History of Droitwich Spa

Page updated Sept 2017 

See also the Dodderhill Parish History Project

and Historic Droitwich website

Iron Age

River Salwarpe River Salwarpe still flowing through Droitwich Spa today

Droitwich Spa has a long history dating back to prehistoric times.

It is situated on what is now known as the Worcestershire Plain in the Salwarpe River valley.

It is based on Triassic marls and sandstone stratified with beds of rock salt from which emanate springs of brine.

The brine is the strongest natural salt water known and contains 30% of natural salts. This is ten times more concentrated than normal seawater.

This natural resource has made Droitwich one of the main sources of salt production throughout history since the Iron Age and probably before.

There is evidence of a settled community from the late Iron Age (200 - 100 BC), producing and distributing salt over a large area, to the Roman occupation when the town was known as "Salinae" meaning "Salt Works".

Roman Occupation

Roman Crane
The base of a roman crane for lifting brine from the springs

The Roman invaders ruled the area for 400 years and continued to exploit and improve the manufacture and trade in salt. The picture shows the base of a roman crane for lifting brine from the springs.

From AD 47 to AD 70 a Roman Fort stood on Dodderhill above the town now occupied by St. Augustine's Church. The fort had a good position on the Southern end of a ridge overlooking the marshy valley and a crossing point of the River Salwarpe. It was one of a series of garrisons established between Gloucester and Wroxeter during the advance from the Fosse Way to the River Severn. Archaeological investigations revealed defences consisting of a ditch enclosing 12 acres. The fort itself would have been a wooden stockade.

Two Roman villas have also been found. The largest of these having under floor heating, mosaics and elaborate painted plaster. They date from the 3rd Century AD. Although evidence of grain processing has been found it is difficult to say if the settlement was mainly industrial in nature or if there was any urban aspect to it.

The Heritage centre in Droitwich Spa town centre has an exhibit of human remains dating back to Roman times.

Anglo Saxon

The departure of the Romans in circa 410 left the country vulnerable to invasion by fearsome pagan tribes originating from Germany known as Anglo Saxons. Between the 5th and 7th centuries the Anglo Saxons erased the signs of Roman rule and established their own form of civilised life, which remained until 1066.

St Andrews Church
St Andrews church

A large number of Anglo Saxon charters relate to Droitwich referred to as "Saltwich". The presence of salt making furnaces near the River Salwarpe are confirmed in charters dated 716 and 717. During the 7th and 8th centuries the Mercian King and the Cathedral Priory Church at Worcester owned most of the salt rights. In the 10th century a charter names three salt working areas, Upwich to the North of the river, Middlewich and Netherwich further down stream.

In these times coins were produced by hammer and die. To try to regularise the coins being produced King Athelstan proclaimed that only places of importance could mint coins and Droitwich was one of those places. In 973 King Edgar called in all the coins to be melted down and restruck as uniform pennies. In the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042 -1066) the mint produced some coins which could only be struck at six mints in Britain further confirming the importance of Droitwich and its salt works in Anglo Saxon times.

St Andrews church has played an important role in the town since Saxon times.

The Norman Conquest

St Augustines
St Augustines church

With the defeat of King Harold at Hastings in 1066 William 1 captured the throne of England. In 1086 he ordered a survey of the country to establish the value of his kingdom, mainly for taxation purposes. The two large volumes of records became known as the Domesday Book.

The borough of Droitwich was England's major salt producing centre and is the most frequently mentioned place in the Domesday Book. Many manors and villages in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire had rights in the Droitwich Salt Works. By 1086 eight Lords held property in the town itself.

Parts of St Augustines church on Dodderhill, date back to Norman times.

Medieval

The Upwich brine well
The Upwich brine well after it was rebuilt in 1264-65

Droitwich remained throughout the medieval period as the only specialist industrial centre in the West Midlands. From the thirteenth century the salt production was administered as a Borough Monopoly by a charter given by King John in 1215.

The picture shows the Upwich brine well after it was rebuilt in 1264-65.

In the period up to the 19th century there have been a number of famous people connected with Droitwich such as Richard de Wyche born around 1197. He was the Bishop of Chichester Cathedral from 1247 until his death on 3rd April 1253. He was made a Saint in 1262.

The Sacred Heart Church in the town is entirely covered in mosaics of multi-coloured Venetian glass depicting his life and are reputed to be the most outstanding mosaics in England other than those to be found in Westminster Cathedral.

Edward Winslow
Edward Winslow

Edward Winslow born 1595 sailed in 1620 on the Mayflower to America and became the third Governor of New Plymouth. He returned to England and as a Puritan held highly paid government positions under Cromwell. He died in 1653 on his way to the West Indies with Cromwell's forces.

Worcester and the surrounding area have a rich Civil War history. Another famous resident was Captain Norbury who was an officer in the Navy and fought alongside Captain Benbow in the West Indies and Sir George Byng at the battle of Syracuse. He became British Envoy to Morocco and was involved in negotiations to free slaves.

There is a memorial to him in St Andrews Church in the town centre.

He lived on the site now occupied by Norbury House, which was one of the towns spa hotels before being converted into flats.

