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EPSOM AND EWELL WELLS - Chapter 14



Reviewing the demise of Epsom Spa
Dr Bruce E Osborne


With hindsight.

14.1/2/3. Crowds at Epsom Races, 19th century prints from Illustrated London News etc.

Innovation was to prove the foundation for the creation of the great English spas of the eighteenth century. For over 100 years Bristol, Tunbridge, Bath and many other spas were to become great social and economic centres of medicine and leisure. It was not until the early 19th century that changes in market conditions precipitated a decline in the great eighteenth century health resorts. That is with one major exception - Epsom. Epsom suffered a premature demise. By the 1740s Epsom was struggling to survive as a prosperous spa and it is apparent that by the 1750s halfhearted remedial action was being taken in a forlorn attempt to re-establish any claim that Epsom had to remain in the spa/health industry. In attempting to unravel the circumstances which led to this demise it becomes apparent that the period 1690-1730 was critical for the town's development.

It has been shown that two entrepreneurs were responsible for the development of Epsom Spa at the close of the 17th century. Parkhurst, lord of the manor, developed the Old Wells and Livingstone, an apothecary, developed the New Wells. The changes that these two individuals brought about are apparent from the journals of Celia Fiennes which uniquely span this important era. Blame for the demise of Epsom is laid at the feet of Livingstone by many who see him as a knave, implying that he had questionable waters at the New Wells and who forced patronage by closing the Old Wells. Others blame a degeneration of moral tone as the reason for the influential choosing to go to other spas. Russell's promotion of seawater is a third alternative. But there now emerges a fourth alternative, which can now be argued. This is that Livingstone was an innovative pioneer, ahead of his time in terms of public acceptability. Whilst he was alive, he was able to secure and maintain a market position for his New Wells but his death in 1727, with no comparable successor, meant the premature demise of Epsom as a developed eighteenth century spa. This is not the full picture however. Dr Grew's papers on the nature and manufacture of Epsom Salts were also instrumental in changing the public perception of Epsom Salts and Waters.

It has been demonstrated that, following the researches of Nehemiah Grew, manufactured Epsom Salts became available at the close of the seventeenth century. The obvious convenience of such a preparation, both in its availability and ease of use, resulted in numerous manufactories being established. By 1711 Toland further observed the fame of "chymically made" Epsom Salts throughout Europe.[1]

What was apparent was that Epsom Salts, by the 1720s, were a widely known and sought after medicinal aid. For example in 1721 Hoffman identified Seidlitz salts from the Bohemian spring of the same name, now lost due to extensive open cast mining. These bitter aperient salts were similar to those that Grew discovered at the Epsom spring and were unusual for a Continental spring. The salts were present in greater quantities than at Epsom and the evaporated residue became much sought after in England.[2] John Brown, a chemist, stated in 1723, that most Epsom Salt was being manufactured from the "Bitterns" left after the crystallisation of common salt from seawater.[3] A substantial industry was emerging producing artificially made Epsom mineral salt.

We also know however from the German visitor cited by Exwood and the Lloyd's Evening Post (1769) that no Epsom Salts were manufactured from Epsom Wells. The concern expressed underlined an anxiety about the provenance of manufactured Epsom Salts. It has been shown that Grew's patent was under attack by various persons, particularly Francis Moult who contrived to make Epsom Salts at Shooters Hill. It is apparent from the supplement to Dr Russell's work, published in 1760 and 1769, that these manufactured salts were considered counterfeit and inferior - a view endorsed by many eminent authors. The reason for this is given in the Lloyd's Evening Post article of 1769. This is that the manufactured salts were a cheat because they did not contain the same amount of calcareous nitre as true Epsom Salts and that they were introduced clandestinely. This explained why Grew's manufactured salts from Acton were sold as Acton Salts rather than Epsom Salts. It also raises the obvious public concern that Moult and others were selling, as Epsom Salts, manufactured salts which were not a true likeness of the genuine article. Hence the accusation of counterfeiting. The statement in the 1754 Lloyds Evening Post to the effect that the purging waters at the Wells were in good order was obviously made because of the earlier lack of public confidence in Epsom Waters.

