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The Story Of Epsom Salts

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.

We have seen that Nehemiah Grew established the name in his book on the " bitter purging salts", as he named it in 1695. Grew studied in Cambridge and Leiden and practised medicine in Coventry. Later he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on account of his studies on plant life and eventually became the joint secretary of that famous institution. In his book he lists wells in Barnet, North-Hall (Herts) Acton, Cobham, Dulwich and Streatham where the water was of the same nature as at Epsom. He was granted a Royal patent for "The Way of Making the Salt of the Purging Waters perfectly fine.... very cheape..." This meant that he had the exclusive right to manufacture Epsom salts. As we have seen Grew set up such 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 it for years. He was using the water of Shooter's Hill Well and undercut Grew's price.

The quantities of water from the two Epsom Wells were never large enough for manufacturing on any scale: Schellinks reported the old Well being exhausted 3 times in a morning and Celia Fiennes wrote that the locals replenished the well with water from common wells. But as we see the chemists found a way round that by using water from wells with similar chemical properties where the supply was plentiful.

The Mr. Owen mentioned in the advertisement for Mrs. Hawkins in 1754 (see chapter 6) was selling bottled Epsom water from his "Mineral Water Warehouse" in Fleet Street London but also Epsom salts (called Magnesia). These commodities were also available from Mr. Morris's coffee house at Epsom (now the Albion Hotel) according to an advertisement in a book on the properties of Epsom Water by Dr. Dale Ingram, "Professor of Anatomy and Surgery and Surgeon at Christ's Hospital" printed for Mr. Owen in 1767.

But even if the wells at Acton and Shooter's Hill had been exhausted, there would be no shortage of Epsom Salts. 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, (referred to as Epsomite in the Encyclopaedia Britannica) or hydrated magnesium sulphate, to give it its scientific name (MgS04 — 7 H20) is also found naturally in mines and limestone caves. So the limited supply of water from Epsom's wells was of no significance as far as availability of Epsom Salts was concerned.

In 1715a German visitor enquired from an Epsom resident about the supply of Epsom Salts, and had confirmed to him that not one dram of the salt was produced from the mineral water of Epsom. In 1841 A. B. Granville, a doctor of medicine and Fellow of the Royal Society, an authority on the spas of Germany and England, published his Spas of England. He does not mention Epsom as a spa: we know that the remnants of the spa establishment had long disappeared by then. But he does refer to "... the weekly journey to Epsom of a certain black waggon, which returned as regularly to the manufactory at Cheltenham". This was supposed to be connected with the supply of a powerful ingredient for the preparation of Cheltenham Salts. We can be sure that whatever was going on, the "powerful ingredient" was not coming from Epsom; but it demonstrates the reputation of Epsom Salts.

Epsom Salt is still sold, under that name, for the traditional purpose, but also an ingredient for other useful medicaments. It is included in some rose fertilizers and knowledgeable people buy the unrefined form for mixing themselves for the health of their roses. The name stuck — the world over.