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EPSOM AND EWELL WELLS - Chapter 8



Recriminations and decline (1750-1780)
Dr Bruce E Osborne


Recriminations and decline (1750-1780): efforts to resurrect the spa, spurious claims, medical profession's opinion, Dr Russell's sea water cure, spa properties sold off.

8.1 Old View of Epsom Wells, from Keene, 1882/4, Greater London, a Narrative of its History, its People and its Places.

Despite Epsom.s demise as a spa in the mid 18th century, further efforts were made to resurrect the tourism that had underwritten the earlier prosperity. In 1754 Epsom Old Well was advertised, by Jane Hawkins, for breakfast, the purging waters being in good order.[1] Epsom Salts were recommended to be taken before breakfast. The one to two hour delay before they took effect suggests that adequate facilities would need to be to hand shortly after breakfast. The advertisement appeared in Lloyds Evening Post. It identified the Epsom waters as a preparative treatment, prior to taking the waters at one of the major spas, a list being given. The editorial noted that Mr (William) Owen, at his Water Warehouse, sold the waters.[2] Mr Owen's name often comes up in the context of Epsom and this relationship is explored further in due course. The emphasis on the purging waters being in good order echoes the concern about manufactured salts and their provenance that had caused considerable controversy earlier.

Again in 1756 the Epsom waters were mentioned. Lucas wrote that the (old) spring had a building and pump set over it but that the quality was superior to those that at present attract attention.[3] About this time Dr Dale Ingram advertised a preparation of magnesia salts obtained from the mineral waters and opened public breakfast rooms at Epsom without success.[4] Dr Dale's magnesia and Epsom Salts were also sold by W. Owen of the Mineral Water Warehouse in London.[5]

By now Epsom Salts were being extensively manufactured artificially for public sale and mineral waters from many locations were widely on sale in bottles and carboys from establishments such as W. Owen's. It was a natural progression for artificial mineral water production to start on a large scale. In 1783, Jacob Schweppe commenced commercial production of artificial mineral waters in Geneva, thereby, it is argued by some, becoming the founder of the modern soft drinks industry.[6] Schweppe was followed in 1825 by Dr.F.Struve who founded the German Spa at Brighton. Struve’s Pump Room dispensed only artificially made mineral waters using the new understnading of chemistry to endevour to match the natural mineralisation.

A more deserving candidate for the title "founder of the soft drinks industry", perhaps, was William Owen and his Mineral Water Warehouse. The Mineral Water Warehouse of W. Owen in Temple Bar was initially established by one Henry Eyre, who was the first man to claim to deal solely in mineral waters. By 1727 he is known to have been selling Holt waters and the business was likely founded a few years before this. By 1745 he was selling sea water in London. Eyre died between 1760 and 1762 and William Owen, bookseller and publisher took over the business. Owen ran the business until 1793 when he died.[8]

Owen had a publishing interest, which enabled him to promote alternatives to Epsom waters. Both his publishing interest and his mineral water warehouse were to impinge on Epsom. A new author for Owen's business was to appear in the year 1753. This was to have a significant impact on the fortunes of Epsom and the manufactured salts. It was Richard Russell MD., who first published, in English, a dissertation on seawater and the virtues of bathing in it. Russell was a great advocate of the sea water cure and lived out his last years in Brighton where he also practiced. His publication can be seen as a natural extension of the uses of Epsom Salts, an approach similarly pursued by others in the ensuing years. Sunderland suggested that Epsom subsequently fell into disfavour, possibly as a direct result.[9] Pownall also stated that sea bathing precipitated the demise of Epsom.[10] Russell became one of the scapegoats, however the reality was somewhat subtler, as is now explored. 

8.2 William Owen's advertisement for mineral waters available in London, 1769.

W. Owen was the publisher of Dr Russell's dissertation on seawater and the mineral waters of Great Britain. This, linked with the connection between Epsom Waters and seawater, adds credence to the hypothesis that much of Dr Russell's expertise was based on the use of Epsom mineral salts. The 1769 edition of Dr Russell's work carries an advertisement for Owen's wide range of mineral waters which included Jessop's and Stoke waters from near Epsom but did not include Epsom water as such. Neither did the advertisement contain an announcement for Epsom Salts. It did however carry an announcement for Acton Salts.[11] This suggests that Acton Salts, as first promoted by Nehemiah Grew, had been marketed under the name of the spring rather than describing them as Epsom Salts. The opposite applied to other artificially made Epsom Salts, which were named "Epsom", as the Moults and others had done with Shooters Hill salts and those who manufactured from sea water. Later the reason for Grew's significant decision not to use the Epsom name will be considered.

