A modern day photo of Epsom Wells
From the early seventeenth century, places in Britain were promoted as spas. People flocked to places where such waters were readily available and inns and taverns were required to put up the visitors, while diversions and entertainments for the visitors usually developed as well. One of the earliest of these places was Epsom.
Tradition told how the healing powers of the waters were discovered in 1618 or thereabouts. A villager called Henry Wicker was looking after animals on Epsom Common in a dry summer, when there was a shortage of water for cattle. He found a trickle of water in the hollow hoofprint of a cow, and dug a square hole about it before taking the animals home for the night. Returning the next day he found the hole that he had made was full and running over with clear water. But his cattle, however thirsty, would not drink from it because of its mineral taste. Wicker tried the water himself, and was the first person in history to experience the effects of Epsom salts. Enthusiastically, he set about promoting the waters as a medicine.
By the Commonwealth period, Epsom already had some of the attractions of a spa town. In 1656, gentlemen from as far away as Rutland and Cornwall were coming to spend a week at Epsom, usually in August when it was most popular.
An artist's impression of Epsom Common with an early well building
After the Restoration of Charles II a Dutch visitor, William Schellinks, came to the Wells. 'Epsom' he wrote, 'is a very famous and much visited place, very pleasant, and that because of the water which lies not far from there in a valley, which is much drunk for health reasons, having purgative powers, being sent in stoneware jars throughout the land, being a spring, and is with a wall around enclosing a raised well, and the ground paved with bricks. It has in the middle an opening in the ground for the water flow. This well stands at the rear of a small house in which there are some small rooms, and many people come there to drink, also to shelter from the sun. The practice of the drinking of the water is early in the morning and from then until 8, 9, 10 o'clock. It is drunk on an empty stomach from stoneware mugs holding about one pint. Some drink ten, twelve, even fifteen or sixteen pints in one journey, but everyone as much as he can take. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results. Gentlemen and ladies have their separate meeting places, putting down sentinels in the shrub in every direction. It has happened that the well is drunk empty three times in a morning, in hot and dry summers when the water has more strength. And the people who observe this come then in such crowds that the village which is fairly large and can spread at least 300 beds, is still too small and the people are forced to look for lodgings in the neighbourhood. Some stay there on doctor's orders for several weeks continuously in the middle of the summer, drinking daily from this water, and many people take after the drinking some hot meat broth or ale.'
A painting of the well building in 1795
In the late 1600s the well was housed in a little building on the Common but a new Lord of the Manor, John Parkhurst, took over in 1707 and had better premises built. The Wells were located in a large light brick built room .There was a coffee house, two rooms for 'gameing' and shops selling' sweetmeates' and 'fruite'.
1692 two London goldsmiths acquired the bowling green site on the corner of South Street and the High Street, and erected premises known as the New Tavern and Assembly Rooms, subsequently Waterloo House. This provided facilities for dining, dancing, gambling and meeting people; there was also a coffeehouse opening onto the street, and in the gardens at the back was the bowling green and a cockpit. The bowling green and cockpit have long gone but the original building has been acquired by Wetherspoons and the name 'The Assembly Rooms' restored.
Around 1699 a second well was sunk to the west of the town, on land owned by a Mr. Symonds. This was near the public house to the west of South Street, known since at least 1755 as the Magpie but renamed Symonds Well in 1996. The discovery that water laden with Epsom salts could be found nearer the town inspired a local entrepreneur, John Livingstone, an apothecary who had recently moved into the town.
