Posted by: Andrew Haynes30 JUN 2014
For many years I attended Royal Pharmaceutical Society local meetings held at Barnet Hospital. The hospital is in Wellhouse Lane. I love that address. After all, who would want to visit a hospital in Sickhouse Lane?
But historically, Wellhouse Lane has a different connection with health, since the road leads past the hospital to a now-defunct well that was once celebrated for the supposed health-giving properties of its water.
In about 1650 a chalybeate spring was discovered on Barnet Common and it became a fashionable resort for Londoners attracted by its alleged medicinal properties. The effect of water from such a well was to stimulate urination, an action that was thought to help restore the body’s humours to their natural balance.
In 1656 the parish built a wellhouse, and for a while the well was so popular that Barnet almost became a spa town. The water was also bottled for sale in London.
And so it was that 350 years ago, on 11 July 1664, the diarist Samuel Pepys rode north to Barnet “to see the Wells”. After lunch at the Red Lion (which still exists) he continued to the well and drank five glasses of water. He reported: “The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full — but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home … and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well.”
However, Pepys then recorded: “And not being very well, I betimes to bed, and there fell into a most mighty sweat in the night, about eleven o’clock; and there … I begun to sweat worse and worse, till I melted almost to water.”
Despite that off-putting experience, Pepys made another visit to Barnet three years later. This time he took only three glasses of well water before retiring to the Red Lion, where he “ate some of the best cheese cakes I ever did eat in my life”.
By the end of the 17th century Barnet’s well had fallen out of favour and in 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that it was “almost forgotten”. However, in 1808 the wellhouse was rebuilt with a subterranean arched chamber, and brought back into popular opinion by the writings of a local doctor, William Trinder. Again, its popularity was short-lived, and the building was removed in 1840.
An analysis of the water in 1907 found it to be unfit for drinking and of no medicinal value. A further analysis in 1922 found that the well offered “a slightly ferruginous, highly saline and alum water, containing an excess of organic matter and a large number of ordinary bacteria”, making it “unsuitable for ordinary domestic use”.
Despite all this, another new wellhouse was built in 1937. Now designated as a Grade II listed building, it can still be seen in Well Approach. And the well’s history is also commemorated in local road names such as Trinder Road and Pepys Crescent.