An insight into the rich history of Montpellier, Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 09:28 23 July 2019
This Regency promenade has always been a treasured part of Cheltenham, but how did its shops evolve?
Montpellier is one of the most historic areas of Cheltenham. The famous spa waters were discovered here long before it was named after the French city and its streets and walks follow the same routes as the Regency promenades.
Any trace of the original Royal Well Spa and Old Well Walk are long since buried under developments, including Cheltenham Ladies College. But the original Montpellier Spa Rotunda building still exists, now housing The Ivy restaurant and retaining many of its original features, including the impressive dome. This building would have been at the centre of Regency attractions, housing one of the main wells serving the famous Cheltenham medicinal waters. Shops and businesses quickly sprung up to meet the demands of the many health and pleasure-seekers flocking to the town in the early 1800s.
The Montpellier Arcade was one of the first covered shopping areas in the UK and people who had taken the waters could stroll along the tree-lined Montpellier Grand Promenade (now Montpellier Walk) to browse and buy in the many shops and even enjoy, 'the fragrance of the Indian weed' at Mr Brown's snug Coffee and Cigar Divan, according to George Rowe, who wrote a Guide to Cheltenham in 1845.
With all this rich history, we decided to find out more about the timeline of development. Which shops came first? What were they trading? And what about more recent history? There are so many stories connected to the shops and businesses of Montpellier. Many people who have lived and worked in Cheltenham have fond memories of working and living here and there are multiple tales to be told. But let's go back to the beginning…
According to the Cheltenham Local History Society, some of the earliest occupants of shops in Montpellier from 1829 included, confectioners, medical dispensaries, milliners, boot makers and even a doiley maker! In an article by Ian McLean, 'Retailing at Montpellier - 1831-1871' it states how, despite records being incomplete in the early years, one of the most reliable 'Cheltenham Annuaire' listed a medical and chemical repertory at Montpellier Arcade and by 1838 seven shops were listed there and one in Montpellier Avenue. These first traders included an upholsterer, butchers, greengrocer, chemist and ladies' shoes and milliner. By 1839 there were nine including a library, printer and bookseller. Montpellier Street and Walk were not yet listed.
By the 1840s trade really began to flourish in Montpellier and by 1843 there were 25 traders listed in the whole area. George Rowe's Illustrated Cheltenham Guide of 1845 states that, "adjoining the pump room and continuing a little way down are some shops devoted to the sale of fancy articles. The uppermost is Mr Davies' Montpellier Library."
Rowe's guide gives a detailed description of Montpellier with Mr Abraham's Opticians at the corner of Queen's Circus where Margaret Dabbs of London is now. He describes the Arcade as, "not extensive, yet presents a pleasing coup d'oeil from the upper entrance. It is furnished with shops and lighted by a glazed roof."
The Montpellier Grand Promenade (Montpellier Walk) is also described, 'The bow front on the left of the entrance is occupied by two handsome shops, the windows of which are separated by Caryatides. The outer shop occupied by Mr. Merrett Cook and Confectioner." There is also great description of the Magasin de Modes of Mrs Hacker - an establishment "presenting unusual capabilities for producing the most fashionable styles of ladies' attire. A regular communication with La Belle France, enables the proprietor to produce the earliest novelties emanating from Parisian taste."
It's still easy to imagine the scene, 'This beautiful walk, when crowded by its elegant and fashionable promenaders, and enlivened by the performance of the fine band of the establishment (Rotunda), conveys a pleasurable sensation of no ordinary kind."
In the year 1847, 16 traders were related to clothing and 12 to food but not everyone was in support of all the new developments, 'The rage for buildings…has spoiled this like many other undertakings; and since the erection of the range of shops along one side of the Montpellier Walk, the spa itself has lost all hold of public estimation." Harpers Guide 1854 (quoted in Cheltenham Local History Society.)
By the 1850s, trades in the area had drastically increased with the diversity of shops growing and by 1865 most of Montpellier Street and Walk were complete, forming two of the finest terraces in Cheltenham. The town had been transformed into a busy commercial centre. The 1871 census shows who was trading at the time including tailors, dressmakers, grocers, butchers, chemists and confectioners. By this time, "Montpellier was now a shopping area and had acquired a character all of its own, which it retains to this day." McLean.
As the Regency era ended and the attraction of the spas declined, the Rotunda was used for different purposes including concerts, dances and even a dance school. Other premises have changed hands many times: one iconic building - the now Montpellier Wine Bar since 1977 was once Thomas Bros Chemist in the Victorian era, later E.G Jennings Hotel and Tea Room in the early 1900s and then Fildes the Grocers in the 1940s and 50s. More recent history is a whole other article!
In the present, there is a bustling community of old and new shops and businesses in the area. It's worth a visit alone for that but perhaps next time you visit, you could keep a look out for all the historical features such as the old clocks in Spa Pharmacy and in the newly opened Clementine Café. The Montpellier Arcade still has its original roof and the Caryatides still stand along Montpellier Walk, watching everything evolve around them.
What will the future bring? Hopefully, people will continue to enjoy this wonderful area of Cheltenham and with more shops and businesses moving into the area more history to come.