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Historic Cheltenham
Imperial Gardens in Cheltenham
Imperial Gardens in Cheltenham
Last updated: 25 November 2004 1733 GMT
lineCheltenham is the most complete Regency town in England and one of the few English towns in which traditional and contemporary architecture complement each other.

Cheltenham began as an Anglo-Saxon village over 1200 years ago. In 1226 it became a market town, which was the basis of its economy until the 18th century, when its medicinal waters were discovered in a field to the south of the town where Cheltenham Ladies’ College now stands. These were regarded as beneficial for a whole range of illnesses and by the late 18th century the town was one of England’s leading spas.

Royal recommendation

In 1788 King George III spent five weeks at Cheltenham, drinking the waters for his health’s sake. His visit ‘set the seal’ on the town’s popularity and during the following years the number of visitors and residents increased dramatically. Between 1700 and 1800 its population rose from 1500 to over 3000 and by 1850 it was the largest town in Gloucestershire, with a population of more than 35,000. Among famous visitors were members of the English and Continental Royal families, including Princess (later Queen) Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and the novelists Jane Austen and Lord Byron.

Visitors to the town would drink the waters at either the original spa or one of the rival spas that were established in the early 19 century, such as Montpellier and Pittville. Several of the spas had tree-lined walks, rides and gardens in which the visitors could ‘promenade’, often with a band of musicians in attendance. Regular public breakfasts, gala fetes, firework displays and other entertainments were held at the larger spas. Visitors could also attend balls, assemblies and concerts at the Assembly Rooms, plays at the Theatre Royal and horse races at the racecourse. They could also shop for souvenirs along the High Street and, from the 1820s, in the fashionable new shopping areas of Montpellier and the Promenade.

Cheltenham’s heyday as a spa lasted from about 1790 to 1840 and these years saw the building of the town’s many fine Regency terraces, crescents and villas. By 1840 it had also become a popular residential town, particularly for military families, many of whom had served in the Empire. It also gained a reputation for the quality of preaching in its many churches and chapels and for its schools and colleges, which encouraged still more families to settle in the town.

A centre for learning

The earliest of the schools was the Cheltenham Proprietary College for Boys, opened in 1841; the Ladies’ College opened 13 years later. During the late nineteenth century, the town developed some craft industries, in particular a number of firms producing high-quality work in wood, metal, stone and plaster. During the First World War, one of those firms, H H Martyn & Co. began to manufacture aircraft components and later established the Gloster Aircraft Company, thereby beginning a long-standing connection between the town and aeronautical engineering.

GCHQ aerial shot

The twentieth century town has grown rapidly, becoming a centre for business and administration. Accessibility to the A40 trunk road and the nearby M5; with main railway and airport connections has attracted major players to set up headquarters buildings in the town including Chelsea Building Society, Dowty Aerospace, Smiths aerospace, Eagle Star, and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). This was boosted by the decision of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to build its replacement headquarters or so called 'doughnut' (shown above) within the borough.

Tourism

It also remained a tourist resort throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since the Second World War, it has built on its existing attractions with its Festivals of Music and Literature, and National Hunt Racing festivals, employing some of the 6,000 people who work in the tourist industry. It offers a centre for tourists and foreign visitors with its high quality accommodation and speciality shopping. It remains a centre of educational excellence and continues in that tradition through a number of recently established language schools.

Challenges

Cheltenham does face some challenges however. Whilst the majority of property values in the town continue to rise, one of the town’s wards is ranked within the top 20 per cent of most deprived areas in the country. This creates conflicts in trying to attract tourists, businesses and residents to a town perceived as a prosperous place to work or live, when that town is also trying to attract grant funding and regeneration partners.

Article reproduced courtesy of Cheltenham Borough Council
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