"One mile from the northern extremity of Cradley, in a romantic vale, agreeably diversified with plantations of firs, is a spring of salt water, called the Lady Well, highly esteemed on account of its medicinal qualities, and in summer it is very much frequented." - Preston's 1860 Directory of Worcestershire
This is one of the very few occasions when Cradley Links strays just a little beyond the boundaries of the parish and township of Cradley.
There are many descriptions of "Cradley Spa", and the medicinal qualities of its water.
However, the spa was a little distance from Cradley - about a mile north, in the neighbouring county of Staffordshire. It was variously known as Cradley Spa, Lady Ward's Saline Spa, Lady Wood's Spa, Lady's Well, Pensnett Spa and Saltwell's Spa. In fact, the latter name is perhaps the most appropriate, and the one most widely used today.
We make no comment on the medicinal value of its water, other than to note that most river, spring and well water for miles around in the Black Country in the nineteenth century was so polluted by industrial processes and infected by typhoid and other diseases, that any relatively clean water could justifiably be thought of as health-giving. In fact, the spring in Furlong Lane, Cradley was similarly highly thought of, although rather smaller and less publicised, until well into the mid-twentieth century, unlike the river Stour some two hundred yards away, with its notices that warned us of the dangers of catching polio.
Today Saltwell's Wood is a nature reserve. Brierley Hill is to the west, Pensnett to the north, Dudley Wood to the east and Mushroom Green and Quarry Bank separate it from Cradley to the south.
The Cradley Links directories section contains not only many lists of names of the tradespeople and inhabitants of Cradley over the years, but also descriptions of its location and features. These directories were produced by many commercial firms, most notably Kelly's but also Bentley's, Billing's and Preston's, and also the Post Office. They are perhaps the equivalent of today's Yellow Pages.
For example, Preston's 1860 Directory of Worcestershire has the following description:
One mile from the northern extremity of Cradley, in a romantic vale, agreeably diversified with plantations of firs, is a spring of salt water, called the Lady Well, highly esteemed on account of its medicinal qualities, and in summer it is very much frequented.
Pigot's Directory for the same year contains a virtually identical description and almost the same words were still being used 80 years later, for example, in Kelly's 1940 Directory.
The saline properties of the spring in Saltwell's Wood had been known since as far back as at least 1686. In 1798 the famous chemist James Keir was called on by its owner, Lord Viscount Dudley and Ward, to analyse the properties of the water and, despite the unfavourable report, an attempt to extract salt was made the following year. This venture was not a commercial success and was soon abandoned. However, in about 1823 the well into which the spring flowed was covered and a cottage-like building was erected by the side of it, with two bathrooms; a third was added later. There were also stables and a coachhouse across the Black Brook stream. The Saltwell's Inn overlooked the site, and provided accommodation for visitors taking the waters.
The proprietor claimed that the spa had some of the best mineral waters in the country, but the relative inaccessibility of the site, the local cholera epidemics from 1831 onwards, and Dudley's notoriety for inadequate sanitation and poor public health in general, combined to prevent its growth. Nevertheless, stories are told of visits by Americans and by the West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa football teams in the early 1900s.
The Saltwell brine baths were demolished in 1930, and thereby also ended the prospect, more talked about than pursued, of pumping the salt water to a pump room to be constructed for the purpose at Dudley Castle.
The Industrial Archaeology Section of the Black Country Society investigated the site in 1972. They found the foundations of buildings, the plinths of a footbridge that crossed the stream that divided these buildings, and the bricks of a chimney stack to the boilerhouse that had served the spa. The archaeological report concluded:
Today, little remains of the Spa. The sparse earthworks of the coachhouse are much overgrown with vegetation and little of excitement is there to be seen when it is cleared. The well is capped and the water below barely half the concentration of 70 years ago. The Spa has had its heyday. It was never a large concern and is unlikely to rise again from its ruins.
Cradley Links acknowledges with grateful thanks Black Country Society Studies in Industry Archaeology No. 1, Saltwells Spa, published in 1975, as a valuable source for this article.