he asked
"Keen about what exactly?"
"Keen to see what goes on behind closed doors on this floor!"
"Then make an excuse and come to number 12 tomorrow at 7.00am. I’ll leave the door ajar so you can have a gander…look through the hinge side mind, don’t pop yer head round!"
"I’ll be there."
"It was so cold last week’ he continued, ‘that an icicle fell from the douche like a knife. The wounded patient stood oblivious in a sea of blood! Wonder he didn’t have a seizure!"
"You’re not putting me off, Jack …I’ll be there."
I couldn’t think of an excuse to use the next morning, but one arose when I accidentally knocked over a jug of ammonia, which made a large malodorous stain at the front of my dress. Jane reluctantly let me go, but before changing I scurried to the treatment floor and found as promised, the door to number 12 open.
Peering through the gap between the hinges while holding my nose, I could see Jack barefoot in his uniform, holding a towel in one hand and a dangling chain in the other. He winked in the direction of the door, and then pulled the chain. As if a wild beast was caught in a trap, pipes roared and then water from a cistern 20 feet above gushed in a wave, over a man – stark, stark, stark naked, causing him to bruise and spin like a top. He let out such a howl, I thought he was to drop dead like a shot pheasant.
Next to him sat another naked man on a stool, with eyes like owls and everything bulging, baring the icy cold water being drawn forcefully through a pipe and directed onto his back by a different attendant.
"What are you doing, my girl?" The housekeeper, Miss Birch was suddenly upon me.
"Parsnips!’ I spouted unconsciously, "umm…cook asked me to find you...she wants to discuss whether to change the meat and two veg options on the menu."
"She did no such thing! It’s always mutton, potato and cabbage according to Dr Wilson, and always will be. You were snooping…and if I catch you again, I shan’t be lenient again. Now get off with your bother and change, you smell like an old tomcat! Then get back to work!"
As I turned the corner, I hesitated. In the mirror at the end of the corridor I could see the reflection of Miss Birch gently pressing the door and positioning an eye at the widening crack.
Apart from Dr Wilson, all names and characters are fictional.
Texts used for reference:
Garrard R. (2008) Donkeys’ Years on the Malvern Hills. Malvern. Garrard Art Publications.
Grierson, J. (1998) Dr Wilson and his Malvern Hydro: Park View in the Water Cure Era. Malvern. Aldine Press.
Hurle, P. (1989) Bygone Malvern. Surrey. Phillimore & Co Ltd.
McMenemy, W.H. (1952) The Water Doctors of Malvern with special reference to the years 1842 to 1872
Available online: www.journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591575304600102
Shew, J. (1845) The Water-Cure Journal.
Weaver, C. (2016) A Short Guide to: Malvern as a Spa Town Hertfordshire.
Epic Graphic Productions Ltd.
Weaver, C & Osborne B (1994) Aquae Malvernensis. Malvern. Aldine Press.
St Ann's Well