In the early years of the 18th century the economic fortunes of Southampton had sunk very low. Foreign trade, which had enriched the port in the medieval period, had almost entirely ceased. Shipbuilding had diminished and the town had few other local industries. From c.1750, however, the town’s fortunes were revived as it became a fashionable spa centre. The attractive surrounding countryside had enticed a number of wealthy gentlemen to build country houses near the town. In the 1720s the Earl of Peterborough built the Bevois Mount estate, and to it came many of the earl’s literary friends, including Alexander Pope, Voltaire and Jonathan Swift. They were enchanted by the beauty of the River Itchen, which could then be viewed from Bevois Mount, and impressed by the quality of the air, which was thought to be salubrious.
At this time Georgian society was re-discovering the perceived health-giving properties of sea bathing and drinking natural mineral water. Excursions to seaside resorts and spa towns were becoming popular with the well-to-do. Fortuitously, in about 1740, a spring was discovered just to the north-west of the Bargate on land near modern-day Portland Terrace. In 1750 Frederick, Prince of Wales came to the town for a day and bathed from the western shore. He found the waters so invigorating that he returned to the town many times in the following years. Where the Prince led, other nobles and gentry followed, and although Southampton never reached the heights of other spa towns like Bath, Weymouth or Bognor, it was launched as a seaside resort.
Facilities developed to cater for the needs of the visitors. The fashionable centre of the town was centred on the Western Esplanade. in the 1750s local man John Martin had erected bathing machines at West Quay and in 1761 he built the Long Rooms on an adjacent site, opposite the west end of Simnel Street. These assembly rooms boasted a ballroom, card rooms and other entertainment facilities. Further south lay sea-baths, while other sea-bathing establishments lay along the line of the Town Quay and Canute Road. The most popular promenade was The Beach, a fine new road stretching along the shore line from the Platform to Cross House Hard. A theatre was built in French Street in 1766 and enlarged in 1780. A sign of increasing municipal prosperity was the building of a new Audit House on the High Street in 1773. With the influx of visitors the local hotels flourished, particularly the Dolphin which became the venue for winter assemblies.
The population of the town was increasing steadily and new genteel houses were built in Gloucester Square, Brunswick Square and Albion Place from the 1790s. The ill-fated Polygon scheme was also an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the spa town. Later, in the 1820s and 1830s, up-scale residential housing in Carlton Crescent, Rcockstone Place, Brunswick Place and Cumberland Place was built on the northern periphery of the town.
The fortunes of Southampton as a spa began to decline after 1812 as the Prince Regent and his fashionable friends were now going to Brighton and other resorts. There were later attempts to revive the spa age, notably the building of the new baths on the Platform (later the Royal Gloucester Subscription Baths) in 1827, and the Royal Victoria Rooms, or New Rooms as they were sometimes called to distinguish them from the older Long Rooms, near Portland Terrace in 1830.

see also

Long Rooms
Royal Gloucester Baths
Royal Victoria Assembly Rooms

Further reading:
Georgian and Victorian Southampton, by A. J. Brown, p5-10. (HS/h)
‘Georgian Southampton’, by Elsie Sandell in Collected Essays on Southampton, by J. B. Morgan (ed), p74-81. (HS/h)
Southampton Occasional Notes, by ‘Townsman’, p19-20. (HS/h)
History of Southampton Vol.1, by A. Temple Patterson, p39-60, 134-135. (HS/h)


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