Spas and Wells in London and around

It is not very well known that within the boundaries of what is now Greater London, lay a number of spas where the water was indicated to be of healing quality and thus frequented by many people in the past.

I live close by one in Kilburn – more of which later in this post – so I decided to investigate just what I could find out about other such spas within London and what they were renowned for, and when.

There is a fabulous text written in 1910 by Alfred Stanley Ford which attempts to cover all the spas in London that he could discover and this book I am going to abridge and quote from as appropriate. Other references are to be found at the bottom of the text.

Springs, Streams and Spas of London

Alfred Stanley Foord


[Extracted from:}

Outside the City of London, in the western suburbs there are 3 good sized brooks: the Hole-Bourne; the Ty-Bourne; and the West-Bourne. All arise in the higher lands of Highgate and Hampstead.

The Hole-Bourne – means the burn on the hollow or ravine – and these hollows are to be found in Hockley-in-the-Hole (an area of Clerkenwell in central London, roughly where Ray Street Bridge stands near Farringdon Road) and Black Mary’s Hole (aka Bagnigge Wells), also in Clerkenwell.

Black Mary’s Hole or Well, was a small hamlet on the bank of the Fleet River and Black Mary’s Field was nearby. The iron impregnated water of the well was supposedly good for sore eyes.

This area was noted not only for the well and the waters but also for highway robbery in the 1730s and perhaps more unusually, as a gay cruising ground in the early 1700s.

Although well known also as Bagnigge Wells because the River Bagnigg passed through it, the land was leased at one point to a Mary, who kept a black cow in the field, and who mixed her milk with the water to enhance the drink. But there are other stories according to the Dabbler about the origin of the name and it may actually have belonged to a free black woman, possibly one Mary Woolaston who looked after the well at one point. The well is of course, no longer visible from the street level.

It is also worth noting that many of these streams were altered or covered when the railways were built, and indeed the Hole-Bourne’s stream bed is used near Farringdon by the Met Line.

Further down the Hole-Bourne (see Holborn) runs into the Fleet River which was navigable up to this point as was evident by the street names such as  (Old)Seacole/Seacoal Lane. Fleet is the Anglo-Saxon word meaning tidal inlet and probably held the oldest tidal mill in the world (Roman in origin it is thought). So many wells were built along the Fleet that in the 13th century it was known as the River of Wells.

The main source of the Fleet comes from Hampstead Heath, down Flask Walk, by Willow Road (once a steep ditch) to South End Green and Kentish Town Fields. From the East a small stream near the current railway line joined it, and still further east was the Ken (Caen) Wood Springs.

The Ty-Bourne which was originally named the Teo-burna, which most likely means the two arms forming a delta around Thorney Island (Thorney Street) on which Westminster Abbey was built.

Like the other 2 burns it rises in Southern Hampstead in the Shepherds (Conduit) Fields. These fields separated Hampstead from Belsize Park and Kilburn and contained the Shepherd’s Well which later became neglected and thus a swamp of brackish water and then drained by railway construction. The fields could be exited by College Lane. Apparently the water never froze and was thus in great demand even though there was a well nearby at Kilburn.

The Tyburn went down Fitzjohn’s Ave to Belsize and thence to Regent’s Park. It crossed Marylebone Lane twice and then Oxford Street.

Some ancient maps identify the Tyburn as the Aye or Eye brook taken from the name of the ancient estate of Eia. It has also been known as the Mariburne brook. So we see that it is often difficult to trace the route of a river or stream from maps and texts as at different times not only did they flow in different places/directions but were also called by different names according to local estates and so on.

The West-Bourne was a larger stream and rose close by the Tyburn and was the source of a small pond on the South Western Heath and thence to the Frognall Estate where there was an arch over it. As it flowed towards the Great North Road the Kilburn joined it.

The Kilburn came from a small nunnery and crossed Edgware Road under a 13th century into a low lying meadow and was then joined by another small brook coming from Willesden Lane.

Kilburn may take its name from the Saxon for ‘cattle stream’ or someone called Cylla (a C was pronounced then as a K). The stream has been called Cuneburna, Kelebourne, or Cyebourne.

As Watling Street crossed the brook, a small community of nuns – Augustinian – was founded in 1134 – when Belsize Road meets the High Road. It was dissolved by Henry 8th and nothing is now left but the Red Lion pub may have been the convent’s guest house originally. In 1714 a chalybeate (iron impregnated) spring was enclosed and was considered a cure for stomach ailments. However, it is suggested that Belsize House may have also been of as much importance as the spring it stood alongside, as this was where bare knuckle and dog fighting took place – common entertainments of the time at ale houses. This area was also well known for highway robbery it seems.

Kilburn Wells, near Paddington.—The waters are now in the utmost perfection; the gardens enlarged and greatly improved; the house and offices re-painted and beautified in the most elegant manner. The whole is now open for the reception of the public, the great room being particularly adapted to the use and amusement of the politest companies. Fit either for music, dancing, or entertainments. This happy spot is equally celebrated for its rural situation, extensive prospects, and the acknowledged efficacy of its waters; is most delightfully situated on the site of the once famous Abbey of Kilburn, on the Edgware Road, at an easy distance, being but a morning’s walk, from the metropolis, two miles from Oxford Street; the footway from the Mary-bone across the fields still nearer. A plentiful larder is always provided, together with the best of wines and other liquors. Breakfasting and hot loaves. A printed account of the waters, as drawn up by an eminent physician, is given gratis at the Wells. [The Public Advertiser, July 17, 1773.]kilburn-wells-hampstead-london-c1820

Although the well declined in the 19th century there was still water sold in 1841. The Bell pub was known then as the Kilburn Wells and was regarded as a nice tea garden now rather than a place of rough entertainment. The pub was rebuilt in 1863.

I will write more of other wells and spas in later posts. Most well known wells were also spas and had grand gardens and entertainment to ensure visitors spent their money on the site and were there quite some time. They were also almost the only places where such entertainments could be found.

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