The Victorian obsession with spas and pleasure gardens is well known, particularly those in London. Sadler’s Wells, the Clerkenwell Spas, Bagnigge Wells, Hampstead Spa, St Pancras Wells, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and literally dozens of other similar establishments were once the Victorian equivalent of theme parks, offering music, entertainments, food and drink and other pleasures to an eager public.
But until now the role of Thomas Atkinson in running and designing Beulah Spa – later known as Royal Beulah Spa following its patronage by Queen Victoria and members of her court – in South London was only known to a few specialists.
In fact, Atkinson played a significant role in redesigning Beulah Spa, reinvigorating its gardens and entertainments and acting as its general manager in the mid-1830s.
Today Beulah Spa as a place has almost entirely disappeared. A small park and a few buildings are all that is left of a place that was once one of the grandest venues in the city. I am grateful to Professor James Stevens Curl and to Chris Shields who have both written about the heyday of Beulah Spa* and alluded to the role played by Thomas Atkinson. Thanks also go to Sally Hayles for her research into this interesting subject.
Beulah Spa is located in Upper Norwood in the borough of Croydon, close to present-day Crystal Palace. Landowner John Davidson Smith was the first person to exploit the natural spa at Beulah, testing its waters in the 1820s and getting a very positive reaction from scientists, including the great Michael Faraday. In August 1831 the Countess of Essex opened the landscaped Beulah Spa Gardens, with a pump house to dispense its medicinal waters designed by the famous architect Decimus Burton.
The spa soon became popular. A hotel was opened on the site and before long great extravaganzas were being staged. In October 1832 the Band of the Royal Artillery played to 1500 people on the lawns, songs were written (‘I met her at the Beulah Spa’, for example), and the landowner Smith was soon selling off chunks of nearby land to cash in on the resort’s popularity.
However, despite the success of the resort and its patronage by aristocrats and politicians, by the end of 1834 Smith was bankrupt and the entire place was put up for auction in May 1835, including the Spa, music-room, lodge and entrance, walks, gardens, farm buildings totalling around 30 acres. Several contemporary newspaper reports noted that the new owner was Thomas Atkinson, who they said had paid £27,000 for the entire business.
In fact, it seems very unlikely that Atkinson was the actual purchaser. Designer or creative director would seem to be more accurate terms. Atkinson had moved to Manchester in 1834 and was working on a number of projects alongside his new business partner – and fellow architect – Alfred Bower Clayton. However, he was beginning to experience serious financial problems with his largest project to date – the central Manchester headquarters building for the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank.
By the mid-October 1836 Atkinson and Clayton had dissolved their partnership. Thomas remained in Manchester, with his family living in nearby Chorlton, but it seems likely he was also looking for work in London, where he had first made his name. Taking on a short-term project at Beulah Spa would have provided him with cash and the possibility of finding further commissions.
We know that Atkinson took on the job of redesigning the gardens and also reinvigorating the entertainments. His efforts appear to have paid off. In July 1835 Princess Victoria made the first of four recorded visits to the Spa, riding across country from Windsor, accompanied, according to the Morning Post, “by his Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Saxe Weimar, the Earl and Countess of Denbigh, and Miss Hope Johnson.”
That August grand galas were held every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, including one advertised as having “grand illuminations, a hermit’s cave and Harry Twist, the Shakespearean clown and jester.” The Beulah Minstrel strolled through the grounds singing love ballads in exchange for a silver coin, Indian juggler Ramo Samee entertained the crowds, there were concerts and public dancing and bands from the Coldstream and Scots Guards and Miechel’s German Band. Those bored with the music could visit the camera obscura which apparently had a telescope powerful enough to see Windsor Castle.
Thomas Atkinson’s work at Beulah Spa included enlarging the flower beds and lawns and building log houses, lakes and new walkways. He was described as “a gentleman combining knowledge of architecture with great natural facility for landscape gardening” and said he “intended to carry on with vigour, tempered by discretion and a scheme of attraction and amusement.”
One report noted that “under the tasteful eye of this gentleman, new walks have been opened, affording different and varied views of the surrounding scenery and country. The lawn in the centre of the Spa has been enlarged and beautified by the intermixture of rustic flower beds, planted with geraniums, fuchsias and other exotics: an arcade in the same style has been thrown up, communication with a refreshment room and within a step of the well and it is in contemplation to erect another well at the back of the arcade, as the mineral water is very abundant and the increased popularity of Beulah Spa has created a great additional demand for it.”
Another report from July 1836 noted the improvements, commenting: “The arrangements have been entrusted by the proprietors to Mr Atkinson, the highly successful architect, who if it be allowable to judge by what has been already done in the grounds, cannot but prove more than equal to the task assigned him.” In fact, Atkinson had greater ambitions; plans for a new hotel, together with between 50 and 70 houses in a grand crescent were drawn up by Atkinson, ready for the 1837 season. The idea was to sell the houses off to the gentry and in the process make a considerable fortune.
Although some drawings were done for the houses, they were never built, probably because such a terrace well outside London proper was never likely to find backers. In the meantime, his problems had not gone away, particularly those involving his other major project, in Manchester – the headquarters of the Manchester and Liverpool and District Bank. It was this project that finally forced Atkinson into bankruptcy.
Looking at Atkinson’s comparatively short involvement with Beulah Spa, it seems clear that he took on the job of redesigning the grounds and possibly building a grand crescent as a way of gaining some extra money with which to support his Manchester business. When that failed, Atkinson must have been devastated. It seems likely that his marriage collapsed not long afterwards and after travelling to India, he returned to England only to leave soon after for Hamburg in the early 1840s, where he worked for several years as an architect.
But by 1846 even that was no longer satisfying enough. Following the tragic death of his son from TB in Hamburg in the spring of 1846, he left for Russia, from where he did not return for more than a decade, and then with a new wife and child. Beulah Spa, long forgotten, represents an interesting and important phase in his remarkable life. Indeed it is likely that when he met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1857, when he was a famous explorer, he may even have mentioned to her that he had seen her at least once before – at the Beulah Spa pleasure gardens 20 years previously.
* See James Stevens Curl, Spas, Wells and Pleasure-Gardens of London, Historical Publications, London 2010. ISBN 978-1-905286-34-8; Also Chris Shields, The Beulah Spa 1831-56: A new history, 2018. ISBN 978-0-244-37303-0. Many thanks to both for all their assistance.