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The History of Cheltenham

Cheltenham Hotels | guide to Cheltenham

Cheltenham is on the edge of the Cotswold Hills , and on the banks of the River Chelt. Although it is an ancient spa town dating back to at least Anglo-Saxon times, only one medieval building survives today, St Maryís Church. The Normans , in their Domesday Book written in 1086, noted it as just a small village with a population of less than 200. Over the years, things changed and Cheltenham grew to absorb many of the surrounding villages. King Henry III granted Cheltenham the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair in 1226. Despite this important charter, which would bring buyers and sellers from far afield to Cheltenhamís markets, it remained essentially an agricultural settlement. Cheltenhamís growth was sluggish during the Middle Ages. A grammar school opened in Cheltenham in 1578 but even by 17th century it could only boast a population of only 1,500. A small leather industry with tanners, shoemakers and glovers was one of the main sources of income in Cheltenham. The town was involved in malting, the preparation of ingredients for brewing.

Everything changed for sleepy Cheltenham in the Georgian era when spa resorts became extremely fashionable. The story goes that in the early 18th century the locals noticed pigeons pecking at salt deposits by a spring south of the town. For centuries people have believed certain waters to have curative effects. The same properties were soon appended to the waters discovered at Cheltenham and a spa was born. Between 1738-1742 Henry Skillicone deepened his spring and turned it into a well. Around the well he developed the Assembly Rooms, similar to Bathís Pump Rooms , a place for people to congregate for social occasions. Skilliconeís investments paid off when in 1740 Dr Short partook of the waters there and subsequently wrote about them in a book. His positive testimonial prompted a surge in visitors to Cheltenham. Among those eventually drawn there was bon vivant King George III who visited in 1788. This prompted such a subsequent avalanche in visitors that new spas were developed between 1801 and 1825, included Montpellier Spa (after 1809). Sherborne Spa followed in 1818 as demand continued to flourish.

By 1801 Cheltenhamís population was just over 3,000. Then, Cheltenham suddenly boomed early in the 19th century on the wave of the sheer popularity of its spa. Population reached 35,000 by 1851. It wasnít just the spas that were developed in the early 19th century. A building boom resulted in the magnificent Regency town that presents itself to the resident or visitor today. Royal Crescent was built in the years 1806-1810 and a tree lined walk, The Promenade, was added in 1818. The Pittville Pump Room was built in 1830 followed by Cheltenham College in 1841. Cheltenham Ladies College opened in 1854.

As early as 1786 real efforts were made to turn Cheltenham into a genuinely modern town with proper facilities. The so-called paving commissioners formed with powers to pave, clean and light the streets with oil lamps. In 1813 a dispensary where the poor could obtain free medicines opened. These were very advanced steps at a time when so many British cities were basically lawless cesspits. 1818 was the year Cheltenham had gas light, long before many similar or larger towns. A private company was formed in 1824 to supply piped water to the citizens and in 1834 a company to provide sewers formed, this was subsequently acquired by the paving commissioners it in 1857. In 1877 Cheltenham was incorporated and the new corporation took over most of these civic duties and projects.

In 1901 the population of Cheltenham was 49,000 despite the rapid decline in spa tourism. Amenities in Cheltenham continued to improve. From 1901-1930 trams operated there and Cheltenhamís first cinema opened its doors in 1914. The character the town had retained ensured that, even as people grew tired of taking the waters, they still kept coming visit to Cheltenham. Light industry, electronics, banking, light engineering, food processing and pharmaceuticals as well as the governmentís GCHQ have helped to ensure the continued growth and importance of Cheltenham. Today the population of Cheltenham is around 110,000.

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