Dr Russell would have been aware of various developments within the medical fraternity, which would have led him to his theories on seawater. He knew that Epsom water was a purgative and that Epsom Salts could be obtained from seawater, which was also a purgative. This information came from The Domestic Companion (1730) which he acknowledged reading. Located as he was near Lewes, what would be more natural than to send patients to the nearest coastal town, Brighton, to secure the cure normally afforded by Epsom Salts.[12] The sea, coupled with the availability of manufactured Epsom Salts, would have rendered Epsom Wells largely superfluous as a cure centre. Dr Russell's publication on seawater was to be subsequently republished numerous times and considerably extended and was a significant influence in the growing popularity of sea bathing. By the mid 19th century sea bathing was becoming a popular pastime, initially as a curative but later as a low cost recreation.

But Russell merely expanded the application of Epsom Salts in medicine by extending the treatments to include seawater. This was an extension of existing practice rather than an innovative superior alternative, and it would hardly have been the main reason for the demise of Epsom as a spa. Russell, it will be argued, capitalised on the already unfavourable reputation of Epsom Salts by applying similar technologies in a different context. The Compleat English Dispensary (1722) had earlier identified the abominable cheat sold as Epsom Waters. Clarification of this more deep-rooted problem at Epsom comes in 1760, albeit from the source associated with Russell.

In the year 1760, an anonymous writer, in an extended posthumous fourth edition of Russell's Dissertation on Sea Water, made various observations about Epsom water culminating in a damning indictment. He stated that many years ago the salt of Epsom water was purported to be counterfeited. When the practice was discovered it was looked upon as a cheat. This however was not so bad, the salt being available through shops. These assertions were repeated in the anonymous supplement to the 1769 edition of Russell's Dissertation on Sea Water.[14]

Clarification as to what had gone on comes from an unexpected contemporary source. Dr Linden throws an interesting light on the credibility and understanding of mineral salts generally and Epsom in particular. Linden had earlier published on mineral waters in 1752 with his Treatise on the Chalybeate Waters[15] and was an established authority when he included a text on Epsom in his Llandrindod (1754/61) thesis. The principal source material for historical accounts of Llandrindod Spa before the mid eighteenth century is Dr. D W Linden's Treatise on the Medicinal Waters of Llandrindod.[16] Published in several editions, this important reference work is to the premier Welsh Spa, what Thomas Short's contemporary work is to the northern spas of England. Chemistry as we know it today was still in the realms of alchemy in the eighteenth century and this is apparent from the difficulties encountered in identifying the contents of saline springs. Subscribers for Linden's work included William Owen of Temple-Bar whose mineral water warehouse and publishing business are mentioned elsewhere. Linden visited Llandrindod in August 1754 and his text dates from that time.

Linden states that Stahl, Neuman, Hoffman and many other notable "physics" had concluded that the salts of all mineral waters, whether hot or cold, were of the same species, a natural "Sal Mirabile" the basis of which was common salt. If extracted and added to water it gave the same efficacy as the mineral water. Common salt was believed to be the father of all salts with variations resulting from natural and artificial processes. Epsom mineral waters were renowned throughout Europe at the time. Experiments with the artificially produced salts gave the same result and were therefore similarly named Epsom Salts. They also became renowned throughout Europe. They declared at first that the artificial salt was equal in goodness and purgative power to the natural salt of Epsom. This was endorsed in the spring of the year 1721 when Hoffman introduced the similar waters of Seidlitz to European Royalty through a Royal physician. Stahl went further and declared the newly discovered Seidlitz waters to be superior to Epsom Salts. Half the quantity of Seidlitz gave a comparable purge. This conclusion was based on Hoffman's disputation. Unfortunately subsequent experience indicated that the artificial salts weakened the human frame unlike the natural mineralised waters. Hoffman himself observed the volume of artificial Epsom Salts being dispatched in large casks for less than six pence a pound. This was being produced from the bitterns after evaporating sea water and included a contaminant which he described as "aluminious acid". It became apparent that there were other less desirable salts that fell into the genus of "Sal Mirabile".[18] In the meantime the reputation of true Epsom Salts had been destroyed through the negative effects experienced with the artificial salts and the superiority of Seidlitz mineral water.