Confidence in Epsom Waters was failing because salts of dissimilar composition, but similarly named, were being made elsewhere and then being introduced into Epsom. Much of the blame for this lies with Francis Moult and his usurping the patent of Dr Grew. As the Compleat English Dispensary (1722) has been shown to state, such a discovery should rest under the proper use of persons of integrity.[4] The resulting conclusion is that Francis Moult was the wicked apothecary. But where does this leave John Livingstone, the traditional villain of the peace?

We know, from the geochemical evidence previously cited, that Livingstone's New Wells source was at best weakly charged with Epsom Salts. This is confirmed by the Lloyd's Evening Post (1769) editorial which suggested fresh water entering the well. Livingstone probably drew water from a well that penetrated the chalk aquifer to supplement any meagre supply of mineralised water, the characteristics of which would have been completely different. It has also been established that the Old Wells on the common were unable to meet demand for salts as early as the mid-seventeenth century. In spite of these limitations, Epsom had responded to capital investment in the early eighteenth century and become one of the premier spas of England.

In order to protect his business investments and the prosperity of the town, Livingstone would therefore have initially seen no problem in resorting to artificially made Epsom Salts to fortify the natural supply. This would be a more expedient alternative to topping up the well from elsewhere, as was the practice at the Old Wells. Having closed the Old Wells, Livingstone could later also have used these waters to fortify those of the New Wells, but this is unlikely in view of the negative views on such practices expressed by earlier visitors to the Old Wells. At first the manufactured salts were thought equally, if not more, effective than the natural product. It soon became apparent that this was not so and public reaction to this knowledge may have continually threatened Livingstone's enterprise. Information on fortifying the well with manufactured salts would be dangerous common knowledge and not serve Livingstone's best interests. Granville later discusses other mineral waters being fortified in this manner. This practice would have been straightforward, especially for an apothecary like Livingstone who would have been well acquainted with the chemistry of the day. Livingstone however was unlikely to have appreciated the difference between the artificial product and the natural product when he first developed his enterprising New Wells. A few years after opening the New Wells the prospect of poor natural mineralisation in his well and the artificial alternative discredited from about 1720, must have been a daunting prospect, threatening his investments and livelihood.

When Livingstone died in 1727, if we assume that he had "doctored” the New Wells, then his secret had all the signs of dying with him. Others were less able to perpetuate the secret practice and the reputation of the efficacy of the waters of the New Wells fell into disrepute. This raises the question: was Livingstone a forerunner of the artificial mineral water industry, by using manufactured Epsom Salts to fortify the water from a well that penetrated the prolific chalk aquifer or to supplement the meagre supply of mineralised water from Symonds Well with that from Jessops or the Old Wells?

The experience of Cheltenham indicates that artificially fortifying the waters was carried out, even if it was unacceptable to the public, as late as 1809. In that year Henry Thompson settled in Cheltenham and commenced a series of developments which led to the "Great Epsom Salts Swindle". Thompson sank new wells with the intention of finding original sources of mineral water in the town. As a result he was able to offer a range of mineral waters and a new pump room was erected, eventually to be replaced by the Rotunda spa building. Doubt was cast on the credibility of Thompson's new sources and it transpired that large quantities of Epsom Salts were being thrown into one of the wells daily. A black wagon was noted to travel weekly to Epsom, returning to Thompson's manufactory of Cheltenham Salts. This wagon was believed to be the source of the secret ingredient.[5] An interesting publication appeared in 1820, being a collection of papers presenting arguments for and against the possibility of the Cheltenham Wells being doctored with Glauber and Epsom Salts.[6] The conclusion was that it was better to send patients to take seawater. This reintroduces Dr Russell's theories on seawater expounded during the mid-eighteenth century. Seawater continued to be a rival to the popularity of Epsom Salts.