A hand tinted line drawing of the well buildings taken from
a book by Henry Pownall on the history of Epsom c.1825
After he had discovered that the mineral waters could be obtained to the west of the town, he started buying property in the area: first a little land near Symonds Well, and later some larger plots in 'Shoulder of Mutton Close', which lay between the present West Street, High Street and South Street. He started building there and in 1707 advertised his development as the New Wells, to be opened that Easter. 'There are Shops now to be Let at the said Wells for a Bookseller, Pictures, Haberdasher of Hats, Shoomaker, Fishmonger and Butcher, with Conveniences for several other Trades. It is design'd that a very good Consort of Musick shall attend and play there Morning and Evening during the Season and nothing will be demanded for the Waters drank there'. The gaming and dancing were to take place in a new Assembly Room - the third to be provided in Epsom, following the ones on the Common and in Waterloo House. Like the New Tavern complex, which was just on the other side of South Street, Livingstone's New Wells had a bowling green, gardens, and a coffeehouse next door (now the Albion). These stood on the rising ground behind the so-called Old Manor House in West Street, and were entered from an alley still to be seen alongside the Albion Hotel.
Livingstone's enterprises must have prospered, since he was later able to give the land in East Street on which almshouses for 12 poor widows were built. This may have been intended to secure his reputation, because there were rumours of sharp practice about some of Livingstone's dealings. After opening the New Wells, he rented the site of the Old Wells on the Common, and although he ran both sites for a few years, he then closed down the earlier site - thus eliminating the main competition to his own facilities. But the public did not seem to mind: they were too busy enjoying the social life in the heart of the town.
The Height of the Fashionable Spa
(1662-1741) travelled to improve her health, visiting many spa towns. She wrote that in the summer 'Monday is the highday in Epsom' - Monday was in fact the ordinary day for the kinds of recreation not permitted on Sunday, until the later invention of the weekend. There is 'raceing of boyes, or rabbets, or piggs; in the evening the Company meete in the Greenes, first in Upper Green, many steps up, where are Gentlemen bowling, Ladyes walking, the benches round to sitt, there are little shopps, and a gameing or danceing-roome; the same man at the Wells keepes it, sells coffee there also'. The Upper Green was Livingstone's establishment at the New Wells. Then the company move to the Lower Green at Waterloo House 'not far off, just in the heart of the town, its a much neater Green and warmer, the whole side of this is a very large roome with large sashe windows to the Green with cusheons in the windows and seates all along; there are two hazard-boards; at the end is a Milliner and China shop'. All the length of this building on the street ward was a kind of colonnade formed by a row of trees, cut and plaited together by the skill of local gardeners.
Another visitor was the Count von Uffenbach, who came over from Germany in 1710. First he visited the old Wells, but was not impressed - they were a good quarter hour's walk from the town in a mediocre house adjoining a short covered passage where you walked up and down when drinking. The water was drunk from small nasty stoneware beakers, four to six at a time (about six pints). You did this for three days in succession; then rested a bit and repeated this a second and third time, altogether nine times. Some were purged, others vomited. Things were altogether more pleasant at the New Wells in the town, where there is also a bowling green, billiards room and coffeehouse, but the water tasted just the same.
It was not just visitors who were impressed by Epsom. The writer John Toland, who was looking for retired lodgings after an eventful career as a spy and theologian, took summer lodgings at Woodcote when the first quality houses were being built there, between 1710 to 1718. He was full of praises for Epsom; it reminded him of the civilised towns where he had stayed in Holland, rather than the crude English countryside. The place was much frequented for its most healthy air and excellent mineral waters, and he described it as full of convenient houses in the latest style built for the entertainment of strangers, set in a beautiful countryside, with tree shaded side walks where you may meet the people you expect at the Exchange or St. James' Park. The two bowling greens at Waterloo house and the New Wells kept up a friendly competition with each other, and there was music playing most of the day. A fairer circle of people was never seen in the continental spas of the time than could be admired on the High Green or Long Room, where a young man can easily find a blooming beauty. Doctors, instead of prescribing the waters for the vapours or the spleen, told their patients to get involved instead in the entertainments and enjoy themselves in the shops, the taverns, inns and coffeehouses, 'which latter for social virtue are equalled by few'. Coffeehouses were still a novelty then, and very fashionable.
