Mia  Jackson and the Malvern Water Cure

Mia Jackson and the Malvern Water Cure

1. Julia and her mother, Mia Jackson, c.1860. Unknown photographer.

Julia Stephen’s mother, Maria (Mia) Jackson, suffered from disabling and very painful rheumatism for most of her life. 

The water-cure was then thought to be the best treatment for that, and a number of other illnesses and complaints. This involved either bathing in sea water or drinking and being doused in water from certain mineral wells and springs. As soon as she returned from India to live in England, in 1848, she began taking the waters at a number of seaside resorts and spas in what proved to be a life-long attempt to relieve the symptoms of her crippling disease. Mia tried water cures at renowned Continental spas including Wildbad, Spa and Aix les Bains, but also those closer to home in England. 

Brighton was popular and Mia’s first summer and autumn in England was spent there, with Julia and her sisters and cousins happily playing on the beach. In 1849 Mia with Julia, Mary and Adeline, went to Hastings, Tunbridge Wells and Malvern, which soon became her favourite English spa destination. In part this was because of its excellent treatments and facilities in the town, but also because it was close to Eastnor Castle, one of the homes of her sister Virginia after she married Lord Somers. Visits to Malvern were often combined with visits to Eastnor.1

2. Eastnor Castle, the home of Mia Jackson’s sister, Virginia Somers.

Malvern was also relatively easy to get to. In November 1849 John Jackson told Adeline that he had, 

accounts of your arrival at Malvern and of the admirable plan which dear Mamma adopted of sending you all in a coach, she has given me a full account of your meeting at Malvern [which] was so quiet and so healthy that I expect to find that the place has suited dear Mamma better than either Brighton or Tunbridge Wells.2

With the coming of the railways water curists, as they soon came to be called, could arrive at one of the four bustling stations in the town. Julia and her sisters, aunts and cousins often accompanied Mia. In later years she sometimes went with her husband, Dr. John Jackson, who seems to have been as keen on the water cure as herself.

Malvern was then one of the most exclusive and expensive of the English spas. Malvern water differs from many spa waters in that it contains practically no minerals – it is a very pure water and was used both externally and internally for treating patients The waters in its Holy Well were famous for their healing powers, especially for eye complaints, in Georgian times and earlier. From the mid eighteenth century the town flourished as a spa with the addition of treatment rooms at the Wells House. Later a pump room, with changing rooms and hot and cold baths was built, renamed the Coburg Baths after a visit in 1830 of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, cousin of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Many luxurious hotels and guest houses were soon built to accommodate the influx of what were sometimes derided as over-nourished rich Victorians. According to one critic, J. Leech, who published his satire Three Weeks in a Wet Sheet in 1851it was:

A fashionable little village of idlers and the out-of-health. … It does very well for old London aldermen and the like, who have been gorging themselves, and come down here to get rid of the effects of their gluttony, and go back like sows to wallow again in the mire.3

It was Dr James Gully and his partner Dr James Wilson, arriving in 1842, who began to really put their spa, named Gräfenberg, and Malvern itself, on the Victorian health tourist map. Dr Wilson, soon became rich enough to build the very elegant Establishment, a purpose designed spa complex known as a hydropathic palace which still exists but is now converted into flats.

3. The Establishment, Malvern.
4. Dr James Manby Gully (1808-1883). 

Dr James Gully was soon famous and prosperous enough to start another spa of his own converting Holyrood House. In 1852 he was able to expand still more building Tudor Lodge, next door. One property was for female patients and the other for male, with a connecting Bridge of Sighs between them.

The basic cure involved drinking the water, which was bottled and sold, but also being wrapped in wet towels or being plunged into hot then cold baths. 

The ‘cure’ began at about 5 am when the bath attendant arrived, threw open the windows and prepared his patient for the ‘Pack’. The patient was turfed out of bed, which was then stripped. Two blankets were spread over the mattress and a cold, damp sheet placed on top. The naked patient lay face upwards on the sheet which was then wrapped closely round the body, right up to the chin. The two blankets were then wrapped over this and the eiderdown or counterpane piled on top. A hot water bottle was usually put by the feet. […] The resulting heat is quite soporific and patients often fell asleep. After about half an hour the patient was unwrapped and popped into the shallow bath. Here the attendant showered him with cold water from a large container resembling a watering can. The numbed body was then revitalized by a brisk rubbing down with a towel before dressing.

Now it was time for some exercise and the hordes of W.C.s [Water Curists] emerged from their lodging houses and made for the hills. If the doctor had prescribed water drinking as part of the treatment, the invalids supped the pure spring water from their drinking glasses. Walking was the healthiest method of transport but there were always donkeys for the less mobile.4 

5-6. Left: The Pack got the blood circulating after years of inertia. Right: The delights of the shallow bath.

Other treatments were later added including hot and cold douches, a Sitz Bath where the patient sat in cold water, and other forms of hydrotherapy. Dr Gully specialised in the precarious Lamp Bath where a patient had to sit on a chair with a spirit lamp lit underneath. Patient and lamp were then wrapped in a blanket forming a tent which served as a sort of sauna, but was liable to catch fire if the attendants were not paying close enough attention.

Diet was controlled and only plain food prescribed. Alcohol was not allowed. Outdoor exercise, walking or driving or being taken on donkey back, up the beautiful but steep Malvern Hills was all part of the regime – much like our modern detox. 

It is uncertain what Mia’s treatment consisted of but she did have ‘rubbing’ regularly – massage possibly with wet towels to stimulate the circulation. Brine baths were a favourite treatment for rheumatism and it is possible Mia had these. Dr Johnson, who treated Mia, offered them at Malvernbury House. 

