In the 19th century people had great faith in the power of bathing in mineral water to cure arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, and to improve conditions as diverse as gout, impotence, obesity, haemorrhoids, liver disorders and eye problems. Drinking mineral water was usually considered to improve digestive disorders, and was sometimes recommended for insomnia, goitre and even syphilis.
Bathing or drinking were the most common ways to ‘take the waters’. But people also inhaled steam, wallowed in hot mud, or were given massage or douche (spray) baths, especially at larger spas such as Rotorua. Government medical officers advised on the curative properties of different kinds of water, and supervised treatments.
Certain benefits were ascribed to particular springs. Highly acidic water at Rotorua was thought to reduce the craving for alcohol, while the silica in Wairākei water was believed to restore and darken the hair. And drinking the iron-rich water at Kamo was said to have helped a Mr Kennedy, who had damaged his kidneys through ‘excessive indulgence in amateur athletics.’ 1
Hospitals and sanatoriums
The main spas usually had a sanatorium for invalids, and sometimes a hospital. In 1885 a sanatorium was built at Rotorua for invalids too poor to pay for private boarding houses or hotels. It was replaced after it burnt down in 1888, and finally closed in 1947. Hanmer’s sanatorium was built in 1897, replaced in 1908, and burnt down in 1914.
During the First World War convalescent hospitals were built at Rotorua and Hanmer for returned servicemen; the Health Department took them over in the 1920s and 1930s. Hanmer’s hospital became Queen Mary Hospital, and the thermal waters were used to treat people with rheumatism and other problems. From the 1940s, however, the hospital focused on nervous disorders and the detoxification of alcoholics. Rotorua’s hospital specialised in orthopaedics from the 1920s. Another services hospital there, built during the Second World War, was the predecessor of Queen Elizabeth Hospital (now called QE Health), which treats rheumatic diseases.
Luxury away from home
Boarding houses and hotels sprang up to accommodate visitors who wanted more comfortable lodgings. Te Aroha’s Club, Hot Springs and Palace hotels had verandahs with expansive views, rooms for billiards and reading, and pianos. There were similar hotels at Hanmer and Rotorua. Te Aroha, Rotorua and Hanmer offered attractions such as tearooms and gardens, bowling and croquet greens, tennis courts and band rotundas. While they did not rival the opulence of some European spas, these amenities drew pleasure-seekers as well as invalids.