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The History of Epsom Salts


Traditionally the miraculous qualities of the mineral spring on Epsom Common were discovered in 1618 — by a donkey according to Swete writing in 1860, but this rather fanciful Victorian historian was only putting his own slant on the tale which authors before and after him copied from one another.


The story is that in a dry summer Henry Wicker found on Epsom Common a source of water, which his cattle refused to drink. This water proved to have medicinal properties, first used externally to cure sores but later found to be a purgative when drunk. So Epsom rapidly became a prosperous health resort: a spa.


But all was spoiled as a result of the sharp practices of an apothecary named Livingstone, who professed to have discovered a new well nearer to Epsom village, which turned out to have no medicinal virtue. He bought the old well and promptly closed it down to eliminate the competition with his own establishment where he offered lively entertainment. But finding the waters of no value, people stopped coming and so the spa died.


This story was retold by most authors, not only the light-hearted like C. J. Swete, but also the scholarly such as Manning and Bray, Brayley and others so that it became unquestioningly accepted until relatively recently.


All these authors vilified the character of Livingstone (as his correct name was) in a variety of exorbitant terms such as: "an avaricious person... who midwifed the miscarriage of Epsom" (1769), a 'knave' (1825), "an unscrupulous speculator" (1850), "a jesuitical sort of person" (1860), "an advertising quack" (1 900), a "rascally fellow, a wicked apothecary" (1901). None of them had any documentary evidence of Livingstone's role but no one seems to have queried the veracity of the story until F. L. Clark (history teacher and headmaster of Glyn Grammar School in Epsom from its first opening in 1927). Clark in about 1950 published a booklet "New light on Epsom Wells" in which he began to question whether Livingstone deserved our condemnation. He continued his researches in the manorial Court rolls and was the first one to draw attention to a newly published journal of Abram Booth, who visited Epsom in 1629. Clark died before this work, which revolutionised the history of Epsom Wells, was published in 1960. He established that Livingstone was in fact the man who most successfully promoted Epsom Spa.


H.L. Lehmann, a retired chemical scientist, followed up Clark's work with researches into what chemists had to say and found hitherto unknown documentation about Epsom water and salts. He published his work in 1973, and in 1985 was the first to relate the experiences of Willem Schellinks visiting the Well in 1662. Later he published his work on the 'Residential Copyholds of Epsom', an invaluable source for local historians. Alex Sakula added further documentation in 1983.


So now we can put together what has been recorded and attempt an accurate history. What better time to do so than the year in which the Epsom and Ewell Borough Council has decided to reconstruct the well-head to be a worthy memorial to Epsom's past fame.