A Potty History Of My Home Town

Or A Trip Into Leamington Spa's Murky Past

As somebody infamous once said, “Leamington’s a great place to visit but I wouldn'’t want to eat a whole one”.

Ok so that somebody was me and I’m neither infamous or the inverse of that enviable state of being but I have been a denizen of Leamington Spa and its immediate environs for all of my life which, in my opinion, puts me in a strong position to proclaim myself the expert on all things Leamingtonian. At least within the realms of this particular web site anyway. So allow me, if you will, to take you on a virtual tour of my home town – its highs and lows, its stops and go’s, its friends and foes – just in case any fearless personage among you is thinking of paying a visit to this Midlandic hot bed of debauchery and political intrigue...

Talking of hot beds and infamy, Leamington Spa is well-known for being the birth place of Aleister Crowley, the by turns celebrated and by turns disparaged black magician much famed for his proclamation that he was the Beast of the Apocalypse. It is important to note that at the time of this dubious promotion he’d been caught - according to various sources - pleasuring himself by his extremely puritanical mother who, in her Victorian disgust and outrage, accused him of being The Beast. When caught with one’s trousers down, purple bishop in hand, furiously bopping its mitre, one can either deny the accusation or, if one is suitably brazen and bold, proudly concur with the allegation. Aleister, being suitably brazen and bold did the latter. For those idiots among you that may be planning a black pilgrimage to Clarendon Square in Leamington Spa to offer dark sacrifices at the door of Mr Crowley’s birthplace... please note that he only lived in this town for the first six years of his life before moving away – well before his occult career ever began – and he was so enchanted and enthralled with the place that he chose never to return. Now that’s what I call an endorsement.

Other famous notables who lived in the vicinity if not Leamington Spa itself were Sir Frank Whittle who invented the world’s first jet engine and Phillip Larkin, one of the most exemplary poets of the 20th Century. Both were born in Coventry and both died as far removed from the place as possible. Hmm. Must be something in the water. Whittle ensured Britain’s entry into the Jet Age when he successfully flew the jet-propelled Gloster-Whittle E 28/39 from Cranwell on May 15th 1941 and Larkin is probably most famous for the immortal line: "They f*ck you up, your mum and dad" from his poem This Be The Verse. Oh and there is a rumour that his dad was fascinated with the Nazi’s – not really a healthy hobby considering Coventry was being hammered back into the Stone Age by the Blitz at the time. Thankfully Whittle’s engine halted this backwards trend and now Coventry is a mass of concrete flyovers and Halal butcher’s shops. Oh and there’s a lot of greengrocers as well and most of the teenage boys look as rough as badger’s arseholes and strut around pretending to be tough and "street" before running home to help their mams with the washing up.

But enough about Coventry, you want to hear about Leamington Spa - or "Leamo" (pronounced Lem-o) as it is often called by the locals. Other oft used epithets include the wildly imaginative "Leam" and the accurately descriptive "Shithole"...

Leamington made its debut in the Domesday Book in 1086 when the then insignificant settlement was called "Lamintone" due to the primitive laminating industry which had sprung up on the south side of the river next to Ye Olde Ford’s Foundrye. Ok. Ok. That was complete twaddle. "Lamintone" according to my reliable sources actually means "a farm on the river Leam". As the years passed the humble village of Leamington – little more than a pigsty with an en-suite well – became known as Leamington Priors due to the fact it was owned by the fat but assuredly pious cats of Kenilworth Priory. I’m sure you will agree that it is a much better name than, say, "The Pigsty" or "That Toilet On The Other Side Of The River". Despite such humble beginnings Leamington was destined for fame and greatness due to the sulphurous ace hidden up its sleeve... No, dear reader, I refer here not to infernal pacts with Beelzebub or instances of rectal poker but the occurrence of a natural saline water spring in the vicinity of the rude hamlet that was set to rocket Leamington to the top of the "Dead Cool Places To Visit" chart of the 19th Century.

