It is thought that St Ann’s Well was used by the monks from Worcester living in a hermitage on the Hills when they were building Great Malvern Priory in 1085. There are references to St Ann’s Well in the 13th Century and on maps of the Foley Estates from 1744, however St Ann’s Well did not become significant until the 19th Century.
From the 17th Century Malvern Wells was a village spa frequented by patients who drank and bathed in the waters of the Holy Well and the Eye Well above it.
St Ann’s Well becomes Popular
In 1805 Dr A. Philips Wilson carried out analysis on St Ann’s Well as a follow up to the work carried out in 1742 by Dr John Wall. The analysis brought St Ann’s Well fresh fame and attracted visitors away from Malvern Wells to Great Malvern instead. In 1813 a well house was built by Lady Emily Foley, the owner of the spring and much of the land surrounding it. The well house was let to the Clifton family, who supplied refreshments and hot and cold baths.
In order to capitalise on the growing attraction for “taking the waters” by the wealthy middle and upper classes in Britain, Great Malvern invested in leisure facilities such as the Foley Arms Hotel (1810) and the classical style Royal Library (1819). The Royal Library is now Barclays Bank at the top of Edith Walk. St Ann’s Well and Great Malvern reached such distinguished heights that, in 1830, the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria (then only 12 years old) came to Malvern. The young Princess opened Victoria Drive, the new twisting path replacing the smaller zig-zag path as the main route to St Ann’s Well before going to drink at the Well.
The Cold Water Cure Arrives
In 1842 Dr James Wilson, who had experienced the ‘Cold Water Cure’ popularised in Europe by Vincent Priessnitz, arrived in Great Malvern with Dr James Gully and they set up their own version. The two doctors leased the Crown Hotel on Belle Vue Terrace and renamed it Cherbourg House after the spa town in Selesia (now part of Poland), where Wilson had learned the Priessnitz Water Cure. The Patients were wealthy and many of those that benefited from ‘The Cure’ did so because their illnesses were due to overeating and excessive alcohol consumption. Their cures were attributed to the Priessnitz health package, consisting of pure water, pure and proper diet, regular exercise and lifestyle changes, all of which worked wonders.
A Typical Day for a Water Cure Patient
A typical day of the water cure treatment involved rising at 5 or 6am wrapped in cold wet sheets and covered in a quilt for an hour. The patient was then unwrapped and placed in a portable bath while cold water was poured over him or her, followed by a “friction rub” with a rough towel. Now, fully awake and invigorated, the patient was sent up the hills to drink from the springs, particularly St Ann’s Well. All this was before breakfast, which was plain and included more water. The rest of the morning was spent resting, interspersed with the odd Sitz bath where you sat fully clothed in hip for anything up to 60 minutes. Dinner was at 2pm and consisted of roast meat and lots of vegetables followed by a pudding.
The afternoon was for walking or carriage rides around the surrounding district to places such as Eastnor. Visits to St Ann’s Well were particularly popular, perhaps they provided an opportunity for an illicit snack for hungry patients. At 5pm there were more hydropathic baths. Tea was served at 7pm and was slightly plainer than breakfast. After a “Hydropathic Ball” with dancing to the Rhine String Band from Germany, patients were sent to bed early early in preparation for another early awakening the next day.
Patients received the treatment for a minimum of 3 weeks, after which they were fit for the douche at midday! Many famous people came to the area for the water cure including Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and his youngest daughter Annie (who sadly died and is buried in Great Malvern Priory churchyard) and Florence Nightingale (who came to recover after her work during the Crimean War).
Great Malvern Prospered
All of Malvern prospered from the healing reputation of Malvern’s spring water. Lea, Perrins and Burrow’s, the chemist on Belle Vue Terrace had begun to sell spring water and soda water. They owned the sole rights to bottling and selling water from Holy Well and St Ann’s Well. In 1850 the Burrows brothers bought out Lea and Perrins, taking over bottling rights and the chemists whilst Lea and Perrins went on to other things, such as making Worcester sauce.
In 1860 to provide further facilities at St Ann’s Well to the ever growing number of tourists, an octagonal building was attached to the earlier well room. This is now a tea room with a function room above. To capitalise on the tourist trade John Down Senior, a photographer, established his camera obscura on the St Ann’s Delight (just above St Ann’s Well) where the light was brighter than in the town so exposures were shorter. He processed his pictures in St Ann’s Well water which was free from organic matter and low in minerals, thus ensuring the permanence of his photographs.
A Decline in the Water Cure Business
The cold water cure had been booming for 25 years in Great Malvern when disaster struck, with the death of Water Cure founder, Dr James Wilson in January 1867; Dr Fergusson took over his practice. Five years later, to the consternation of the town, Dr Gully suddenly left Malvern to live near an ex patient Florence Campbell. The subsequent affair finished when she married Charles Bravo. The marriage ended soon after when her husband died of antimony poisoning. The poison was traced to Malvern and Dr Gully’s groom thus involving the doctor whose affair was exposed. The case became the most famous unsolved murder of the nineteenth century. The Cold Water Cure continued for a further 33 years with Dr Fergusson but numbers declined. Then in 1905 the water supply to his establishment became contaminated and three patients got typhoid, the press had a field day and his practice never recovered closing in bankruptcy in 1913.
Even with the Water Cure less popular, entertainment was still available at St Ann’s Well. George Pullen a blind musician walked from Storridge each day to play his harmonium for visitors. He played every day for over fifty years until his death in February 1936, and in doing so achieved local fame.
St Ann’s Well Restored for the Future
While the Water Cure declined St Ann’s Well was not allowed to, and the owner Lady Emily Foley still contributed to the Well. In 1892 the original spout and basin donated by Dr Gully was removed and placed in the grounds of the Mount Pleasant Hotel where they can still be seen. The new basin and spout was commissioned by Lady Foley and designed and made from white marble by a Mr William Forsyth of Malvern. The design features a dolphin head which sits above a shell-shaped basin and the support displays carved hart’s-tongue ferns, Lady Foley died in 1900 and the estate passed on to her nephew’s family. It was finally sold by Sir John Foley Grey in 1925, at which point the Malvern Hills Conservators took on the deeds of St Ann’s Well.
By 1963 St Ann’s Well was in a poor state and was proving something of a liability for the Malvern Hills Conservators whose Committee voted to demolish the octagonal building. However, John Betjeman, poet and founding member of the The Victorian Society, expressed concern about the plans for the building and the public’s previous apathy to the site was transformed by the prospect of losing the building and they protested against the Conservators’ decision. The following year the Conservators voted again on the matter and on the occasion decided to restore and maintain rather than demolish. In 1999 the Conservators carried out further restoration to the well room and spout which was suffering from damp.
In 2006 restoration work was carried out in the tea gardens around the Well, including recreation of the original fern leaf benches. The pond below the Well was restored and the spout and trough to the right of the well room was reconnected and named Old Moses Spout after one of the donkeys used by visitors to ride up to the well. The work was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Malvern Heritage Project was managed by the Malvern Hills AONB Partnership supported by Worcestershire County Council. The work was carried out in collaboration with the Malvern Hills Conservators, the site owners, and in consultation with the Malvern Spa Association.