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Epsom salts

The original well, restored by the Epsom and Ewell Borough Council
The Medicinal Waters that in the 17th century made Epsom the first spa town in England,
great resort and famous throughout Europe

Epsom salts is the name originally given to hydrated magnesium sulphate, MgSO4.7H20

Millions of people all over the world have asked for Epsom salts, and used it with recognisable effect, without knowing anything about Epsom.

The name was first used, as far as is known, by Nehemiah Grew in 1695. He lists other wells around London, including Barnet, Acton, Dulwich and Streatham, where the water was of the same nature as Epsom. He was granted a Royal patent for "The Way of Makeing the Salt of the Purging Waters perfectly fine...very cheape". But though Epsom gave its name to the water, the quantities available from the Epsom wells were relatively small.

The reasons for the efficacious action of Epsom salts were not known until a long time after its discovery, and magnesium as an element was not discovered until nearly a century later. Medical knowledge was, of course, very much less at that time, so there was correspondingly more scope for waters becoming known for their curative powers. People travelled long distances in the hope that they would be cured of their ills. Some mineral waters were supposed to cure almost everything one can imagine, and, whatever one's ailment, a cure for it could be bought from the chemist.

The first record of the Epsom Well, though it was already famous then, is in an account of 1629 by 2 Dutch diplomats who set out from London on horseback "to see some Royal Castles and Ipson Wells". (incidentally, this account was first published in Holland in 1942!). Lord North, in 1637, claims to have been the first to have told the King's people of the use of Tonbridge and Epsom waters for health and cure, and added that it was a lot cheaper than travelling to Spa on the Continent.

Another Dutchman, William Schellinks, did the only early drawing of the well in 1662. "The practice of the drinking of the water is early in the is drunk on an empty stomach from mugs holding one pint....some drink (up to) sixteen pints in one journey. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results.........putting down sentinels in the shrub in every hot and dry summers the water....has more strength.....people come in such large crowds that the village which is fairly large and spread at least 300 beds is still too small...

Pepys visited Epsom in 1663, and had to find lodging in Ashstead "in a little hole we could not stand upright in" The next day, he came to well and finds a "great store of citizen there, though some of better quality" He drinks two pots and is amused to see "how everyone turns up his a bush". He comes again in 1667, arriving at 8 on a Sunday morning, drinks 4 pints and reports good results, though his companions did not.

A full history of the Wells, from which the above extracts are taken, is given in "Epsom Wells - A new history of Epsom Wells and Epsom Salts" written by Maurice Exwood FIEE FRHistS and published by the Epsom and Ewell borough council. It contains a print of Schellinks' drawing and other illustrations.

How to find the well

Click here for our exact location of the original well where Epsom salts were first discovered


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