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Cheltenham History

The Victorian Town 1840 - 1900

By the 1840’s the economic and social life of Cheltenham was undergoing a series of fundamental changes. The pace of population growth and house building was slowing and the popularity of spas was in decline. Although Cheltenham remained a resort and a social centre, its livelihood came to rely increasingly on upon its residential, spiritual and educational advantages.

Thoughout the 19th century, wealthy families continued to settle in the town, and so many of them had served in the colonies – in the Army, Navy, East India Company or Civil Service – that by the end of the century, one writer could describe Cheltenham as ‘the Anglo-Indian’s paradise’ The Anglican church and particularly the Evangelicals, exerted a powerful influence on the town; many new churches were built and by mid-century it was said that that the Sabbath was better observed in Cheltenham than in any town outside Scotland. The Evangelicals were also involved in the establishment of several important new schools and colleges within the town, notably Cheltenham College (1841), The Church of England Training College for Masters (1847), Cheltenham Ladies College (1854) and Dean Close School (1886). These in turn encouraged still more families to settle in the town.

As Victorian Cheltenham grew, so too did its facilities. In 1840, the first of the town’s railway stations was opened and the Victorian period saw the opening of hospitals, bath-houses, an opera house and theatre, a free library and municipal art gallery and several parks and recreation grounds. In 1876, the town (previously governed by a Board of Commissioners) was raised to Borough status, and in 1887, received its coat of arms, choosing as its motto ‘Salubritas et Eruditio’ referring to the 2 pillars of its prosperity – its spas and its colleges.

Although several existing manufacturers continued throughout the Victorian period, it was not until the last quarter of the century that new elements were added to its economy, with the establishment of several firms; stone and woodcarving and the production of art metalwork. This was not however sufficient to provide a firm economic base for the town, which, despite outward appearances, entered the 20th century in a state of incipient decline, with high levels of unemployment and, in 1901, over 80 unoccupied houses.

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