With regard to sea water, Linden is quite adamant that such fashionable medicine contained so many "crudities" that it was also detrimental to the human body.[19]

Other authors joined in the chorus condemning artificial Epsom Salts, known generally as bitter purging salts, at this time. Lucas (1756) condemned those who had little knowledge of the "chemic arts" for supplying the public with an unnatural substitute and falsely calling it Epsom Salts. The true salts were to be preferred to any artificial solution.[20] Dr Rutty, a doctor of considerable repute had voiced his opinion just previous in 1757. He carried out a detailed evaluation and found artificial crystals of different shape. They were more soluble than the genuine Epsom Salts and cause blood to go more florid. The artificial were a cheat when sold as native salts. He further observed that the salt makers of Lemington (sic) were the greatest traders using a manufacturing process developed by John Brown. Newcastle was a further source of the manufactured product.[21]

It is worthwhile considering the science used in evaluating mineral waters at this time. The problem being addressed was how to ascertain the qualities of a mineralised water? Should it be by chemistry, a development of alchemy yet still in its infancy and incomplete due to lack of knowledge of the elements? Alternatively tradition had favoured physical properties, taste, smell, discolouration to identify the qualities; but this was opinionated and vague. Medical men had assessed waters by their efficacy in curing ills; a method jeopardised by the vagueness of disease and its cure and the difficulty in quantifying cures which may be partial, delayed, due to other factors or just temporary respites. Bacteriology did not exist and unidentified organic growth caused further bafflement. Such confusion was to last until the latter part of the 19th century when scientific endeavour finally provided deeper understanding.[22] Epsom was thrown into this conflict and the confusions so caused are apparent with 21st century hindsight.

Returning to the 1760 anonymous author of the extended posthumous fourth edition of Russell's Dissertation on Sea Water, this had claimed that Epsom Waters were counterfeited and that this had been long known. A similar theme was also taken up, nine years later, in 1769, by the Lloyds Evening Post which indicated that spa related activity persisted at Epsom Well on a minor scale.[23]

The Post anonymous article suggested that the New Wells had not proved as efficacious as the Old Wells and that Livingstone, seeing his custom returning to the common where the Old Wells were located, had closed the Old Wells. It also suggested that substitute Epsom salts were clandestinely brought in and sold as the real thing. The article contains another interesting observation. Experiments indicated that true Epsom Salts contained more calcareous nitre than other supposedly similar waters.[24] This explains why Acton Salts, as originally developed by the sincere Dr Grew, were not sold as Epsom Salts by Owen; there being no wish to mislead. It also confirms why manufactured salts from elsewhere were seen as a cheat, because they did not exactly replicate the composition or physiological reactions of the true Epsom Salts, in spite of being named Epsom Salts.

The Post article proved to be a prime source of early detail on Epsom and one that was contributory to establishing a doubtful reputation for Livingstone. This related to the suggestion that the New Wells apparently did not posses the virtue of the Old Wells, to the dismay of visitors, and the suggestion of substitution with manufactured salts. Later criticism of Livingstone was focused on his closing of the Old Wells thereby denying the visitors access to the true salts.
Manning and Bray were amongst the first to make use of the Lloyds Evening Post article. Others soon copied. James Dugdale in 1819, a traveller and chronicler of England said of Epsom, "...it even rivalled Bath and Tunbridge, till the knavery of one Livingstone, an apothecary, who contrived to get possession of the lease, diminished and finally ruined its reputation."[25]

This was consolidated into what became an authoritative history by Pownall in 1825.[26]

"The waters.....gradually lost their reputation.....owing to the knavery of Mr John Livingstone, an apothecary."

"From the year 1715, Epsom was gradually deserted, owing to the knavish tricks and frauds of Livingstone the apothecary."

Another source of criticism comes from Swete (1860). Livingstone is described as a clever rogue who, by lies, gained a doubtful reputation as a result of his new well in town, which was established on a false premise. Swete also quotes an unauthenticated explanation for the failure of Livingstone's and other healing springs, which, because of its originality, is worthy of reproducing. Apparently Mrs Deborah Giles, a countrywoman, considered the "Killibit Wells" a pack of nonsense. By this she is referring to saline Chalybeate Wells such as at Tunbridge Wells as part of a diatribe against all wells. A Tinker's jackass, carrying a load of salt, had earlier fallen dead on the spot and had been buried, salt and all. Livingstone's well had apparently unearthed the earlier burial with the result that the water tasted appropriately nasty.[27] The use of the word chalybeate is interesting in that it generally refers to an iron bearing well, albeit usually in minimal quantities, which Epsom waters, may well have had. Most chalybeate wells are also saline. Also such rumour did nothing for Livingstone's reputation and this story needs to be put into the context of the present day interpretation of events.