Today the Norbury Theatre also occupies part of Norbury House. Captain Norbury died aged 56 in 1734 and was buried at Dodderhill.

19th, 20th and 21st Century

Salt workers in the 19th century
Salt workers in the 19th century

John Corbett was a leading personality in the history of Droitwich in the 19th and just into the 20th century.

He was born in 1817 the son of a Black Country barge owner. He entered into his father's business and when it was sold invested in the salt industry and in later years became known as the "Salt King".

He had what was reputed to be an unhappy marriage to the French educated Anna Eliza O'Meara.

He built a magnificent house, completed in 1875, in the style of Louis X111, often thought to be in honour of his wife. The house is now the Chateau Impney hotel and stands as a landmark to anyone entering the town from the North.

It is thought more likely that Corbett built the house and estate to compete with and outdo his great rival Sir John Packington the local MP who owned the house and estate at Westwood Park.

This also still exists today on the outskirts of town to the North of the river.

Chateau Impney
Chateau Impney

Corbett defeated Sir John to become MP for Droitwich in 1874. When he died on 22nd April 1901 it was said he owned half of the town.

With the decline of the salt industry in the late 19th century, John Corbett became interested in developing the town as a Spa.

The potential first became apparent in 1823 during a cholera epidemic.

There was no water so sick people were advised to bathe in hot brine. People recovered from their illnesses miraculously and the benefits of bathing in brine were discovered.

A local resident Mr Gabb built the first Royal Brine Baths in 1836.

In 1870 a Dr Bainbrigge and Mr Rock took over the baths and John Corbett bought the baths from them. He also bought the Royal George Hotel and redeveloped the site by replacing the Royal George with a new hotel attached to the baths making a co.

He built a second brine baths in 1888 called the Saint Andrew's Brine Baths.

The Saline Baths
The Saline Baths and Hotel, built at the rear of the old George Inn and Royal Hotel in what was known as St George's Square, which were opened in 1836

The brine baths became famous for treating rheumatic and arthritic problems and were not just open to hospital patients but athletes, footballers, the rich and famous and holidaymakers. This made Droitwich Spa a famous Spa town throughout the major part of the 20th century. The Royal Baths closed in the 1930's and the Saint Andrew's Baths in 1975.

The new Brine Baths complex opened in 1985 and this was located just behind St Richards House and enjoyed by the public. It became part of the Droitwich Spa Hospital facilities run by BMI and provided relaxation, beauty treatments plus a gymnasium, as well as helping people who suffered from rheumatism or stress.

Sadly, this has now been closed to the public, but there are moves afoot to establish another Brine Baths experience in our Spa Town, as widely publicised.

St Andrew's Brine Baths
St Andrew's Brine Baths

 

 

Droitwich Spa is twinned with Bad Ems a Spa town in Germany as well as Voiron in France. See Droitwich Twinning Association Many visits and cultural exchanges have taken place in recent years to both towns.

For centuries the River Salwarpe has been used to transport salt to other parts of the country. This was not reliable due to the river flooding in winter and often being too shallow in the summer. In 1762 James Brindley met with the Salt Company Proprietors to start planning a canal from Droitwich to the River Severn. The work commenced in 1768 under the engineer John Priddey and was completed in 1771.

Transportation by use of the canals was thriving up until the coming of the railway in the 1850's. The last barge sailed in 1916 and the last narrow boat was seen on the junction canal in 1928.

Salt production was discontinued in 1922 and with the canal no longer used it was legally abandoned in 1939. In 1973 the Droitwich Canals Trust was formed with the aim of restoring the canal to make it navigable again and to link it in to the surrounding canal system that is now used by people for leisure and holidays.

The Summer of 2011 saw the community based project led by the Droitwich Canal Trust to re-open the Droitwich Spa Canals come to fruition.

The only 'whole canals' to be fully restored in almost a decade, the Droitwich Spa Canals are the final link in a brand new 'cruising circuit' - the Mid-Worcestershire Ring. The ring allows boats, cyclists and ramblers to make a 21-mile circular journey through some of the UK's most beautiful and historic countryside, fom the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the River Severn, through the city of Worcester and back again

The Men's Swimming Bath at St Andrew's Brine Baths
The Men's Swimming Bath at St Andrew's Brine Baths

Droitwich also has an important place in the history of radio broadcasting. A transmitter first opened in 1934 transmitting programmes on the Long Wave to most of Great Britain and on the regional Medium Wave to the Midlands.

Following World War II two new domestic services joined the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme. The Home Service was regionalised and Droitwich transmitted the Midland Home Service on Medium Wave and the Light Programme on Long Wave.

In 1960 it was replaced by a stronger transmitter and again in 1989 replaced by new technology. Droitwich still serves most of the British Isles with Radio 4 on Long Wave and Western Europe with the World Service.

In 1995 Radio 1 and Radio 3 were switched to VHF and the Medium Wave transmitter was taken over by the commercial channels Talk Sport and Virgin Radio.

Much of the information about the history of Droitwich was obtained from the Heritage Centre which has a permanent exhibition about the town's history.See Heritage Centre Page on Town Website

Or why not click on
Droitwich Spa Today and the Town Tour