Above: Site of the original well. The plaque reads ‘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.’
The chalybeate springs of Hampstead, known as Hampstead Wells, are generally agreed to have started in 1698. The Wells charity was founded in that year. Chalybeate means that the water was impregnated with iron which was in the ground from which the water rose. The water would have tasted awful but those who sold it probably said that the worse it tasted the more good it was doing the recipient.
It was due to the pure air which had been acknowledged from the 16th century and mineral waters which were known from the mid-17th century that Hampstead started to develop. Commercial exploitation of the waters was well advanced by about 1700 when both the Flask public houses existed – the fashionable Upper Flask (originally called the Upper Bowling Green House) at the northern part of Heath Street and the Lower Flask in Flask Walk near the High Street.
The Long Room was erected on the south side of Well Walk. This comprised a Pump Room where the chalybeate water could be drunk by those visiting the wells and an Assembly Room for dancing, concerts and other forms of entertainment.
The expansion after the Long Room opened was rapid. In Well Walk, social activities pushed settlement farther eastward. Inns, shops, and lodging houses sprang up throughout Hampstead to cater for invalids taking the waters and for more active visitors. According to one account in 1724, Hampstead had grown ‘from a little country village to a city’ where the popularity of both the place and the diversions had ‘raised the rate of lodgings and that increased buildings’.
The eastern extremity of Hampstead was on the Wells charity estate on either side of Well Walk, where 100 trees had been planted by 1700 and there were two houses, a dancing room, shops, and stables by 1704. The dancing room was presumably the Great Room or first Long Room, on the south side. Wells House was built next to it probably before 1722 – for gambling. The height of the popularity was short-lived. The wells had lost their fashionable cachet by 1725 and the ‘in-crowd’ had moved on to other locations.
It should be mentioned in passing that the ‘in-crowd’, who consisted of a large number of wealthy gentlemen and ladies who had nothing better to do with their time than find ways to amuse themselves by day and to gamble by night, often were to be seen at the wells in Hampstead. When they became bored, after a few weeks, they often took coaches to another favoured location – Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, about 60 miles away. As its name suggests, the town was also famous for its wells. Unlike those at Hampstead, whose waters cannot be seen today, the waters at Tunbridge Wells are still visible.
In the 1730s a new Long Room and Ballroom were built in Well Walk adjacent to Burgh House. Attempts were made through subscriptions and higher-priced tickets for balls, concerts and other events to attract a more ‘discerning clientele’ than the previous long room. When the Second Long Room closed down at the end of the 18th century, Hampstead’s days as a spa were over. However, the Wells period had encouraged substantial development in Hampstead and bolstered the area’s reputation.
The wells remained famous until the 1880s. Crowds flocked to drink at the wells and those who could not travel so far were offered flasks of the water at inns in the City of London. Flask Walk, just off Hampstead High Street, is named from the water sold for drinking elsewhere. The Flask pub, at 14 Flask Walk, also derives its name from spring water being sold in a flask.
A short distance from the site of the spring is the Wells Tavern, at 30 Well Walk, on the corner with Christchurch Hill. There is a panel on the wall giving its history. Such panels often carry some dubious details in the text but, nevertheless, its makes for an interesting read –
‘The story of the Wells Tavern reflects the history of Hampstead Spa. The Chalybeate waters which began to be exploited in 1701 by John Duffield. On May 10 of that year, the ‘Postboy’ announced that the Wells at Hampstead will be opened on Monday next with good music and dancing all day long with accommodation for water drinkers of both sexes. The society which frequented the place included Court ladies – all air and no dress – at one extreme and an endless number of Fleet Street sempstresses at the other. The Wells Tavern stood within a stone’s throw of the springs and was known by various titles, including the Green Man and, in 1721, the White Stone.
‘As the reputation of the area grew worse, a local tavern, assumed to be the Wells Tavern, provided all the facilities for celebrating unpremeditated clandestine marriages. The Tavern was rebuilt and enlarged to include an adjacent house. Its later name of Wells Tavern remains to this day.’
Well Side, in Well Walk, was the side of the old Hampstead Pump Room.
As has already been mentioned, the development of Hampstead Wells was the main cause of the village’s rapid growth. The position of Hampstead beside the heath meant that it would be a popular location anyway. The days of the wells are long gone but echoes of their presence still linger between Hampstead High Street and Hampstead Heath.