In the early eighteenth-century, the Serpentine in Hyde Park was no large and ornamental lake, but rather a series of ponds described as consisting of dirty and stagnant water which were supplied by the Westbourne, a river which originated in the Hampstead and which, before entering Hyde Park, was joined by the ‘Cool Bourne’ (Kilburn) and a tributary called the Tyburn Brook or Stream. The Westbourne carried on under Knightsbridge to meet the Thames near Chelsea Hospital but, in Hyde Park, it ‘wandered about in a series of ponds’ until in 1730 Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, ordered that it be banked, forming the artificial lake we know today as the Serpentine.
St Agnes’ Well was at the northern end of the lake (it was located about where the statue of Edward Jenner now stands). In the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries the springs of this well had two distinct uses.
St. Agnes’s Well, Hyde Park, considered one of the holy wells, existed as late as 1804, near the head of the Serpentine on its east bank, in a part of Hyde Park formerly known as Buckden Hill. There were two springs: one was used for bathing the eyes, and for the immersion of children, and is mentioned by Dr. Clippingdale in his paper on West London Rivers, as the ‘Dipping Well’; the water of the other, said to be medicinally potent, was sold in glasses by an attendant to visitors, amongst whom were many children of the richer classes, sent by their parents. The water was also taken away in jugs or bottles for consumption at home. It was probably mildly chalybeate.
The image above of the drinking well, showing a paid attendant allowing women and children to fill glasses from the small trough like well is an engraving from an original by the artist, Maria Spilsbury (1776-1820), who lived immediately opposite the site at her family’s house, 10 St George’s Row. Maria would have known this scene well.
The Illustrated London News, in 1908, contained an advert for Pears soap (invented in 1789) which waxed lyrical on the pastoral charms of old Hyde Park.
The spot was one of sweet sylvan beauty, to which mothers and nurses resorted in the morning hours with their infant charges, for the purpose of washing and bathing them in the fresh bubbling spring, caught at its source in a rustic open well. What more delightful mode of having a bath could be imagined than here in the pure open air, with the luxuriant glades dissolving into the distance behind, and deer loitering in the leafy shade? It is, indeed, a scene of grace, natural beauty, and enjoyment.
The dipping well may also be depicted in the painting Juvenile Tricks by Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1808. The notes on the Tate website suggest that, as there appears to be a level of organisation in the boys’ activities in Turner’s depiction, that it might represent an apprentices’ initiation rite.
Illustrated London News, 20th June 1908
Old London’s spas, bath, and wells by Septimus Sunderland, 1915
Maria Spilsbury (1776-1820): Artist and Evangelist by Charlotte Yeldham, Routledge, 2017
Two Engravings (dated 1802) of the Drinking and Dipping Wells in Hyde Park by Sir StClair Thomson, M.D. (from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine)