Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
A mineral spring of putative medicinal qualities on Hampstead Heath was known by the mid-seventeenth century. On December 20, 1698, the Countess of Gainsborough and her infant son gave six acres of land, containing the spring, to be used for the benefit of the poor of Hampstead. The gift of the land is recorded on a plaque attached to a monument on the site of the original well on Well Walk in present-day Hampstead: “To the memory of the Honourable Susanna Noel who with her son Baptist, third Earl of Gainsborough, gave this well together with six acres of land to the use and benefit of the Poor of Hampstead, 20 December 1698.” A charity was set up to manage the enterprise so that it could benefit the poor financially. The land, being of poor quality and of little use for farming, the trustees of the charity decided to capitalize on the spring water. Initially, this was in the form of bottling the water for sale in London where it was advertised as being as efficacious as that coming from Tunbridge Wells.
The land, with the exception of the spring, was leased to John Duffield for 21 years on June 2, 1701, on the condition that he should spend £300 over three years to improve the area. Trees were quickly planted and a building programme undertaken. Early advertisements indicate that the gardens were open during the day and that a variety of entertainments were provided: The Postman (September 9, 1701) reads:
In the Great Room at Hampstead Wells on Monday next being the 15th, exactly at 11 o’clock of the forenoon will be performed a Consort of vocal and instrumental Musick by the best Masters, and at the request of several gentlemen, Jeremy Bowen will perform several songs and particular performance on the violin by several masters. Tickets to be had at the Wells and at St. Stephen’s Coffee House in King Street, Bloomsbury at 1s per ticket. There will be dancing in the afternoon as usual.
During the first twenty years of operation, it appears that the gardens attracted a diverse social demographic and that there were few worries over the conduct of the patrons. Warwick Wroth writes that,
When tired of the music and dancing in the Great room, the visitor could adjourn to the bowling green, or to the raffling shops, where the cards were flying and the dice rattling, while fine gentlemen lost their money with “ease and negligence.” There was the promenade in Well Walk beneath the avenues of limes, or a stroll might be taken on the breezy Heath. Court ladies were there “all air and no dress”; city ladies all dress and no air, and country dames with “broad brown faces like a Stepney bun.”—The London Pleasure Gardens, 1896.
With the passing of time, however, the gambling began to attract a disreputable element and people began to think twice about walking about on the heath. More than few disputes arose over allegations of cheating by cardsharps. Still, the building programme continued with the hope of attracting a better class of patron. The Daily Post (May 4, 1723) states:
Are now open. The Use of the Waters are so well known to the Public, that they need no farther [sic] Recommendation, For the Convenience of Gentlemen and Ladies, there is a large new Room compleatly finish’d and furnish’d, far exceeding any Publick Wells. There will be Musick every Morning and Evening for Country Dancing. There are all Conveniences, a very good Tavern, a new Coffee-Room, a Bowling Green in good Order, a Tap-house, Coach-house and good Stables. There are several Shops to be Let on the Walks for the Season. The Expence has been very great, and hopes it won’t want Encouragement. There will be several Diversions too tedious to insert here.
A curious addition to the enterprise was the Sion Chapel. This was a seasonal, unsanctified structure that appears to have operated in the manner of a modern-day, Las Vegas wedding chapel that is open twenty-four hours a day. No bans were required to be read at Sion Chapel and people wishing to marry needed only to show up with an appropriate licence. There was even a price reduction for those who had their wedding dinner in the gardens. The Daily Courant (September 5, 1716) advertised the following:
Sion Chapel at Hampstead, being a private and pleasant place, many Persons of the best Fashion have lately been Married there: Now, as a Minister is obliged constantly to attend, this is to give Notice, that all Persons upon bringing a Licence, and who shall have their Wedding Dinner in the gardens, may be Married in that said Chapel without giving any Fee or Reward whatsoever; and such as do not keep their Wedding Dinner at the Garden, only Five Shillings will be demanded of them for all Fees.
Matters came to a head in 1729 when it was discovered that the poor of Hampstead had never received any advantage from the enterprise. The Chancery intervened and it was discovered that the charitable trust was in complete disarray. The Duffield family owed arrears of some £575 and there were other rents had never been collected. In 1730, John Duffield sold his interest to John Mitchell, who was granted leases for 42 years. The structures on the site were in poor condition, however, and the Great Room was sold off in 1733 and converted into an Episcopal Chapel. It was used for services until 1849. The Pump Room was later repurposed as a guard-room of the West Middlesex Volunteers until it was pulled down in 1880. Today, only the monument containing the water fountain on the site of the original spring still stands. The spring, however, has dried up.