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Documentary Evidence Of The Original Epsom Well

What follows is based on recorded material roughly in chronological order. We must realise that much of this only became available long after it was recorded, hundreds of years in some cases.

Booth – 1629

Epsom Well was already famous and much visited in 1629 August 1629, when Abram Booth and 2 companions, Dutchmen who were in London on a diplomatic mission, set out from London on horseback "to Surrey to see some Royal Castles and Epson Wells". In his journal (first published in Holland in 1942) he reports that the well was found a few years ago and made serviceable at the expense of the village. Having been told strange things of the water, "purging without any effort," they drank a few glasses "with very good effect". They found many people there, even sick persons from far away places come to drink the water and take it away in bottles and jugs. The well, he reports, is one mile from the village and there is always someone there to serve you.

The village at the time probably was little more than a few houses clustered round St. Martin's Church.

This is the first known record of the Epsom Well on the Common, which did not become known in England until about 1950.

North 1637

Lord North, the discoverer of Tunbridge Wells in his 1637 Forest of Varieties (1645) made some solemn observations on his health (dated 1637), and remarks on the good effect of a draught of Epsom water in the morning. In a marginal note he claims to be the first person to have told the king's people of "the use of Tonbridge and Epsom waters for health and cure" adding that it is much cheaper than travelling to Spa on the continent

Osborne 1652/4

Dorothy Osborne wrote to her uncle about her visits to Epsom in 1 652 and 1654 "to be rid of a scurvey spleen"; she finds the water very muddy and unappetising.

Aubrey 1654/5

John Aubrey wrote the first known history of Surrey in the 1670s (though it was not published until 1718, eleven years after his death). In this he says that he visited the well in 1654 or 1655, drank some of the water and initiated some inconclusive experiments. Aubrey says that the well was discovered in 1639 or 1640, which we know to be wrong.

Fuller before 1662

Thomas Fuller was a well-connected theologian who around 1640 got involved in the religious controversies between King and Parliament. Siding with Charles I, he lost his jobs and had to make a living largely through his writings on religion and history. He was a scholar renowned for his remarkable memory (on which Pepys comments). Before he died in 1661 he had been working for years on his History of the Worthies of England, published by his son in 1662. This large work includes a number of fanciful and doubtful stories. On the Medicinal Waters of "Ebsham" he writes:

"They were found some two and forty years since (which falleth out to be 1618). One Henry Wicker, in a dry summer and great want of water for cattle discovered in the concave of a horse or neat's footing, some water standing. His suspicion that it was the stale of some beast was quickly confuted by the clearness thereof. With his pad-staff he did dig a square hole about it and so departed. Returning the next day, with some difficulty... found the hole he had made, filled and running  over with most clear water. Yet cattle (though tempted with thirst) would not drink as having a mineral taste therein. It is resolved that it runneth through some veins of alum and at first was only used outwardly for the healing of sores. Indeed simple wounds have been soundly and suddenly cured therewith, which is imputed to the abstersiveness of this water, keeping a wound clean till the balsom of nature doth recover it. Since it hath been inwardly taken and (if the inhabitants may be believed) diseases have been met with their cure, though they come from contrary causes. Their convenient distance from London addeth to the reputation of these waters; and no wonder if citizens coming thither, from the worst of smokes into the best of airs find in themselves a perfective alteration."

So here we have the story of Henry Wicker. Fuller must of course have relied on hearsay because we do not know of anyone else independently confirming the story. We know nothing of Mr. Wicker.

Fuller does not seem to have been a very profound observer, often playful in his writings, but the final comment of this quote shows a shrewd insight.

Bearing in mind that the well was internationally known in 1629, when Booth visited Epsom, and that news travelled slower than now, we may justifiably suspect that the discovery was somewhat earlier than Fuller suggests.

Schellinks 1662

In the year 1662 a Dutch artist, William Schellinks, was travelling in England with the young son of a Dutch shipping magnate and came to Epsom. He made the only known contemporary drawing of the well on Epsom Common. This large drawing, about 18" x 55", (incorporated with many others in a large atlas, now in the National Library, Vienna), shows a small timber building, surrounded by many people, some obviously drinking the water. Schellinks wrote a journal in which he described his visit in lively terms.

"On the 5th of June at 9 o'clock in the morning we walked with Mr. Pelt, from Kingston to Epsom, being 5 miles, came there at midday, went to stay at one Robin Bird, were there well accommodated. Epsom 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, which well water was reckoned from their 10 spans high and 8 spans from the brick floor. 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. For this well is paid yearly twelve pounds sterling which is distributed to the poor, and those who come there to drink the water give to the person who draws it as much as he wishes. Now in 1662 an old man and woman have it on hire. 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, probatum est. 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 does not get any feed from above, but has to work up from the lower parts of the earth, and 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. Have hereby added my drawing of the described place....

