Remembering Beulah Hill spa

By - Thursday 3rd August, 2017

Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Kaiser Wilhelm all took the waters in Croydon’s forgotten spa

Image by Christopher Shields, used with permission.

Many of you will have been to the Harvester restaurant at the top of Spa Hill, Upper Norwood. You may have walked along the overgrown track through the spa woods. You may even have played in the children’s playground as a kid in the sixties, seventies or eighties – or your children may now play on the current basketball court.

If you’ve done just one or even all of these things, I wonder if you’ve ever realised the glories and fame once claimed by this small piece of land?

Spa Park’ or ‘The Lawns’ was once a very famous place indeed. It was visited by the most fashionable people in London’s high society, and it claims royal connections. Opened in 1831 by Lady Essex, it was frequented by Kaiser Wilhelm, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, even Queen Victoria and her children, and many more.

The once famous natural spring called the Beulah Spa was set in a thatched wigwam with a fourteen foot well. Its saline water was considered superior to the spa waters of Bath and Wells and contained more salts than those of Cheltenham.

A lost piece of Croydon’s history

The spa buildings were designed by Decimus Burton, the architect responsible for the Hyde Park Corner arch and Palm House at Kew. The spa boasted an octagonal reading room, a maze, a circus ring, an upper and lower lake with water fowl, a rustic bridge and a camera obscura with a telescope ‘powerful enough to see Windsor Castle’, according to contemporaries. It had its own military band which played daily for members of high society to dance on its closely cut lawns.

The Beulah spa lasted until 1856, two years after the arrival of Crystal Palace, just around the corner. This really was its death knell, representing too much competition for the fading spa resort. Fashion moved on and Beulah Hill fell into disuse.

My interest in all this arose when I lived on Spa Hill for twenty-five years. I became intrigued by the area’s secret history. I spent many years researching the Beulah spa, and am lucky enough to have worked for the borough’s library service, where I was able to use the fascinating archives belonging to old Croydon Local Studies Library at Katharine Street. Visiting the spa, I was amazed to find the exact spot where the famous spring once bubbled, yet saw nothing at all there to commemorate its fame of old.

So now I am campaigning for a memorial plaque. ‘There is a plaque on Tivoli Lodge, which was originally the gate house to the spa where everyone passed through to receive their bottle of spa water, but the space where the spa once bubbled, fourteen feet underground, is now just a grassy field. It was filled in with rubble when the children’s playground was constructed in the late 1960s.

This is a lost piece not just of Croydon’s history but of the royal, cultural and social history of London. The part that Beulah Hill spa played in the development of this area deserves to be remembered.

I’ve written a book about the history of the spa, which I hope that some of the Citizen‘s readers will find of interest. If you want to find out more about my campaign, you can contact me here.

Christopher Shields

Christopher Shields

Chris Shields is a musician, composer, writer and historian from Upper Norwood. His music has been played on BBC radio and he's performed at venues from the Opera House in Cork to the Fairfield Halls. He has worked for Croydon's library service for over thirty years and has been based at every library in the borough, including driving the mobile library. He still supervises a branch library, and lives in south Croydon with his wife, two children and a blue staffy. A History of Beulah Spa is his very first book.

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