Melksham Spa – an architectural hidden gem part 1

At the end of 2022 Wiltshire Buildings Record was asked to prepare a talk on Melksham Spa for the reopening of Melksham Library. Having a good deal of information on the individual buildings, we thought this was a matter of collating what we already had and doing a bit more research before presenting our talk. We did not expect such an enthusiastic crowd on the day, many from the Spa itself, offering information about individual houses. With invites to come and see the architectural marvels at first hand, we couldn’t resist, and the overview below, was the result of several visits by kind permission of the owners who threw open their doors to us, and the researched written history.

Entering Melksham from the east, within the parish of Melksham Without, stands a collection of neo-classical buildings, like “stranded leviathans”, that hint to an enterprising period in the town’s history. These grandiose houses along Spa Road form part of what was Melksham Spa, a short-lived development of the early 19th century created to take advantage of the iron-rich waters found in fields at Bowerhill. Other houses were built closer to Melksham during the period (for example at 8-14 Spa Road) as lodgings for the Spa.

When a group of local gentlemen met in the Kings’ Arms in Melksham in July in 1814 to form the Melksham Spa Company, the aspiration was to capitalise on the chalybeate spring found in the ground at Bowerhill. Their plan was to build a spa resort to rival Bath Spa to the west and Cheltenham to the north. Lodging houses, a Pump House, Assembly Rooms and other facilities were built, including satellite buildings along Spa Road, but regretfully Melksham Spa never grew to the successes or scale of its competitors. The chalybeate spring was discovered at Bowerhill Farm in the 1770s when a shaft was sunk looking for coal 375 feet underground. Dr G. S. Gibbes wrote about the medicinal qualities of the water and described how the spring was discovered in his report in 1813.

“After penetrating to a great depth, the miners came to a very hard rock, on piercing through which, this water rushed upon them, and was so abundant that the scheme for finding coal was entirely abandoned. The shaft was filled up with timber and earth and the spring has ever since continued to flow above the original level of the field.”

The Melksham Spa company was set-up as a tontine (a system common in the early 19th century for raising money to finance projects where individuals bought shares and were able to pass on their interest/dividend to nominees) in order for local people to buy-in to the project. The nine acre site at Bowerhill included ten plots for large dwelling houses whose estimated costs were £1,000 per house. Costing 100 Guineas, each subscriber would be a mortgagee and seven years after completion of the building of the houses, the houses would be sold by public auction and the profits divided. Of the 10,000 Guineas needed, only 7,000 Guineas could be raised and the founders had to work within this restriction.

1820s engraving illustrating the 3 buildings & other facilities including the original pump house now demolished

We have not been able to find the original drawing plans and elevations from 1814 but remaining buildings of the site contribute to the architectural history of the area and also to our understanding of the architect, John Finden (1782-1849) little about whom is known. John Finden had offices in Fitzroy Square in London and in Bath and his brothers were the engravers William (1787-1852) and Edward Finden (1791-1857). John Finden’s son, George Finden (1811-1885), was also a well-known printmaker and line engraver. Finden was involved in alterations to the Lower Assembly Rooms in 1811 in Bath, which burned in 1820 and was finally demolished in 1933. Finden also designed Compton Castle at Compton Pauncefoot in Somerset for Sir Hubert Hunt between 1820 and 1825, as well as other buildings there including Windsor Lodge. At Melksham, Finden was responsible for the handsome houses that were known as 1&2, 3&4 and 5&6 Spa Buildings, now known as 399 & 400, 401 & 402 and 403 & 404 The Spa; as well as The Grove, Agra House (407&408) and Belmont (410). He also built Spa Cottage (405 &406) which is now demolished but was a single-storey pump room over the chalybeate well and the site is replaced with 20th century bungalows. The houses included stables set behind which exist still but are all now much altered.

WBR was fortunate to visit a number of the houses in the winter of 2022 and see some of the interiors first-hand. Many original features remain and what was immediately apparent from our visit was how the unity of design employed across the buildings gives a tangible design coherence to the houses 200 years later. The employment of a single architect to work on both the external elevations and the design of the interiors across the whole site allows a comprehensive and legible design code for the architectural historian to follow. The houses are examples of a pared-back neo-classicism where classical features are used with restraint. Planned to form a crescent of six, only three of the tall grandiose houses were built. They each are three storeys with a basement and their front and side elevations are faced in ashlar stone and rears are coursed rubble. The ground floor is slightly lowered and so is referred to as a basement; this was used as a service floor but is lit by full-height windows. The raised ground floor is accessed by a side external stair to a covered porch; the piano nobile, or principal floor, is immediately above and there is a top floor with smaller rooms.

Greek key motif on balconies, fluted pilasters, tulip/ serpentine ironwork in window light, rustication, use of the Doric & 6-panelled door with classical roundels.

The tall sash windows are placed symmetrically across the double houses which have four bays (two bays for each house). The houses are two rooms deep and the scale of the rooms gives an impression of height and light. A tall stair window with an arched head lights the central staircase. The raised ground floor windows are tall 6×6 sashes set slightly back in arched recesses. Rustication runs around the arches and across the ground floor. The piano nobile has taller 6×6 sashes and its grandeur is also detailed with iron-work Juliette balconies set on limestone platforms with a fluted decorative edge, running horizontally across the platforms. The top floor has slightly squatter sashes and the central block (numbers 401 & 402) is given status with a triangular pediment set centrally within the parapet roof. Each pair shares a back-to-back chimney stack. Finden played with the features of classical temple front when you consider the three buildings as a whole. A central triangular pediment sits on top of the central house and giant fluted pilasters stretch across the first and second floors of each house. The pilasters sit on a base of projecting ashlar. The narrow scale of this ashlar base complements the scale of the flat pilasters it supports. We are meant to imagine a classical order, probably Greek Doric, when we include the projecting cornice within the entablature of the roof and the Greek key ironwork of the balconies. The stone columns at the porch entrances remaining on one of the houses employ the Doric order. (A further description and appreciation of the Spa’s architecture will be continued in the next blog).

Rose Barclay, WBR Volunteer

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