In an advert in The Malvern Advertiser September 22, 1888, Dr Johnson extolled the virtues of the,

Malvernbury Hill Cure and Hydropathic Establishment, Malvern. It is nearly 500 feet above sea-level with easy access to Hills-Common. Standing in its own grounds of over two acres it commands extensive and picturesque views. Lawn tennis, billiards, baths (hydropathic, galvanic, Droitwich salt, sulphur, alkaline etc.) massage, electricity local and general. Visitors and patients. Terms moderate. Apply to Walter Johnson, MB London. NB The Hill Cure is a system of regulated exercise on the hills with a restorative diet, aided, if required by the above named or other remedial agencies. 

Among the many celebrity patients who swore to the efficacy of the cure were Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and his wife, Tennyson and Florence Nightingale. G.F. Watts and many of Mia’s personal friends and family were also frequent curists. Henry James was there in March 1870 and walked,

… away across the country to the ancient town of Ledbury, an hour of the way over the deer-cropped slopes & thro’ the dappled avenues of Eastnor Park (Earl Somers’s) – a vast & glorious domain5

Patients usually stayed for extended periods, weeks or months, in order to get full restorative benefit, staying at the medical establishments themselves, or at hotels or guest houses nearby. 

Mia Jackson’s favourites were Roslin House and Walmer Lodge. She took her personal maid, Minna, with her and later also Nurse Tull, who seems to have been a night-nurse. She would not have been hiking over the steep Malvern Hills as recommended but drove in a carriage or possibly on occasion took a donkey – a popular form of local transport for those less active curists. 

A frequent destination was St Ann’s Well, described by a health tourist in 1850:

I have just come from St Ann’s Well. I wish you had been up there with me at 6 o’clock this morning … attended as I went by a number of travellers, some on donkeys … what a festive scene the old place presented. A number of persons were assembled round the well, sitting, standing, or walking, but each and all occupied from time to time in drinking the water which trickles out of a marble mouth into a marble basin, in a romantic little room. The whole of the surrounding hills were alive with people. Far away, up to the heights of the Worcestershire Beacon … the entire of the slopes … were thronged with multitudes seeking health … from cold water, mountain breezes, and exercise.6

7. St Ann’s Well, Malvern.
8. Jenny Lind (1820-1887) by Matthew Brady, c.1850. The critically acclaimed singer, Jenny Lind, known as the English Nightingale, bought a summer home in Malvern in 1878 and often gave recitals in the town. She was buried there in 1887, but has a memorial in Westminster Abbey. 

Mia wrote to Julia:

We went to Malvern Wells today for a drive and came back by the Holy Well and I bought a bottle of such crystal water for a penny. It tastes delicious. I so wished you could drink it.7

She paid and received visits from the many friends and acquaintances also taking the cure, and wrote long letters every day. In later years she also loved being accompanied by one, or several, of her many grandchildren. There was plenty for them to do while their grandmother was being treated. By the 1870s and 80s Malvern developed a thriving social, and cultural scene. Elegant Assembly Rooms were built and theatrical performances and music recitals, by such famous singers as Jenny Lind were especially popular. 

By the last decades of the century, when Mia Jackson was still coming to Malvern quite regularly, the water cure had lost much of its popularity. Dr Wilson was dead, Dr Gully had moved to London after a scandal involving a female patient, but Dr Rayner still practiced at the Establishment and Dr Walter Johnson practiced at Malvernbury House. Too late for Mia, Edward Elgar and G. B. Shaw made Malvern a renowned centre for music and drama.

Marion Dell
September 2021


I am very grateful to local historian and expert on Spas and water cures, Cora Weaver, for sharing her knowledge and showing me around the Water Cure Room at the Malvern Museum. Her self-published guide, Malvern as a Spa Town (The Water Cure), which I have found so useful, is no longer available, but she has published other excellent books on the subject including Florence Nightingale and the Malvern Water Cure (2016). See also www.malvernwaters.com. and www.malvernmuseum.co.uk

Picture credits

  1. Julia and her mother, Mia Jackson. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Julia_Jackson_and_mother.jpg (accessed 14/08/21).
  2. Eastnor Castle by Mary Smirke. Public Domain.
  3. The Establishment, Malvern. http://www.malvernwaters.com/nationalparks.asp?search=yes&p=7&id=308 (accessed 05/09/21).
  4. Dr James Manby Gully. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Manby_Gully (accessed 05/09/21).
  5. The Pack got the blood… A short guide to: Malvern As a Spa Town by Cora Weaver, 2003, page 4.
  6. The delights of the Shallow Bath. A short guide to: Malvern As a Spa Town by Cora Weaver, 2003, page 4.
  7. St Ann’s Well. https://www.malvernremembers.org.uk/gallery/great-malvern#gallery-7 (accessed 05/09/21).
  8. Jenny Lind (c.1852). Photographer: Matthew Brady. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jenny_Lind_retouched.jpg (accessed 05/09/21).


  1. For information on Mia and Julia’s first visit to Eastnor see Chapter 6.
  2. John Jackson’s letters, The British Library, OIOC papers F446.
  3. Quoted in Cora Weaver, Malvern as a Spa Town 3.
  4. Quotation and images from Cora Weaver, Malvern as a Spa Town 4
  5. Henry James, Henry James: A Life in Letters. 
  6. The Metropolis of the Water Cure, quoted by Cora Weaver, Malvern as a Spa Town 5.
  7. Mia Jackson, Roslin House, to Julia Stephen. August 26, 1889. Mia Jackson letters Sussex University Special Collections.