Epsom's position as a Spa was always under threat. Other sites were soon developing, with better facilities. Bath and Tunbridge both had the patronage of Catherine de Braganza and the vogue for Bath became almost universal. Places near London were looked down on, whatever the qualities of their water, and those that were further away had a better social cachet. Daniel Defoe said 'the nobility and gentry go to Tunbridge, the merchants and rich citizens to Epsom ... the common people chiefly to Dulwich and Streatham'.
Epsom had another disadvantage - its water supply was limited and the scraping of the bottom often made it cloudy. There were also suspicions of dilution. Celia Fiennes on her first visit says: 'its not a quick spring and very often is dranke drye, and to make up the defficiency the people do often carry water from common wells to fill this in a morning (this they have been found out in) which makes the water weake and of little operation'. It is not surprising that Epsom could not compete with places where there was an abundance of water - like Bath, Buxton, Cheltenham, Harrogate, Leamington, Malvern, Tenbury, Woodhall, to name but a few, mostly discovered long after Epsom had started the fashion.
Starting with Nehemiah Grew in 1695, chemists had established what gave Epsom's water its medicinal quality, and Epsom Salts were soon cheaply available over their counters. This meant that there was no longer any need to go to the town for them, especially as the quantities of water from the two Epsom Wells were never large enough for manufacturing on any scale. With Livingstone's death in 1727, Epsom lost its most successful marketing director and the decline set in. By 1738, an updated edition of Defoe's tour cut out his enthusiastic description of the entertainments, saying that Epsom used to be frequented a few years ago on account of the mineral waters, but is now a town of fine houses, retreats for London merchants. The assembly rooms and other public buildings had fallen into decay, and only one house remained occupied at the Old Wells, from which a man and his wife carried the water in bottles to adjacent places.
It is clear from a manorial survey of 1755 that the entertainment centres had all closed down by that date, their greens becoming yards for smiths or coopers. Many of the lodging houses took on the appearance of slum tenements, as their rooms were let out permanently to workmen and their families. Local people did not know who to blame, although by the 1760s there was a vigorous tradition that Livingstone, far from having founded the Spa, had helped to ruin it by adulterating the waters. This was rather unfair, if only because the waters had never been the main reason for coming to the town. Commercially, Epsom did not suffer too much from the loss of the Spa, since the early eighteenth century had seen many houses built for the gentry in Woodcote, and these continued to provide employment for the locals. It may be that these resident clergy and stockholders actively discouraged further use of the Spa facilities, suspecting that they might appeal to a lower-class market like those at Hampstead or Islington, and so lower the tone of the town.
At some stage in the early 20th century the well was capped
But many visitors had realised the attractions of Epsom as a place to live. It was so near to London, and so healthy; besides, there were the Downs nearby, with the attraction of horseracing. The streets contained many fine houses of gentry and London merchants, some of whom commuted daily to London.
Of all this the New tavern coffeehouse and long room survive- a fine building of the late 17th century on the south end of the High Street. It had, and still has, sash windows - still a bit of a novelty at the time. By 1755 the property had become disused: it was divided up, at first into houses, and then converted into shops. A series of drapers, beginning with Baileys in the early 19th century, and followed by Oldridge and Wheelers, ran a high class establishment here, while the original pleasure grounds were used by blacksmiths and as a furniture yard - after a spell as a car park, this area is now built over by the Ashley Centre. The main building was substantially conserved and rebuilt by Elys in 1952: they retained original features, such as the archway for the central carriage drive, through which vehicles would pass to drop off visitors in comfort within the building. , More recently the building has reverted to its old name, 'The Assembly Rooms', and a similar use to that of its original purpose, a place where individual's can obtain refreshment.
The well head is revealed during the 1990's building work to replace the well cap
This article is taken from an account written by Jeremy Harte,
Curator of Bourne Hall Museum who based his account
on some original research of Maurice Exwood.
