Epsom Wells: I
The main sources of information on Epsom Wells are:
Clark, F.L., New Light on Epsom Wells (Pullingers, 1953).
Clark, F.L., ‘History of Epsom Spa’, SAC 57, 1960.
Lehmann, H.L., ‘The history of Epsom Spa’, SAC 69, 1973.
Supplementary information on Livingston, ‘Information from a fire-mark’ by H.L. Edwards, was published in our own Bulletin, 2ii (1965) and N.H. Nail on ‘New evidence concerning Epsom Spa Period’ in our newsletter dated November 1974.
Contemporary accounts of the wells include a lengthy mention in Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1652–54 (London, 1888) on January 9th 1653. ‘The next thing I desired to be rid on was a scurry spleen that I had ever been subject to, and to that purpose was advised to drink the waters. There I spent the latter end of summer’. Dorothy’s diary confirms that she was at Epsom from 16th August to 4th September. In her letter (undated but presumed to be 5th June 1653) she comments ‘I have no more heart to go to Epsom since Sir Robert Cook died. Ah! that good old man, I would so fain have had him, but I have no luck to them, they all die. If he would have married me first and then died ’twould not have grieved me half so much as it does now’.
Samuel Pepys paid several visits to Epsom. In 1663 (26 July), he was ‘up and to the Wells, where great store of citizens’, and ‘we drank each of us two pots and so walked away – it being very pleasant to see how everybody turns up his tail, here one and there another, in a bush, and the women in the Quarters the like’. On 27th July he observed ‘It being much warmer than yesterday, there was a great store of gallant company, more there than to my greater pleasure’.
In 1664 (16/17 August) ‘Sir Wm. Batten saying much of the greatness of Epsom… Sir Wm. Batten did give me three bottles of his Epsom water, which I drank and it wrought well with me and did give me many good stools, and I found myself mightily cooled with them and refreshed’.
On 11 July 1665, an entry in the Surrey Quarter Sessions Order Book records ‘whereas since the said visitation of ye Plague within the City of London and places adjoining itt hath beene observed that there hath beene a great resort and confluence of people from ye City to ye parish of Epsham within the County, under color and pretence of drinking ye waters there and by that means it is too justly to be feared yt the infection may be brought not onely to ye said parish but to ye parishes and places adjacent and to ye parishes in the road from London.
‘For prevention whereof ye Justices of peace of this County now present in open court have made it their request and desire to Richard Evelyn, Esq., one of ye Justices of ye peace of this County now present in court being ye Lord of ye Manor of Epsham to shutt and locke up ye Wells in ye said parish for this summer and not to permit ye said waters to be dranke off and to use his utmost endeavour for ye preventing of any strangers coming in ye said place and for ye preventing of any coaches to resort to London or to passe with travellers or strangers from thence to ye said parish or to permit any goods to be brought in carts, waggons or otherwise of any strangers into ye said parish.
‘Ordered that the constable and headboroughs keep strict watch accordingly. If any offend, Mr. Evelyn is desired to bind them over to appear’ (Surrey Quarter Sessions 1663–1666, Surrey Record Soc. 16, pp70–1).
In spite of these precautions, an assessment had to be made in October 1665 to aid the victims of the plague in Ewell and Kingston, and Samuel Pepys records on 10th November 1665, ‘Mr. Harrington, our neighbour, an east country merchant, is dead of the plague at Epsum’. Several entries in the parish registers of Ewell record ‘died of ye plague’.
On 14th July 1667, Samuel Pepys again went to the Wells ‘by eight o’clock to the wells, where much company, and I drank the water. And to the Town, to the Kings Head, and hear that my Lord Buckhurst and Nelly [Gwyn] are lodged at the next house, and Sir Charles with them; and keep a merry house’. (The Kings Head Inn was demolished in 1957 and replaced by a shopping precinct, Kings Shade Walk. Photographs and press cuttings can be seen in Epsom Reference Library. Nell Gwynn House, part of which may date back to this period, still remains).
Our next visitor to record their impressions was Celia Fiennes. In 1711 she comments ‘the Well is large without bason or pavement on the bottom, it covered over with timber and is so darke you can scarce look down into it, for which cause I do dislike it; its not a quick spring and very often is dranke drye, and to make up the defficiency 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 unless you can have it first from the well before they can have put in any other, the usual way of drinking them is by turning them with a little milk; there is a walk of trees by it but not very pleasant, there is a house built, in which the well is, and that is paved with brick to walke in in the wet weather’.