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Did anyone ever live in the Pump Room?

Like all of our talks today, mine is in response to a question: “did anyone ever live in the Pump Room”? – the answer to which, quite simply, is: “Yes, people lived in the Pump Room almost continuously between 1830 and the early 1940s”.

We know this partly from the detailed census returns of 1841 onwards and partly from one of the most useful documents for the history of the building in the years before its purchase by the Borough Council in 1890, namely a catalogue of repairs required at the Pump Room and gardens in February 1887, which lists the work needed in each of its rooms and which reveals that the Pump Room contained six bedrooms, plus two WCs and at least one dressing room, reminding us that, unlike now, it was indeed originally a home as well as a public building. Its occupants were, of course, the building’s lessee, or his Manager if he chose to employ one, along with family and servants. In return for an annual payment, the lessee was entitled to collect the subscriptions of those taking the waters and making use of the other facilities of the Pump Room and Gardens, as well as the proceeds of any events that he wished to organise – and, of course, to make the Pump Room his home. How much that annual payment was at any given time is uncertain, although from 1871 onwards it was certainly £230 per annum, which, according to the National Archives’ currency converter, was, by 1890, equivalent to almost £19,000 in today’s money.

During the next quarter of an hour, I want to introduce you to the successive lessees who lived in the Pump Room from 1830 onwards, the first of whom was Henry Seymour, who was appointed in June 1830, aged thirty-four, just one month before the official opening of the building on 20 July. Seymour had previously managed the Public Rooms at Teignmouth in Devon, and was to be Pittville’s lessee for eleven years – and for much of his tenancy he certainly did all he could to make it a success, organising regular public breakfasts and gala fetes, often with headline-grabbing attractions, such as acrobats, a tightrope walker and a visiting menagerie, as well as helping to establish the Pittville Horticultural Society, with its regular flower shows, and acquiring a series of ‘Cosmoramic views’ of European cities and scenery as an added attraction. However, it may all have been a bit of an ‘uphill struggle’, as from the very beginning, Pittville’s distance from the increasingly fashionable area around the Promenade and Montpellier, along with the slow take up of building land on the Pittville Estate and the gradual decline in the popularity of spa waters began to count against it: in 1837, perhaps because his income from Pittville was less than he had hoped, Seymour also took on the management of the Pulteney Hotel in Bath during the winter season, when things at Cheltenham were quieter, and he may eventually have lost heart as far as Cheltenham was concerned, for judging from contemporary newspaper reports, fewer special events seem to have been held at Pittville after 1840. Even before then, Seymour was actively considering emigrating to New Zealand, which is exactly what he did in 1841, arriving there in April 1842 and enjoying a successful business and political career – including membership of the country’s Legislative Assembly – before returning to England in 1857 and spending his retirement in Worcestershire, where he died in 1883.

In June 1841, before Seymour’s departure, the first national census for which the detailed returns are available was taken and although Seymour himself was absent on census night, it records that the Pump Room was occupied by his wife – described as a ‘spa attendant’ – and by his daughter and four female servants.

Seymour’s successor as lessee, in February 1842, was a local chemist, Charles Floyer Wickes, whose appointment was greeted with enthusiasm by the local press, the Cheltenham Examiner noting in July 1843, when announcing Pittville’s first gala fete for three years that “it is so long since we have seen Pittville the scene of any amusement beyond the usual routine of afternoon promenades and the … holding of the exhibition of the Horticultural Society”.

Floyer served as lessee for ten years and at the time of the 1851 census his household was even larger that Seymour’s. In residence on census night were Wickes, his wife and two daughters, two female servants and two visitors, one of whom was his sister-in-law.

Sadly, one suspects that Wickes – who also ran the Montpellier Spa – may have experienced the same difficulties as his predecessor, for in July 1852, after he had given up his lease, and had been succeeded by a group of local tradespeople who had formed themselves into what the press called ‘a kind of joint-stock company’, the Cheltenham Looker-On recorded its hope that they would “revive some portion at least of those summer amusements which were formerly such important attractions to visitors”. The tradespeople were headed by a retired Librarian, John Lee, who assumed the role of Pump Room Manager, although whether or not he actually lived in the Pump Room is uncertain.

Henry Seymour, the Pump Room’s first lessee
(reproduced by courtesy of Alison Mildon-Ross)
There is, however, no evidence of any real revival in the 1850s and in 1858 the tradespeople gave up their lease, which was taken by John Buckman, whose elder brother James, a Cheltenham chemist and later a Professor at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, had published his Guide to Pittville containing an analysis of the Pittville Saline Waters in 1842. Buckman was also the Manager of the Assembly Rooms in the High Street and is the only lessee who does not appear to have lived in the Pump Room, for on census night 1861, it was occupied by James Williams, who is described as ‘Manager of Pittville Spa’, along with his wife, daughter and one servant. How long Williams acted as Manager is uncertain; perhaps he is the James Williams whose death at Cheltenham is recorded in 1868, and by the time of the 1871 census, the Pump Room was occupied by a Scottish former Ironmonger, John McAlpine, who was described, somewhat curiously, as ‘Manager of Pittville Lawns’.