A mineral spring of strangely restorative power and sulphurous odour had long been known of by the canny locals (who probably would have all been burnt at the stake as witches if they’d lived in Essex) but was little heard of outside of the mud spattered borders of Leamington. The spring was recorded, however, by notables such as John Ross of Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick, in 1480 and also mentioned by William Camden in "Britannia" in 1586 but obviously not many people bothered to read their books at the time. Mayhaps they were too busy oppressing the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots. Or poking fun at the damn Frenchies for their nasally ways and the fact they rarely bathed and "made love with their faces". Either of these past-times was infinitely preferable to the local sport of pig kissing which involved kissing a young freshly branded sow on the lips until she fainted, whereupon the victor could either marry the pig or live on fresh pork butties for the next seven days (pork was difficult to keep fresh until the invention of the refrigerator by Johann Sebastian Fridge in 1847).

The original spring lay on the property of the Earl of Aylesford and the Earl, being quite rich enough already thank you, was happy to let the local ruffians and beggars help themselves to the foul tasting water free of charge. What a gent. Other less philanthropic people didn’t start cashing in on the spring properly until two local business men – William Abbotts and Benjamin Satchwell – discovered "a salty spring bubbling up" on Abbott’s land in 1784. Although this sounds like a very early account of cottaging and/or dogging it was in fact entirely kosher and these two shrewd old upstarts were quick to capitalize on their good fortune by making a hefty monetary one... wells were sunk and bath houses were built and now the locals could pay to take a hot bath in Abbotts’ salty fluid which it was said could cure most ills including rabies though it was less effective if the victim had been beheaded beforehand. Eventually seven saline springs were discovered by an assortment of local business men and philanthropists and Leamington soon had more baths than Bath. But less cases of rabies.

Leamington’s biggest advantage over other spa water towns of the time (such as Cheltenham and Bath) was that its waters were excessive in their volume and fulsomeness... there was plenty to be had for bathing, drinking and skinny dipping. Water water everywhere and every drop available to drink... provided you could stand the odour of rotten eggs of course. News of the spa water’s elixir-like properties soon spread far and wide and visitors began to flock from all over the country from places as far fetched and exotic as London, Ashby de la Zeuch and Cramlington. By train, by tram and by tricycle the toffs and well-to-do ladies came in their droves and their lorgnettes to sample the curative waters of the little spa town of Leamington. And with them they brought great steaming wads of cash and credit and appetites to spend it willy-nilly on whatever wares Leamington had to offer. Aside from spa water bathing the biggest grossing industries for this period were Mrs Bootle’s amazing miracle cure beef scrag pies and Madame Ethel Fanshawe’s saucy "dancing girls" (available for candlelit soirées, dinner dances and midnight séances).

Leamington was soon every investor’s wet dream – literally. To cope with this influx of gentrified money and trade the town began to expand and upgrade and aspire to heights never heretofore dreamed of. The effect was instantaneous. From hovel to fashionable cosmopolitan town almost over night. In 1808, seeing that the original town was scum laden and flea ridden the high and mighty (nouveau) rich folk of Leamington decided to extend the town north of the River Leam and erect monuments of Georgian grandeur and extravagance on land owned by Mr Bertie Greatheed (a Scotsman renowned for his gargantuan cranium). Buildings were built, bridges were extended and sewers were dug to cope with the affluent and the effluence that were now deluging the burgeoning little town from every corner of England’s grimy, rickets infested borders.

The posh nobs living the high life in the sumptuous new north end of town were eager to find a spring in their vicinity – up until this point all of the wells were located in the grimy rat-soaked south town. Despite much energy and financial expenditure only one well was successfully sunk north of the river but from this isolated success grew Leamington’s most premier building. The much celebrated and famed Royal Pump Rooms & Baths (which now houses Leamington Art Gallery & Museum). Opened in 1814 the prestigious building offered spa water for drinking and bathing to a host of VIP guests including Queen Victoria and the Duke Of Wellington. Other facilities made available to guests included a Turkish Bath (Hammam), ye olde internet cafeteria and the gentleman’s club which was staffed by some of Ethel Fanshawe’s best recruits. The Victorian obsession with spa water bathing saw the town grow rich in money and national stature. It was soon one of the top tourist destinations for the discerning Victorian holiday maker. How the Victorians loved Leamington! Even Queen Victoria, herself having visited the town in 1830 when she was only 11 years old, was "graciously pleased" to grant the town a charter to call itself Royal in 1838. Thus Royal Leamington Spa was born!