We can now place the criticism levelled at Livingstone in context. Livingstone's acquisition of the Old Wells was probably purely commercial. It extended his spa interests and when closed it focused the spa activity on his New Wells. In addition he is suspected of using his apothecary's skills to ensure that his New Wells contained sufficient mineralisation to satisfy his clientele.

Was the possible doctoring of the New Wells with Epsom Salts, probably manufactured elsewhere, such a trickery that it warranted the character assassination that ensued thirty years after his death? We may well argue whether this was a deception or merely good business practice, as later carried on by Struve and Schweppe when they sold artificial mineral salts and waters. Livingstone, in conjunction with Parkhurst, without doubt transformed Epsom, ensuring that it competed in the rapidly developing spa marketplace of the early eighteenth century. Celia Fiennes recorded the transition particularly well.

With such proximity to London why then did Epsom fail? Various ideas have already been suggested; however the growing public awareness and public unacceptability of artificially fortifying the well would have had a major effect, particularly if Livingstone had deliberately deceived his clients after 1720. There is no evidence to suggest that this was common knowledge at the New Wells. What became common knowledge was the marketing of counterfeit Epsom Salts from Shooters Hill and elsewhere, and then their use to concoct quasi-Epsom Waters. It is probably this point more than any other, that led to the breakdown of confidence in Epsom Salts and Wells. Supplementing this were the steady improvements in the understanding of chemistry. This revealed that there were real chemical differences in the natural and artificial products which in turn effected the action of the salts on the human body. As a result the crowds departed to spas that could give a quality assurance.

This process would have been accelerated by the improvements in road transport of the 18th century and the desire for the well off to remove themselves from the riff raff of the rapidly expanding working classes. Epsom spa did not decline slowly, it stopped dead and horse racing emerged as the viable legacy, which accommodated all classes in society.

Interestingly, in the anonymous supplement to Dr Russell's work, the point is made that the clandestine use of manufactured salts was not as bad as supposed. Perhaps the visitors found that it was far more convenient and less expensive purchasing salts from the apothecaries rather than excursioning to Epsom for the purge.



14.4. Epsom Old Well in the early 20th century from Home G. (1901) Epsom.

In conclusion, there is no firm evidence to suggest that Livingstone fortified his New Wells. Historians who have viewed him as a knave owe him an apology. That is not to say that there was not a wicked apothecary however. Francis Moult had set about a course of action that undermined public confidence in Epsom Salts and Waters in general. He had deceived the public by naming his manufactured salts as Epsom when they patently came from elsewhere and produced a different mineralisation to the genuine wells. In doing so he had stolen the discoveries of Dr Grew. The mendacity was then extended to other manufacturers of artificial Epsom Salts. This in turn led to a lack of confidence in any mineral source other than the original Epsom Old Wells which Livingstone insensitively closed. Without doubt, following the Lord Chancellor's reprimand, Moult rather than Livingstone justly deserved the title of wicked apothecary. What Epsom doubtless lacked, after Livingstone's death, was a leading entrepreneur who was as enterprising in furthering the spa as the horse racing fraternity were with their interest. But would this have been enough? Perhaps Epsom Wells just lacked an efficacy that could not be bought over the apothecary’s counter.

After the demise of Epsom as a spa, evidence that Epsom salts and mineral water was widely recognised as a medicinal treatment was apparent. Dr Monro noted in 1770 that Epsom was a purging water and that a normal dose would be three pints, to be taken over 2 - 3 hours or over a day depending on the mildness of the action sought.[7] Although the salts were sought after, Epsom town was not enjoying the benefits of a successful spa or even a local salts extraction industry.

Today the Borough motto : "None Such", indicates we are told, the excellence of the Local Authority. With the link between Nonsuch Palace and the development of the alum industry and the exploitation of Epsom Salts, the motto inevitably reminds us of the noble water heritage with its, Epsom Salts and Ewell Springs and the legacy of Horse Racing.[8]


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