I find it intriguing the way places and districts come in and out of fashion. Take Bagnigge Wells ( pronounced ‘bag-nidge’). Once, it was the reputed home of Nell Gwyn, who is said to have entertained Charles II at her summer home beside the banks of the fragrant River Fleet, all gardens and Elysian delights.
Then in 1738 it became a popular place of public entertainment when the spring waters were harnessed for their health-giving properties, with people flocking down what is now the Kings Cross Road to take the waters. In turn it became a threepenny concert hall, attracting the lower end of the spectrum. And then it fell out of fashion altogether. Maybe because the public found that the Fleet River was no more than a public cess-pit, or wondered if the cholera epidemics were in some way linked to drinking the putrid waters – whatever, it fell out of favour.
It spent a while as an area notorious for assignations and unseemly conduct – and then it disappeared from view altogether. Bagnigge Wells was ereased from the maps by the middle of the 19th Century, and it is easy to forget that it ever existed. But what of its heyday, when it drew the rich and famous, when it was THE place to see and be seen?
It was in the mid-1750’s that the tenant of Bagnigge Wells House, a Mr Hughes, was pottering about his garden watering the flowers and noticed, as he went about the garden, that the flowers generally died as soon as they were tended to. He mentioned this to a passing medical man by the name of Dr Bevis, who tasted the water and pronounced it rich in iron – an ideal source of the chalybeate medicine so popular at the time for anyone “suffering from their nerves.”
Mr Hughes quickly made the decision: ‘Bugger the flowers, what I need is to drive a big well down into the flowerbeds and make it into a health spa’. He did so and to his delight found that the second well delivered a different sort of water. Hastily he constructed a temple where the two different waters could be brought to the surface, blended, and be sold to the eager populace in gallon jars. A spacious banqueting hall known as the Long Room was built, and Mr Hughes sat back to count the money flowing in, as the water flowed out…
Writers extolled the efficacious qualities of the waters:
“Ye gouty old souls and rheumatics crawl on,
Here taste these blest springs, and your tortures are gone;
Ye wretches asthmatick, who pant for your breath,
Come drink your relief, and think not of death.
Obey the glad summons, to Bagnigge repair,
Drink deep of its waters, and forget all your care.”
© The Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum says this of the mezzotint: “The interior of the long room at Bagnigge Wells, filled with a crowd of tea-drinkers, fashionably dressed in the macaroni manner. The central group consists of a courtesan who stands arm-in-arm with a macaroni, while with her left hand she beckons to another macaroni (right) who bows, hat in hand. On the right. are groups seated and standing at tea-tables; a serving-boy walks (left to right.) holding a tea-tray in one hand, a large kettle in the other. In the foreground (right) a couple in deep shadow sit at a table. Two chandeliers with lighted candles hang from the ceiling. 15 June 1772″
But if you fast-forward twenty years, the clientele had changed. Instead of gout-ridden old men crawling through the undergrowth, there were young ladies in pursuit of randy males wishing to purchase their favours. It became a notorious place of assignation, and also a place to strut your stuff on a Sunday afternoon:
“Thy arbours, Bagnigge, and the gay alcove,
Where the frail nymphs in am’rous dalliance rove.
Where prentic’d Youths enjoy the Sunday feast,
And City Matrons boast their Sabbath’s rest
Where unfledged Templars first as fops parade,
And new made Ensigns sport their first cockade.”
© The Trustees of the British Museum
In the Daily Advertisement for July, 1775, this advertisement appeared:—
“The Royal Bagnigge Wells, between the Foundling Hospital and Islington.—Mr. Davis, the proprietor, takes this method to inform the publick, that both the chalybeate and purging waters are in the greatest perfection ever known, and may be drank at 3d. each person, or delivered at the pump-room at 8d. per gallon.”
- The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum
The middling sort still visited the ornamental gardens to take tea or listen to the concerts or to meander along the banks of the Fleet but the numbers decreased year on year. In 1779 the owner announced the opening for the season and reminded the public of the invaluable health-giving properties of the waters adding that “ladies and gentlemen may depend on having the best of Tea, Coffee, etc., with hot loaves, every morning and evening.”
Hot loaves and coffee maybe, but trade failed to pick up. Even worse, it appears that when houses were constructed in the early years of the nineteenth century, the builder decided that the underground reservoir made a ….very good cesspit! Cromwell’s History of Clerkenwell states:
“Beneath the front garden of a house in Spring Place and extending under the front pavement almost to the Pantheon Gate lies the capacious receptacle of a mineral spring, which in former times was in considerable repute, both as a chalybeate, and for its supposed efficacy in the cure of sore eyes. When Spring Place was erected (c. 1815) the builder converted the receptacle beneath into a cesspool for the drainage of his houses.”
Nice one! The Fleet disappeared from view, the owner of the Springs went bankrupt, and the gardens were sold off to developers. Soon, the very name passed into history, and all that remains are a few etchings to remind us of its story.
Post script: For anyone wanting a really good “get down and get dirty” view of Bagnigge and the way the sewers in the early nineteenth century were developed to transform the area, see the excellent article by ‘Sub-Urban – main drainage of the Metropolis’ here.