Dorton Spa (Chalybeate Spa) and Its Healthy Waters

The Dorton Spa, sometimes called the Chalybeate Spa or Chalybeate Springs, was located in Dorton, Buckinghamshire, about twelve miles east of Oxford. It came into being after rumors circulated about the health benefits of the springs and the miraculous cures supposedly affected from bathing or drinking the water. The claims began hundreds of years ago when the local population began to focus on a stream that poured from a small orifice. The water was said to have a “strong inky taste [and] a peculiar, but not an offensive odour.”[1] It also discolored the turf left a brown deposit wherever it traveled because it contained iron oxide.

Dorton Spa

Dorton Spa. Public domain.

For hundreds of years, the local people talked about the spring’s medicinal benefits. They claimed they observed sick animals drink the water and then “spontaneously, and rapidly recover.”[2] People also realized that horses with mange underwent amazing transformations after drinking the water. Additionally, in the 1600s, people gathered manure from the cows that drank from the well and used the manure for fuel. They also found that the people who burned the manure noticed their health improved.

East Front View of Dorton Spa, Public Domain

East Front View of the Spa at Dorton. Public domain.

By the late 1600s, the waters were used both inwardly and outwardly. Word of the well’s healing waters also began to spread far and wide. This resulted in a daily influx of sick visitors to the well. At the time, the area was unimproved and the roads that lead to the springs were practically impassable. This resulted in visitors damaging crops and breaking fences to get to the springs. To alleviate the problem, the well was eventually enclosed, a single pathway established, and people charged a fixed price for a daily amount of water (between fifty to one-hundred gallons).

Throughout the 1700s, people noted the miraculous cures achieved by those who visited the springs. The waters were said to cure such conditions as dyspepsia, chorea, or scrofula. Herpes, psoriasis, and lepra were also claimed to be cured, and, in fact, there was one story of a married female who was so severely afflicted with lepra that it covered everything but her face. Supposedly, after she drank and bathed in the waters, her “skin rapidly attained its wonted appearance, and ultimate recovery took place.”[3]

There were also many other stories of recovery. Some of these stories were compiled by a Dr. Thomas Knight. According to Knight, a physician from Oxford documented the cure of a man with leprosy. He was afflicted both inwardly and outwardly, and he “experienced a complete cure; and … twenty years [later] … suffered no return.”[4] A maid with a hopeless case of scrofula drank a pint of the Dorton water daily and in a few months was claimed to be restored to health and fitness. Another remarkable case involved a young sufferer of chorea, who was so badly afflicted, physicians gave her almost no hope. Then she drank large doses of the water daily and a cure was “rapidly effected.”

Because of all these miraculous cures and recoveries, it eventually induced the proprietor to substantiate the water’s health benefits in the early 1800s. The owner was a man named Charles Spencer Ricketts. He had served under Horatio Nelson and had also married a well-to-do woman, Elizabeth Sophia Aubrey, who was the daughter of Sir John Aubrey, from whom Ricketts obtained the land. The substantiation of the health of the waters was accomplished through “repeated proof” and through corroboration made by a chemist named William Thomas Brande.

William Thomas Brande, Courtesy of Wikipedia

William Thomas Brande. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Once the health benefits of the Dorton springs were confirmed, Ricketts hired an English architect. He created a twelve-acre park in the heart of this pastoral setting with its gentle ascents and sequestered dells. The architect he chose was James Hakewill, Esq. who is perhaps best known for his illustrated publications but who also created a wonderful park. He planted it with a variety of evergreens and deciduous shrubs and created a serpentine lake.

Hakewill also designed a bewitching spa modeled on Greek architecture. Its stone stair entrance lead to a semi-circular portico, supported by nine Corinthian pillars. There was also a dome in the center, with a lofty ceiling and the pump-room, which was supported by eight columns and said to have been “painted to create [the effect of] Sienna marble.”[5] In addition, the building contained a reading room, billiards room, and two ball rooms, and, it was overlooked by a hotel, built in Brill and known as the Spa Hotel that accommodated spa visitors.

Pump Room Interior, Public Domain

Pump Room Interior. Public domain.

Dorton Spa opened in 1830, enjoyed a grand fete in 1837, and was fashionable for short time. Part of the problem for the Dorton Spa was its isolated location and the fact that clients could more easily patronize other better located spas, such as Tunbridge Wells that was frequently visited by Eliza de Feuillide and sometimes the Austens. By 1841, the British also royals began to visit Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa, (these spas were renamed Royal Tunbridge Wells and Royal Leamington Spa, respectively). The isolation and the lack of royal patronage then caused Dorton Spa to fall into disuse. Today, only a remainder of the original columns can be found.

Grave of Charles Spencer Ricketts

Grave of Charles Spencer Ricketts. Courtesy of Jacqueline Banerjee 2007.


  • [1] Knight, Thomas, The History of Dorton Chalybeate, 1833, p. 6.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 9.
  • [3] The Medico-chirurgical Review and Journal of Medical Science, Vol. 41, 1842, p. 287.
  • [4] Knight, Thomas, p. 19.
  • [5] Sheahan, James Joseph, History and Topography of Buckinghamshire, 1862, p. 377.

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