From the late 17th century when Catherine of Braganza visited the Hotwell near Bristol, the spa became a popular destination for the affluent. Balls, outings and other entertainments were often advertised in local papers, as also were lists of recently arrived visitors.
But what was less often mentioned was the real reason for the site’s fame, as a cure for a range of illnesses such as diabetes, but increasingly, for consumption or tuberculosis. Whilst responsible doctors claimed the benefits of the waters needed to be taken together with plenty of fresh air and a healthy diet and exercise, there were many who came who never left. Most were buried in Hotwells chapel, now the site of a modern block of flats, or up the hill in either St Andrews’ churchyard or the strangers’ burial ground, now largely overgrown and forgotten.
We are therefore fortunate to have a painfully eloquent reminder of what such a loss was really like. Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal seldom made note of funeral monuments, but in 24 September 1768 they noted “An elegant monument designed by Mr Stuart and executed by Mr More of Bristol etc has lately been erected in the Cathedral in memory of Mrs Mason, wife of Rev Mr Mason who died last year at the Hotwells. – epitaph by Mr W Mason.”
The Rev William mason was a poet, landscape designer and friend to Pope and others, his portrait was painted by Reynolds, and he wrote Capability Brown’s epitaph. The Dictionary of National Biography devotes 4pages to him, describing him as ‘one of the most famous, fashionable – and most often satirized – poets of his era. He wrote one of the best-selling poems of the 18th century, the Heroic Epistle, and critically influenced another, Grey’s ‘Elegy in a Country Church-yard’. His debates with Walpole, Gay, Hurd, and later William Gilpin, were instrumental in forming the ideas of the picturesque and the Gothick, and were an important influence on the Romantic movement. Mason’s polymathic activities make him one of the most comprehensive cultural figures of his age. If his wife’s epitaph is anything to go by, it is time he was rediscovered.
“Take holy earth all that my soul holds dear
Take that best gift which heav’n so lately gave
To Bristol’s fount I bore with trembling care
Her faded form : She bow’d to taste the wave
and died. Does youth, does beauty, read the line?
Does sympathetic fear their breasts alarm?
Speak, dead Maria; breathe a strain divine:
Ev’n from the grave thou shalt have power to charm
Bid them be chaste, be innocent like thee
Bid them in duties sphere as meekly move:
And if so fair, from vanity as free
As firm in friendship, and as fond in love
Tell them, tho’ tis an awful thing to die
(‘twas ev’n so to thee) yet, the dread path once trod
Heav’n lifts up its everlasting portals high
And bids “the pure in heart, behold their God’”
This epitaph was famously quoted by William Wordsworth in his ‘Essay on Epitaphs’. It seems to have entered into common currency decades later, when William Herapath wrote his Handbook for Visitors to the Hotwell in 1830, he bemoaned that patients tended to be sent there only when they were beyond help. ‘They have in truth bowed to taste the wave and died. To cure such patients as have from time to time been brought there in the most deplorable state of the malady [pthisis or today’s tuberculosis] would have demanded a miracle.’
After the Napoleonic Wars, seaside resorts and tours of Europe became more popular than the old spas of the fashionistas of their day, so the Hotwell became the last resort of the terminally ill, which further lowered its popularity.
As Humphrey Clinker noted ‘A man deserves to be fitted with a cap and bells for such a paltry advantage as this spring affords, sacrifices his precious time which might be employed in taking more effectual remedies, and exposes himself to the dirt, the stench, the chilling blasts and perpetual rains that render this place to me intolerable.’