1871 was certainly the year in which John Buckman gave up his lease and in May of that year, McAlpine took it on in partnership with a former butcher and innkeeper, Frederick Augustus Bretherton, who had turned to music as both a self-styled ‘Professor of Music’ and as one of the town’s leading bandsmen, performing at the Royal Well, and no doubt elsewhere, as part of ‘Major & Bretherton’s Band’. The partnership of McAlpine & Bretherton lasted until 1876, after which McAlpine ‘went it alone’, his occupation being recorded in the 1881 census as ‘lessee of pleasure gardens’, rather than as a manager. But he too soon encountered problems, most notably with his health, and he was still the lessee when he died in October 1886. In a subsequent report, the Pittville Estate’s receiver, Thomas Sanders, noted that “the very serious and protracted illnesses of the late lessee and his wife”, had caused the building to be neglected, adding in fact that “no repairs beyond trifling ones had been done thereto for a period of upwards of 30 years”, which had led to a difficulty in finding a replacement lessee. Clearly, the February 1887 Report that I referred to at the start of my talk was designed to rectify this situation following the eventual appointment, in January 1887, of Edward Benjamin Shenton, the lessee of the Assembly Rooms in the High Street, as the Pump Room’s next – and, as it turned out – final  lessee, who was initially supposed to have held a joint tenancy with his father, Thomas Bartlett Shenton, a member of a long-standing family of Cheltenham printers and an accomplished amateur actor, who had previously managed the Royal Wells Theatre, but who died in April 1887.

Part of a promotional leaflet produced by the Pump Room’s last lessee,
Edward Shenton, in 1888
As so often, the change in lessee was welcomed with optimistic enthusiasm by the local press, the Gloucestershire Echo noting in March 1887 that “the Pittville Gardens have fallen into good hands, under which they promise to become the most popular and fashionable resort in the town. Mr Edward Shenton has taken the lease, and with his characteristic go-ahead policy, is exercising all means to convert the place into the nearest approach to the Garden of Eden”, while the Looker-On noted in April that the rooms were “evidently about to emerge from the solitude into which they have lapsed of late years”.

Sadly, however, it was not to be. Since Joseph Pitt’s death, heavily in debt, in 1842, the Pittville Estate had been administered by the Court of Chancery and managed by a local firm of Estate Agents. By mid-century, much of the debt had been cleared by the sale of Pitt’s former property in Cheltenham and elsewhere, but a mortgage debt of £10,800 still remained due to the County of Gloucester Bank, which, in 1888, offered to accept £5,400 from the Borough Council if it agreed to take on and manage Pittville’s last remaining assets – namely the Pump Room, gardens and ground rents. This it did, in December 1890, forcing Shenton to give up his lease and to remove all his property from the building. By the time of the 1891 census, the only occupant of the Pump Room was a 24-year-old gardener, William Hamblin, and his caretaker wife, Amy, who one assumes were Council employees – and in each successive census thereafter, up to the last available one in 1911, and in a pre-war census taken in 1939, only one or two people lived there. In 1940, the Pump Room was requisitioned, and from 1942 it was occupied as a Supply Depot by the U.S. forces, and it then no doubt housed a far larger number of people – in the form of American GIs – than it had ever done before – but, at least as far as I am aware, no one else has made the Pump Room their home since it was returned to civilian use in 1946.

One final question must of course be answered – and that is ‘where were the bedrooms’? Despite the changes made to the building following the Second World War, it is still possible to locate them by comparing the 1887 Report to a survey made by the architect Robert Paterson in 1949 and it appears that they were on the north–east and north-west sides of the building on three floors, one above the other, small rooms, which, where they survive, are now merely offices and stores.

Steven Blake


S. Blake, Pittville Pump Room. An Historical Guide to Cheltenham’s Spa (Cheltenham Borough Council 1980, revised 2000)

Papers relating to the management of the Pittville Estate (Gloucestershire Archives D6187)

Census Returns 1841 onwards, available on the Pittville History Works website (www.pittvillehistory.org.uk)

Genealogical records, accessed online through Ancestry/Find My Past

Cheltenham Newspapers, accessed online through the British Newspaper Archive

This article is based on a presentation given by Steven Blake on 18 September 2021 in the grounds of Pittville Park, as part of Cheltenham’s Heritage Open Days 2021. Steven Blake worked for 30 years (1975-2006) at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, eventually filling the post of Museum & Collections Manager. He is a member of the Pittville History Works group, and is researching the building of Pittville’s houses. His publications include Pittville: a Scene of Gorgeous Magnificence (1988) and Pittville Pump Room: an historical guide to Cheltenham’s spa (1980, revised edition 2000).