A Monument – to waters and spas
The Pittville Pump Room is a monument to the more than 100 years of fame that Cheltenham enjoyed as a spa town. The waters were first discovered in 1716 on a site now occupied by Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
In 1788 George III and Queen Charlotte came to take the waters, and their visit set the seal on Cheltenham’s future. From that day on, the town grew and prospered with a number of new wells dug and spas established in the town for residents and visitors to enjoy.
Pitt the Man
In the early 1820s a banker named Joseph Pitt commissioned the architect, John Forbes, to design a pump room that was to act as the centrepiece to his vision of a town to rival Cheltenham – a town he would call Pittville. The foundation stone was laid on 4 May 1825 and the work completed in 1830.
A feature of the design of the Pump Room is the columns facing the lawns which are based on those of a Greek temple. Above the colonnade are statues of Hippocrates, regarded as the father of Western medicine, Asclepius with his daughter Hygieia, representing health and hygiene.
The statues were made of Bath stone and by 1900 had deteriorated and become unstable, having to be supported with wooden and metal braces.
By 1938 they were so fragile they were removed and put into storage. Restoration was delayed by the Second World War. It was decided it was not viable to restore the originals and replacements were created in 1965 as an interpretation rather than a replica.
A Grand Opening – with a price tag
The total cost of the project was over £40,000 – not small by today’s standards, but incredibly high at that time. The decoration is based on the Ionic order and the great hall reflects this with the spa opening on the north side and the gallery and dome surmounting the hall. The original official opening of the 6 July 1830 was postponed until 20 July because of the death of George IV. A grand public breakfast and ball marked the occasion.
Debt and dry rot
Unfortunately like many bankers of his time, Pitt later ran into financial difficulties, the building went out of favour and it was eventually sold to the Borough of Cheltenham for a mere £5,400 in 1890 – a fraction of the original cost. During the Second World War the Pump Room housed British and American army personnel, when dry rot was allowed to creep through the structure unchecked, and only after the war was the full extent of the damage revealed. Plaster, brickwork, timber: nearly everything had been affected. The dome was only held in position by a shell of plaster; the timber had been eaten away by fungus.
The Duke of Wellington
Public subscriptions came to the rescue, which were accompanied by Public Works grants and Historic Building Council contributions. A total of £43,250 was raised and by 1960 the building was partially restored to its former glory and re-opened in 1960 by the Duke of Wellington. The old card room had been replaced by a new foyer, cloakrooms and second staircase plus the installation of heating and new lighting.
A New Beginning – a new century
In 2003, it was discovered that the old Victorian wells at the Pump Room were leaking and allowing ground water to dilute the natural mineral water to such an extent that it no longer qualified as ‘spa water’, and the well was shut down.
Thanks to sponsorship from local company, Kohler Mira, the well was repaired and the original marble and scagliola pump restored. On 21 September 2005, the spa waters flowed again enabling visitors to ‘take the waters’ once more.
A Stunning Venue – public and private (part 1)
Pittville Pump Room has hosted a varied succession of events throughout its lifetime. From balls, Royal receptions, race launches, fetes and fireworks events to horticultural shows, tightrope walkers and menageries hosting improbable sights. One eyewitness account from the 1800s recorded seeing ‘a stupendous elephant swimming in the Pittville Lake’.
Stunning Venue – public and private (part 2)
Pittville Pump Room is a visitor destination for the local community and visitors for a diverse range of activities and events, both public and private, and is one of Cheltenham’s most popular wedding venues. It is also a favoured venue for orchestras, choirs and chamber groups for its stunning acoustics, which sees the venue take centre stage in the annual Cheltenham Music Festival.
Pre the pandemic, 954 events were held in the pump room between April 2018 and March 2020, when the venue closed under covid restrictions. The events included 183 concerts, 117 dances, 62 exhibitions, 20 workshops and 83 weddings.
The interior of the building is currently closed due to the Covid19 pandemic.
The Cheltenham Trust
Pittville Pump Room is one of five local venues managed by The Cheltenham Trust.
The Cheltenham Trust is a charity established in 2014, with a focus on developing Cheltenham’s culture and leisure portfolio through the arts, heritage, performance, tourism, sport, play and wellbeing. The Trust’s historic and contemporary facilities include The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham Town Hall, Leisure at Cheltenham and the Prince of Wales Stadium along with Pittville Pump Room.
For more information, visit cheltenhamtrust.org.uk.