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16 October 2014
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Once upon a time, the district of Spa near Ballynahinch thrived as a popular tourist resort, its main attraction being natural wells that provided water said to cure all ills. Was this the original health farm? Horace Reid explained.

title image of the Spa Wells

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In the Beginning...

It is perhaps hard to imagine that Ballynahinch was once a centre for tourism, with visitors flocking to the town to take advantage of the much lauded health benefits from the three wells at Spa. The medicinal properties of the water had been rumoured upon since the 18th Century, with many people reporting how drinking it had cured them of their ills. Walter Harris, in his history of County Down in the 1740’s told the story of a Presbyterian clergyman afflicted with psoriasis and arthritis, who after spending a week at the Spa wells and drinking the waters, was soon cured and back to full health.

At the turn of the century, David Ker, with his financial instincts, saw the commercial possibilities of the Spa, and resolved to use this natural resource to bring prosperity back to a town badly in need of it after the ravages of battle. Historically, modern tourism is reputed to have begun after Napolean’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, an event which alerted Europe to the culture of the near East and to other places in general. If this is true, then Ballynahinch and Spa were in at the start of the tourist revolution, as it was in 1810 that David Ker installed two pumps at Spa to bring the water to the surface and to the health needs of the masses.

According to Horace Reid, these pumps are still in existence, having been restored by Councillor Harvey Bicker. On the front there is a little brass plate which states that they were installed by David Ker having been imported from Joseph Branagh in London, who of course was a pioneer of the flushing lavatory. These pumps would have been the latest in cutting edge technology during the regency period. As the wells became popular, Ker developed the leisure amenities in the area, installing a maze in 1815. So, after a morning drinking the waters, the patients could continue their bid for good health by exercising in the maze. The recommended regime for the waters was to drink between three and six pints per day. It was described as tasting like burned gun-powder and in Walter Harris’ words, ‘Some it vomiteth, some it purgeth’. Horace jokes that perhaps you had to be in good health in the first place in order to survive the regime.

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link to Battle
link to Lord Moira
link to David Ker and Montalto

image of Spa puzzle walk

More and more tourists

In 1840, another member of the Ker family built a ball-room at Spa called the assembly rooms, now known as the Spa road-house. Originally the health tourists came and stayed in Bed and Breakfast accommodation in houses around the Spa district, but by the early 19th Century it was deemed insufficient for the great numbers descending on the area. And later, just further up the road, a Temperance hotel was built to accommodate them, described as having “splendid accommodation for visitors, containing numerous large, lofty, and well-ventilated Drawing, Dining and Bedrooms”.

The railway arrived in 1859 bring a flood of tourists from Presbyterian Belfast and in 1873 a new church was built for them at Spa, funded by a Belfast Presbyterian by the name of McCutcheon.

The end was in sight

Alas, all good things come to an end, and with the arrival of the railway in Newcastle, the popularity of the wells began to wilt. Newcastle was now accessible to Belfast tourists and the beach became preferable to the wells. However the tourist industry at Spa continued right up to the dawn of the second world war and collectors in Ballynahinch have postcards sent from that period. The industry adapted and catered for every whim of the tourists as it came along, providing croquet lawns and building a golf course, still thriving today. The hotel became known as the Spa Hydro hotel, and Horace jokes that this was perhaps one of the world’s first ‘jacuzzi’s’!

image of Spa tourists



Unfortunately there is little trace of the tourists. The hotel still exists but is now a home and the maze was sadly bulldozed a long time ago when the developers moved in.
Do you remember anything about the days when Spa welcomed tourists? Did you ever walk around the maze? If you remember anything or have a story to tell, please let us know.


Your Response...

Anita O' Farrell - July '08
Have you any other infornation on this Temperance hotel, we believe our great grandmother Mary Rogan owned a hotel in belfast and we were told it was the Temperance Hotel. This was a long time ago, Annie O' Farrell her daughter would be well over 120, and her mother older. My father mentioned ballynahinch often. Is there anyone who can help with history regarding hotel ownership in Belfast over the last centuries?



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