Alfred Tennyson in Cheltenham

Most people associate Alfred Tennyson with Lincolnshire, with good reason. The sights and sounds of the North Sea coast at Mablethorpe haunt his poetry – ‘Break, break, break/On thy cold grey stones, O Sea’. However, the poet spent lots of time in Cheltenham in the 1830s and 1840s, partly because his widowed mother and his siblings took a house in the town, but also in the hope of improving his health. You can see his house with its plaque in St James’s Square.

Tennyson’s father, Dr George Tennyson, had ‘taken the waters’ at Cheltenham Spa like many other eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century health-seekers. By the 1840s, a new and more dangerous procedure had become the rage. Practitioners believed that bad circulation produced chronic disease, and that stimulating the circulation with cold baths, cold wraps (patients swaddled in sheets dipped in icy water and left for several hours) and cold showers, plus plenty of cold water to drink, would allow the body to purge toxins. ‘Hydropathic’ establishments often appeared in spa towns like Cheltenham and Malvern, not simply for the water supply but because they were social centres; the fashionable could take a ‘cure’ while enjoying a holiday. Tennyson endured treatment at Prestbury, today a pretty section of east Cheltenham, and at Malvern, a few miles north in Worcestershire. It can’t have been fun.
Last weekend,  the Tennyson Society celebrated the poet’s local connections with a conference, Tennyson in Cheltenham. We gathered to hear research papers from Professor Roger Ebbatson, Professor Marion Shaw (Emerita, University of Loughborough), Dr Ann Thwaite FRSL, Dr Valerie Purton, and from your Course Leader; and then on to Malvern on the trail of the notorious Dr Gully and his water cure. Judging by his fancy house, this treatment made money. The Malvern Museum has a great display on the water cure and other aspects of local Victorian life.

After that we visited another of this region’s architectural beauties, the Camelot-like Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. Look who was once a distinguished guest.

Photos of Eastnor: H.Weeks. G.F Watts’s famous ‘moonlight’ portrait of Alfred Tennyson dates from about 1859.

4 thoughts on “Alfred Tennyson in Cheltenham

  1. Dear Hilary
    You may be interested to hear that I have a book being published (to be launched at Malvern) in February 2013 involving Alfred Tennyson, Cheltenham, Malvern, and the water-cure. It is called The Water Dictor's Daughters, and tells the tragic story of the children of widowed Malvern physician James Loftus Marsden.

    Alfred Tennyson was the childhood and college friend of John Rashdall, vicar of Malvern Priory Charch, and maternal uncle to the young Marsdens. In March 1852 Tennyson and his wife spent some weeks at the vicarage with Rashdall. While there, and at the urging of Dr Marsden, Tennyson mesmerised a young female patient who subsequently became the doctor's second wife.

    Shortly afterwards Dr Marsden employed a governess called Celestine Doudet. Mlle Doudet took the 5 Marsden girls to Paris where she established a small school. In 1853 Marian and Lucy Marsden died under her care and two sensational trials followed. Rashdall was an important witness for the prosecution.

    There is more information at my website –


  2. Pauline, what interesting research. Tennyson's links with Malvern go back a lot further than I thought. The story of him mesmerising a patient gives us a clue about why he remained fascinated by liminal states of consciousness. Thank you for posting.


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