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The Height Of The Fashionable Spa In Epsom

The improvements, which came about in the Spa as a result of Livingstone’s enterprises, are well shown by Celia Fiennes. She travelled all over England — on horseback — between 1685 and 1712 and wrote a Journal (partly published in 1888 and fully in 1947). On her first visit to Epsom, probably before 1699, she visits the well on the common, which she describes as a dungeon and refuses to drink the water there. She does not mention the Assembly Rooms.

On her second visit dated around 1712, she is more impressed, admiring the hedges and trained trees in front of most houses. It has been suggested that the trees in front of "yew tree cottage" (near Sainsbury's) are a survival of these. She mentions many country houses, describing some of them in detail such as Woodcote Park, Durdans, Mr. Rooth's (in New Inn Lane); she says there is an abundance of brick built houses with gardens and open gates and rails used as "lodgings for the Company".

"... Now the Wells are built about and a large light room to walk in brick'd, and a pump put on the Well, a coffee house and two rooms for gaming and shops for sweetmeats and fruit".

Since she has before criticised the dungeon round the old well, these comments seem to refer to the well on the common where John Parkhurst had become Lord of the Manor holding his first court in 1707. It would seem that he, conscious of the competition by Livingstone's new well, greatly improved the facilities at his old establishment.

Celia Fiennes goes on to describe the entertainment. It seems that in the summer Monday is the highday in Epsom, perhaps from London dwellers who take a long weekend. There is

"racing of boys, or rabbets, or pigs; in the evening the Company meet in the Greens, first in Upper Green, many steps up, where are Gentlemen bowling, Ladies walking, the benches round to sit, there are little shops, and a gaming or dancing-room; the same man at the Wells keeps it, sells coffee there also."

This is Livingstone's establishment. Then the company move to the Lower Green

"... 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 room with large sash windows to the Green with cushions in the windows and seats all along; there are two hazard-boards; at the end is a Milliner and China shop, this is belonging to the great tavern or eating house, and all the length of this room to the street ward is a piazza wall, and a row of trees cut and platted together as the fashion of the place”

This is clearly the new tavern establishment on the High Street.

We note that Celia does not refer to drinking the waters or anyone else being there to do so on this second visit.

John Toland, who in summer lived in Woodcote and described the Epsom of his time (published 1711) in his flowery letter to Eudoxa, says Epsom is much frequented for its most healthy air and excellent mineral waters, and he describes the place 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'. There are two rival bowling greens and music playing most of the day. A fairer circle of people was never seen in the continental spas of the time than is to be admired on the High Green or Long Room, where a young man can find his blooming beauty. Doctors instead of "prescribing the waters for the vapours or the spleen", tell their patients to get involved in the entertainments and enjoy themselves in the shops, the taverns, inns and coffee-houses," which latter for social virtue are equalled by few". Coffee houses were very fashionable still. He adds a telling comment on the well on the common:

"The old Wells at half a mile's distance, which formerly used to be the meeting place in the forenoon, are not at present so much in vogue; the waters, they say, being found as good within the village, and all diversions in greater perfection".

There is another factual account from a German visitor around this time. In July 1710 von Uffenbach, a gentleman book collector, came to the well in Epsom and in his record (published in 1753) he says that it is a good quarter hour's walk from the town in a mediocre house adjoining a covered passage of no great length where one walks up and down when drinking. The water is drunk from small nasty stone beakers four to six at a time, about one and a half quarts, three days in succession; then one rests a bit and repeats this a second and third time, altogether nine times. "Some are purged, others vomit". Judging by the taste it contained a lot of vitriol (sulphate). He then went to the new well in the town, where there is also a bowling green, billiards room and coffee house, "apart from that the water tastes just same".

Daniel Defoe in his "Tour through Great Britain" (1sted. 1724) describes an Epsom wholly adapted to pleasure, rural and wide open in contrast to the confinement of London. We are welcomed with music, but for a shilling or two you get rid of the musicians. You also pay to have your name in the list and some more to become a citizen of Epsom for the summer. "Then you drink the waters or walk about as if you did". He goes on to describe a ritual of enjoyment: dancing, walking in the shade of the hedges and trees, or driving to the Downs and in the evening to the bowling green. The gentlemen bowl, the ladies dance, others raffle. Every night a kind of ball. The older people have the water brought to their apartments. Although Defoe's Tour was published in 1724, his experiences and observations must relate to a period spread over many years, so he may be describing an Epsom that he saw in earlier years. In the 1738 updated edition of his tour, published after his death, the enthusiastic story of Epsom's social life covering five pages in 1724, is reduced to less than one page which confines itself to saying it was very much frequented a few years ago on account of the mineral waters, which are not impaired in their virtues but much in their reputation possibly owing to their being too near London. Epsom is now a town of fine houses retreats for London merchants. Only one house remains occupied at the well from which a man and his wife carry the water in bottles to adjacent places. The Hall, galleries and other public buildings are now in decay.

There is no suggestion that the water lost its virtue. On the contrary, what is said is: the water is as good as ever, but people don't want it now. We'll come back later to possible reasons for this.