But alas these halcyon days were not to last.

The invention of the steam train was to be the right royal spanner in Leamington Spa’s lucrative dirtbox. The construction of Britain’s national rail network during the 1840’s seemed at first to be an advantage to the town – visitors could travel here far more easily to sample the eggy waters and taste the erotic intoxications of Leamington Spa’s vaudeville-esque night life. But as the rail network grew in reach and coverage it soon became Leamington’s enemy – and the enemy of all inland spa towns! "What ho?" cried your average Joe Victorian, "why should I pay a vast fortune to visit some pokey little provincial town to sample its land locked saline waters when I can get a special offer family away day ticket for half the price and visit Brighton, swim in the hugeness of the salty briny ocean and ogle a load of housemaids and factory gels dressed in their fetching red and white striped one piece bathing cossies? Ooer missus, I’ll have some ketchup on that there whelk and no mistake." The new accessibility of Britain’s coastal resorts spelt financial disaster for staid spa towns such as Leamington, Bath and Cheltenham. And if that wasn’t enough there was soon competition from exotic tourist resorts on the Continent – France, Italy, Germany, Spain. Why dunk yourself in tepid well water while your pants are parked on a silver salver by a ruddy faced penguin with a massive handlebar moustache when you could be getting jiggy with it with some gravely voiced German bird in a Berlin bar and downing absinthe at thruppence a shot (dependent on exchange rate fluctuations)? There was no competition. The good times were over. Curse you, George Stephenson! You and your infernal steam powered horseless carriage! The newly cravated Leamingtonians hung their heads in sorrow and wondered what would become of their once bustling and cosmopolitan town now that the young and rich preferred to go on the pull in Europe and Skegness.

They were bleak times. Many fell by the wayside. Many fled to pastures new. But most simply stayed and tried to drown their sorrows in the spa water which, because of its life preserving properties, merely made them live extended lives and suffer even longer in their post-boom misery. Serves ‘em right, I say. Bloody pretentious toffs. Privatizing a free national resource and selling it back to the hoi polloi at an inflated price - who the hell did they think they were, eh? Landed tossers! Ahem. Anyway within a few years Leamington Spa was practically a ghost town only without the annoying background music supplied by The Specials who incidentally were a Coventry band and therefore no doubt visited Leamington on a regular basis (most Coventry lads still come to Leamington of an evening even today, drawn by the cheap booze and the easy girls who’ll drop their knickers for the price of a Drambuie and gobble you off for the price of a packet of Walkers cheese and onion crisps behind one of the many tatty Leamington "nite" clubs). But whatever music was stuck in the background Leamington’s popularity plummeted like the proverbial lead balloon. Bands wouldn’t play no more. There was too much fighting on the dance floor. Etcetera. Etcetera.

But this was not to be the end of Leamington. Oh no. The old gal had one more ace hidden up her pox ridden bustle... the lucrative world of the retirement industry. And I’m not talking about "cleaning" up bad debtors on the Mafia circuit either. I’m talking about Bournemouth. I’m talking about Hastings. I’m talking about huge empty houses going for a song and lots of picturesque parks and tea rooms just crying out for the patronage of dry old fogeys and super rich but battle scarred ex servicemen with more money than limbs. Or sense. Yes, drawn by the local cut-price property market and out of work bell boys the retiring classes (i.e. those that could afford to do it) upped shop and moved themselves wholesale to Royal Leamington Spa, bright pearl of the Midlands, leaving behind forever the corrupting light of London, pearl necklace of the world. Sorry but I had to do that; it was too good a pun.

Thus Leamington Spa became the fashionable residential town which graces your AA map even today. Light and airy. Green and leafy. Shoppy and druggy. With lots of houses to live in and nice tea rooms and parks to visit. And yes the ruddy spa water is still available. Oh hurrah. Why don’t you visit and try it for yourself? Or even better – why don’t you not?


Unknown said...

Fantastic and enjoyable account of Leamington's history.

Steve said...

Unknown: not to be taken too seriously though... ;-) but thank you for the compliment.