Images: Unless otherwise indicated all images are courtesy of Jeremy Harte, Curator, Bourne Hall Museum
Millions of people the world over must have asked at the chemist for Epsom Salts, and used it with recognisable effect, without knowing anything about the place that gave it its name. Nehemiah Grew established the name in his book on the 'bitter purging salts', as he named them, in 1695. The quantities of water from the two Epsom Wells were never large enough for manufacturing on any scale. He was granted a Royal patent for 'The Way of Makeing the Salt of the Purging Waters perfectly fine... very cheape'. This meant that he had the exclusive right to manufacture Epsom Salts. Grew set up this manufacture at Acton Well where he hoped to make 20,000 lbs. per year at a substantial profit. But Francis Moult, a chemist who had published the unauthorised translation from Latin of Grew's book, claimed that he had been manufacturing and selling the salts for years. He was using the water of Shooter's Hill Well and undercut Grew's price.
In 1754 bottled Epsom water was being sold at the 'Mineral Water Warehouse' in Fleet Street, as well as Epsom Salts. These were also available from Morris' coffee house at Epsom (now the Albion Hotel).
As early as 1723 the Royal Society had a report from John Brown that it was being manufactured from the bitterns left after crystallisation of common salt from seawater at Portsmouth, Leamington and Newcastle - in other words, as a by-product of manufacture of common salt. John Brown tested these products and compared them with the real thing, which he obtained from his friend Mr Hyet, an apothecary at Epsom. Mr Hyet was asked to boil down some water from the well in the town - another confirmation from chemists that Livingstone's well produced the real product. Epsom Salts, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Epsomite - or hydrated magnesium sulphate, to give it its scientific name (MgSO4·7H2O) - are also found naturally in mines and limestone caves. So despite the limited supply of water from Epsom's wells, Epsom Salts will never be in short supply.
Epsom Salts are still sold, under that name, not just for the traditional purpose but as an ingredient for other useful medicaments and they are included in some rose fertilisers.
This article is taken from an account written by Jeremy Harte, Curator of Bourne Hall Museum
Ashtead's Mineral Spring:
a competing venture in the adjoining parish
Extract from 1866 OS Map showing
relative positions of the two wells
click to enlarge.
On the adjacent Ashtead Common are several wells, sometimes called springs, where rainwater has percolated through the London Clay dissolving chemicals which have similar medicinal effects to those produced by water from the famous Epsom Wells. [Although the active ingredient there was generally thought to be magnesium sulphate, an analysis by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council in 1989 revealed that the content of that chemical was surprisingly low: the dominant chemical is more likely to be calcium sulphate, known as gypsum in its mineral form.]
One of these "wells" near to both an ancient earthwork and the Roman villa complex in Ashtead Forest seems to have been identified as a (potential money-making) rival for Epsom as shown by the following extract from the Court Rolls: -
"At the Court Baron holden for the Manor of Ashtead the three and twentieth day of June anno domini 1676. Whereas it was humbly presented to the Lord beingt;here personally in Court that there being a Well called Ashtead Welle upon Ashtead Common' within this Manor and nere adjoyning to Epsom Wells which well if it were improved and enclosed and a certain portion of land of about two acres of ground layd to it for planting thereupon might be mayde very beneficiall to the lands of the sayd mannor thereto adjoyning and that if a lease were made thereof for the Term of sixt  yeares to such person as the Minister Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poore for the tyme being should contract and agree with, there might be a considerable improvement mayde by the same for the benefit of the poore of the Parish. His Lordship was pleased to condiscend thereunto and dothe agree for his Lordship and his heires and assigns that it shall be lawful to and for the Minister..."
[Some writers have assumed, mistakenly, that the anticipated benefit was a supply of drinking water.]
Extract from 1866 OS Map
Unfortunately, any hopes of profit appear to have been disappointed probably because of the location was relatively inaccessible. References to the "Mineral Spring" persisted throughout the nineteenth century, when the poor were said to resort to it for curative purposes, and as late as 1925 there was claimed to have been plenty of water there. Traditionally called the "Roman Well" by local inhabitants, it appeared on Ordnance Survey maps for 1866/70 but presently needs to be found using the National Grid Reference, TQ 17636025. It survives only as a wellhead less than a metre square constructed in brick and apparently designed to support a pump.