Malden's 1911 The Victoria History of the Counties of England pursues a similar vein to Pownall and this has cemented the denigration of Livingstone's character. Particularly as the juxtapositioning of the text implies incorrectly that the criticism came from Toland in 1711, a "blue chip" source.[28]

"In 1711, Toland, the famous deistical writer, gives a very flowery description of the beauties of Epsom in a letter to "Eudoxa". But by this date Epsom had come to rely on its general attractions for pleasure seekers, rather than upon its medicinal waters. A quack doctor named Levingstone [sic] sank a rival well, of no particular quality, near the town in 1706...."[29]

Authors such as Denbigh (1981) have perpetuated this character assassination, following in turn the works of Malden (1911) and Home (1901) who in turn had followed Pownall (1825) and Manning and Bray/Dugdale (1819). A typical example of this character assassination is Hunn (1973).

"As the waters began to lose their popularity a cunning pharmacist and quack doctor decided the time had come to discover new wells. Having just established himself as a public benefactor by building almshouses for twelve poor widows, he built the New Wells at Epsom. He opened them in 1706 with the enthusiasm of a 20th century bingo hall proprietor, and managed to disguise from many patrons the fact that if there were any health-giving qualities in the new waters they came not from any miraculous gift of nature, but out of the bottles in his back room. Thomas Allen's splendid History of Surrey seizes this villain by the scruff of his neck." It then goes on to quote Allen in a similar vein to the Victoria County History (above).

Over two hundred years have elapsed and only now, principally due to the researches of Clark, can Livingstone be viewed in a more accurate light as a major entrepreneur who deployed his business acumen and resources into developing Epsom as a major spa. This hypothesis has remained essentially unchallenged since Clark's work in the 1950s and is investigated further in due course.

Summarising, there are four aspects of Epsom's spa that came in for "post-mortem" criticism:

i) Russell taking custom with his Sea Water Cure

This has been suggested by Sunderland (1915), Hunn (1973) et al. Whilst it may have been contributory to the demise, it was not a major factor. The inconvenience of a sea water cure would have offset any benefits which otherwise could be secured by bathing or imbibing at a spa resort or in the case of Epsom salts, at home. Resorts such as Brighton were still undeveloped when Epsom went into demise.

ii) The artificial or manufactured salts being a cheat

This was first noted in the 1720s but was much publicised by the 1750s.

On one hand Hoffman and colleagues are at first endorsing artificially produced Epsom Salts c.1720, according to Linden, but later to change their view. Whereas A Complete English Dispensary for 1722 states, for the first time, the opposite view, details of which are recounted earlier in Chapter 5. "...that abominable cheat which is now sold by the name of Epsom waters..." The anonymous writer in the supplement to Russell, The Lloyds Evening Post, and others all identified the manufactured salts as being counterfeited and inferior.

iii) The closing of the Old Wells

The reason for closing of the Old Wells is a critical issue. The Post (1769) article saw the closing of the Old Wells as a means of forcing custom to the New Wells, which were less efficacious. The mid 18th century saw the demise of Epsom as a spa and the blame for this was placed on Livingstone's activities.

iv) Blaming Livingstone for deception

Livingstone's subsequent disrepute also results from the implication that he is an apothecary who by suggestion passed off the artificial as the real thing, an insinuation from the 1769 Post. The New Wells certainly proved less efficacious and so were suspect.

It is apparent that as the 18th century progressed the animosity against the artificial salts developed into posthumous animosity against Livingstone, endorsed by Pownall (1825) who, by describing Livingstone’s activities as knavish and fraudulent, linked Livingstone directly with a possible deception. These issues are discussed further in due course.

Contemporary with the earlier published criticisms of Livingstone was the disposal of the key spa properties.[31] On the 10th September 1770 the estates of the late John Parkhurst were auctioned at the Spread Eagle, Epsom. Advertised as the Sale of the Manor of Ebbesham, lot ix comprised:

"A Freehold Messuage and Ground, situate upon Epsom Common, called the Old Wells, with the Epsom Mineral Water, so justly and so highly esteemed, now untenanted but lately under let, at per annum £8-6-6."

This was soon followed by the sale of the New Wells properties. In 1775 plots were sold off for redevelopment. Buildings sold included the New or Upper Long Room, the Old Coffee House, the Booth and the Kings Storehouse together with a Bowling Green and The Grove. No mention was made of a well. This was the end of Livingstone's New Wells. [32]

It was also the end of Epsom's aspirations as a spa resort.


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