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The Decline Of Epsom Spa

Epsom was by no means the only spa. Many others were soon developing with better facilities.

Tunbridge — discovered a little earlier than Epsom by Lord North — had early royal patronage from Henrietta Maria in 1630. She and her party had to camp in tents on the Common. Bath and Tunbridge both had the patronage of Catherine de Braganza and the vogue for Bath became almost universal. Celia Fiennes and Pepys talk of visiting 'the Bath'. But waters could be sampled in numerous other places. Celia Fiennes visited, during her travels watering places at Astrop, Alford (Somerset), Bath, Barnet, Buxton, Canterbury, Durham, Epsom, Knaresborough, St. Winifred's Well (Flintshire), Scarborough and Tunbridge.

(The wells of Harrogate were at the time known as Knaresborough).

Defoe, writing before 1724, comments on great crowds of people going to Dulwich Wells for the "physic" as opposed to Epsom and Tunbridge where they go for "the diversion... the mirth and the company" and adds "the nobility and gentry go to Tunbridge, the merchants and rich citizens to Epsom... the common people chiefly to Dulwich and Streatham."

So there was plenty of competition from places with royal patronage (Charles II and his brother certainly dined with Lord Berkeley at Durdans in 1662 but there is no evidence of his visiting the town or the well).

Epsom also had the disadvantage that the 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 deficiency 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”

The chemists had established what gave Epsom's water its medicinal quality and Epsom Salts were cheaply available over their counters.

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.

The habit of taking the waters continued and never quite died. Sometimes the entrepreneur went to great trouble to get a supply of water: in Moira, Derbyshire, a hotel was built on top of the colliery and the water from the pit pumped to the spa. But this was not a success: the surroundings were hardly congenial. So 3 miles away, Ashby de la Zouch was developed as a spa and the water from Moira Well colliery transported there in tanker waggons!

Defoe (1738 ed.) attributes Epsom's loss of reputation to it being too near London. Certainly the gentry would and could go to places further afield where the "quality" was to be found: the fashion of taking the waters was now elsewhere.

When Livingstone died in 1727 Epsom lost its most successful marketing director and the decline set in. Several attempts to regain interest — those of Mrs. Hawkins and later of Dr. Dale Ingram — had little success. But many visitors had realised the attractions of Epsom so near to London, so healthy, near the Downs where horseracing continued, as a place to live. There were many fine houses of gentry and London merchants, some of whom commuted daily to London.