Salt's Hole - Holy Wells - At the Sign of the Black Cat
Salt's Hole, Purton Stoke

A Victorian Spa

Salts Hall as it looked in its heydaySalts Hole, at Purton Stoke, is the only traditional healing well in Wiltshire to have developed into a spa. Local tradition tells a fine tale of how the spa came to be discovered. It is said that for centuries the ordinary local people had used saline water from the spring as a medicine. So it was that when in the 1850s the owner, Dr. S.C. Sadler, drained the area and fenced off the spring, there was a tremendous outcry. People claimed that the spring had been used "time out of mind," and that when they were ill they drank the waters and were always cured. So strongly did they feel that soon the railings were broken down by people wanting to drink the water. The situation might have got very much worse, but Dr. Sadler himself contracted a serious illness and decided to try the water, which greatly improved his condition. The water was by eminent chemists, and found to be unique. So it was that, in 1859, Purton Spa came into being, and the localsí belief in the healing powers of the water was shown to be well-founded.

In fact, leaflets and newspaper reports published at the time tell a less sensational tale. In the process of draining his field, Dr. Sadler inadvertently drained and filled in the spring. As soon as he became aware of the strength of local feeling he  re-opened it and, interested to see locals coming to drink the water, had it tested: it proved to be similar to the Pyrmont spring water.

Nowhere in the contemporary accounts I have seen so far does it say he fell ill himself; and I cannot but think that if he had been cured by the waters he would have used this as a recommendation in his advertising material. It seems that local accounts have altered events in the localsí favour, casting Sadler in the role of repressive landowner and creating a more dramatic tale in the process.

What is incontestable is that a charming octagonal pump room was erected over the spring, and a pump installed. For a short time between 1859 and 1870 visitors came to Purton in search of peace and quiet, clean air and healing waters, putting up in local houses or staying at the Spa Boarding House. The water was sold widely during the later nineteeth century, and again after the First World War. During the 1920s Mr. F.G. Neville carried the water around the Swindon area in a pony-and-trap, and later by car. It retailed first at sixpence a bottle, and then for eightpence, or a shilling carriage paid. Purton Museum has various letters containing testimonials to the beneficial effects of the saline waters. (Anon 1881; Pafford 1952-3, 28-29; Robbins 1991, 97-8)

Today Salts Hole looks very much as it did in the nineteenth century, though sadly aged by time and damp. The doors to the pump-house have disappeared and the well-head can be seen through the gaping doorway. The well is covered by a great stone disc, the hole at its centre covered in its turn by a circular wooden cover with a handle. It was into this stone cover that the pump was set. The rest of the interior of the pump-house can be glimpsed, with a fireplace and plastered walls, now badly marked with damp. The plaque over the door of the pump room proudly proclaims:-

THE ANCIENT

SALTS HOLE.

SULPHATED AND BROMO-IODATED

SALINE WATER

ANALYZED BY D.VOELCKER 1880

 

It is curious, by the way, that the only structural part of the pump-house to have disappeared should be the doors. It is well-known in Wiltshire that they have no doors in Purton: so much so that, should you forget to close the door behind you, the cry goes up: "D'you come from Purton?"

But there is actually a good reason why the doors are missing from the pump-house, as the current owner of Spa House, Mr. Roberts, told me in October 1997. Apparently "various people about the place" were (and are) so keen to continue drinking the healing waters that they systematically and repeatedly forced the doors to get to the well. In the end Mr. Roberts gave up the struggle and has simply stored the doors in his barn. It seems that locals feel as strongly now about their right to drink the waters of their healing well as they did back in the 1850s when Dr. Sadler tried to drain it.

Location

ST 084906 OS 1: 25 000 Sheet 1134.

At the crossroads on the B4553 in Purton Stoke take the road running west through the village. At the point where the lane bends sharp left, continue on the right-of-way straight ahead down an unclassified road with a good tarmac surface between wide grass verges. Salts Hole stands on private land in a narrow band of trees to the right of the lane, but a good view can be had from the rustic gate by the grass verge.

Oral Sources

No doors in Purton. Mr. F.J. Jordan, Pewsey, 1984. (aged 68)

References

Anon. (1881). Purton Spa, with a brief account of the history, properties, uses and effects of its bromo-iodated & sulphated spring. London: W.G. Bunting.

Pafford, J.H.P. (1953). The spas and mineral springs of Wiltshire. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, 55, 1-29.

Robbins, Alec (1991). Purton's past. Purton : Purton Historical Society.

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Wiltshire Holy Wells

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At the Sign of the Black Cat