The 6th of June in the morning we went to the water well, drank each three or four pints of the water, had the day before drunk as much, we went to walk around. And at 11 o'clock we went back to Kingston, where we arrived at 2 o'clock."

Schellinks usually stayed in inns but in Epsom they had to make do with a guesthouse, where facilities are somewhat primitive, as his journal makes clear.

Schellinks and his companion are so fascinated by the well, that they go back the following day, drinking 3 or 4 pints. He came again on June 11th, when he found a large gathering on foot and on horseback including Dutch and French visitors. They drink 6 large pints each and he expresses his disgust that it only worked once, in spite of having carried out the recommended procedure of walking around a while! These days we know this effect of Epsom Salts.

Schellinks' drawing is annotated to show the separate places in the bushes where the women and the men go for the obvious purpose. Study of the drawing in detail makes this even more clear.

Pepys 1663

In July 1663 Pepys came to Epsom. He had difficulty on arrival in finding lodgings in the town and had to go to Ashtead to Farmer Page to get a "lodging in a little hole we could not stand upright in, upon a low truckle bed". The next day, Sunday, he came to the well and finds " a great store of citizens there though some of better quality" many of whom he knew. He drinks two pots and finds it pleasant to see "how everybody turns up his tail .... in a bush" (everyone to his taste). That evening he finds lodgings in Ewell and goes back to the well on Monday morning. He drinks 3 cups and goes to the downs to see the running matches, before riding back to London via Ewell.

Pepys 1667

Four years later he records going again on a Sunday this time in his own coach and four with his wife and a friend arriving at 8 o'clock at the well " where much company". He drinks 4 pints and reports good results. But "they did not". He goes to the Kings Head where they got an ill room, but the best to be had. Next door (having moved to a better room in a nearby house) he is told " Lord Buckhurst and Nelly (Nell Gwynn).... keep a merry house". (This was before Nelly became the mistress of Charles II). He meets several acquaintances and has dinner and a siesta, rides back to the well to fill some bottles and talks to the women who lease the well from the Lord of the Manor and confirms the annual fee of £12 also reported by Schellinks. Next he visits his cousin in Ashtead, walks on the downs and talks to a shepherd there, looks at Mr. Evelyn's house (Woodcote Park), refreshes himself by buying some milk from a poor woman on the roadside, "better than any cream", goes once more to the inn before setting off for London and is very pleased with his day's outing and with his decision not to have a country house but to keep a coach to go and enjoy the countryside.

This is a brief resume of what we can assume to be a typical day out to Epsom, shared by many at the time.

Shadwell 1672

Thomas Shadwell's play Epsom Wells was written 1672 about this time and first performed in London in 1672 in the presence of King Charles II, who was so pleased with the light-hearted romp that he came again two days later. It depicts the contemporary life at a spa of the day by a miscellany of characters, more interested in wine, ale and amorous adventures on and off the bowling green, than in the improvement of their health by drinking the water.

Grew 1679 + 1695

Now the chemists take an interest in the mystery 1679 + of the water and its contents. In 1679 Dr. Nehemia 1695 Grew had read a paper for the prestigious Royal Society on the salts of mineral waters and in 1695 he published a paper (in Latin) and thereby established the name of 'Epsom Salts' (even now perhaps more widely known than the town which gave it the name). The chemists were of course very Interested in getting hold of the salts, or whatever it was that gave the water its medical properties, to sell to their customers.

There was so much interest in the paper that someone published an unauthorised translation; this led to a row amongst the scientists of the day and an official translation in 1697. The following year Grew was granted a patent for the making of Epsom Salt, "very cheaply" he claimed.

An ominous sign it is suggested: if the health giving salts could be bought cheaply over the counter, there was no longer any need for doctors to prescribe a visit to the wells. Grew is reported to have discovered a well at Acton, with similar properties and to have set up a works there to produce 20,000 lbs. of Epsom Salt per annum.

Grew, in his book, refers to Marie de Medici (mother of Henrietta Maria, Charles I's wife) as among the first to visit Epsom Well. This would have been in the period between 1638 and 1641, when she stayed in England. She was interested in healing waters and probably drank those in Spa. We have found no other record to confirm this visit.

He also reports that after physicians recommended Epsom Water, no less than two thousand people met there in one day! 3.