Fringe Box



Belief For Centuries That Surrey’s Water Can Cure Ailments

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

By David Rose

Does the water from the Surrey Hills contain healing properties? It would certainly seem that over the years people have believed so. The spring at St Catherine’s, beside Ferry Lane, is one such place.

The spring at St Catherine’s.

During the 1930s and onwards for a few years, there was a popular local magazine called the Guildford Outlook. Unlike the local newspapers of the time, it ran off-beat stories and features, and was not scared to take local authorities to task over things it believed were not being done for the public good.

However, in its February 1937 edition it published a letter from a reader who stated: “Some years ago I was introduced to a lady in London who had very inflamed eyes and they discharged frequently. She told me she had had bad eyes for two years and had tried several remedies. I told her that St Catherine’s water was believed to be good for the eyes. She said she would be thankful if I could send her a bottle. I sent her two pints of St Catherine’s spring water. Three weeks later she informed me that her eyes were then normal, and so far as I know, continue to be so…”


St Catherine’s spring in the 1930s, at about the time the story of the water’s reputed healing properties was featured in the Guildford Outlook magazine. Thanks go to fellow local historian Stan Newman for the photo and information he found in back copies of the Guildford Outlook.

In the April 1937 issue of the same magazine there was another letter noting that the water of St Catherine’s spring had been subject to some analysis in 1935.

The writer stated: “An analysis of the water from St Catherine’s spring by Counties Public Health Labs in London in May 1935, shortly before the stream was altered concluded: ‘It is a clear and bright water of normal colour and neutral reaction. The water contains no excess of saline matter, is free from metals, and is hard in character, the hardness being largely of a temporary nature. The water is of a high degree of organic quality and of bacterial purity. In fact, it is not unlike Guildford’s public supply.’”


The plaque beside the stream at St Catherine’s.

I wonder whether the whole thing was a bit of a ruse. The original reader’s letter reads very similar to the kind of fabricated testimonials that were commonly found in Victorian newspapers and magazines for various quack remedies and cures. They were actually advertisements, but designed to be read as if they were someone’s honest opinion.

I do not know whether the water at St Catherine’s spring was actually tested in 1935, but the report from the ‘Counties Public Health Labs’, whatever that was, sounds a bit fanciful too. And the final comment, of it being just like the public supply, makes an excellent punchline to what I think was a joke.

But people do still collect water at St Catherine’s – you may have seen them, or you may do it yourself. Evidently, it is perfect for home brewing!


The fountain at Hascombe. Note the modern warning that the water is considered unfit to drink!

Another spring where water can be collected is at the fountain at Hascombe, near Godalming.

It was built in 1877 by Edward Lee Rowcliffe (1825-1898), in memory of his brother Henry. A notice beside it states that the water is piped from a spring in the side of the hill bordering nearby Hoe Lane.

Mr Rowcliffe built another fountain in 1893 near the junction of the B2130 and A281 “for the refreshment of wayfarers”. It is no longer operational.

He was a successful lawyer and in 1864 bought Hall Place, a house near today’s Dunsfold Park.

He bought up other land locally, and by 1890 was one of two landowners who owned most of the parish of Hascombe.

One of his contemporaries, the Rev Vernon Musgrave (rector from 1862 to 1906) describes Rowcliffe as “one of the truest friends and most generous benefactors that Hascombe has ever known”.

The quotation engraved above the fountain is from the book of Revelation, chapter 22, verse 17: “Whosoever will, let him take from the water of life freely.”

I am not sure whether people have taken the Hascombe waters for medicinal purposes, but today there is a sign next to it stating that the water from the fountain is untreated and not considered fit for drinking.

Probably a sign of the times, in which the parish council has taken the step to safeguard itself in case anyone sups from it and then develops a nasty tummy bug.

However, people do go there to fill up their plastic containers. More home brew enthusiasts, presumably.


For a short time Epsom became fashionable for its spa water – until chemists worked out the properties of Epsom Salts.

Everyone has used or heard of Epsom Salts. Wikipedia kindly supplies the scientific description: “Magnesium sulfate (or magnesium sulphate) is a chemical compound containing magnesium, sulfur and oxygen, with the formula MgSO4. It is often encountered as the heptahydrate epsomite  (MgSO4·7H2O), commonly called Epsom salt, from the town of Epsom in Surrey, England, where the salt was distilled from the springs that arise where the porous chalk of the North Downs meets non-porous London clay.”


The original well from which Epsom’s spa water was drawn is still there today.

The story of the spa that developed at Epsom in the 17th century and the hundreds of people who flocked there to drink the waters with its health-giving properties goes like this: A villager called Henry Wicker was looking after animals on Epsom Common in a dry summer, when there was a shortage of water for cattle. He found a trickle of water in the hollow hoof-print of a cow, and dug a hole around it before taking his cattle home for the night.

The next day he found the hole was running over with clear water. But his cattle, however thirsty, would not drink from it because of its mineral taste. Wicker, himself, tried the water and was the first person ever to experience the effects of Epsom salts. He then set about promoting the waters as a medicine.

People soon began to flock to the spot to drink the water. A Dutch visitor in the 1660s wrote: “Epsom is a very famous and much visited place, very pleasant, and that because of the water which lies not far from there in a valley, which is much drunk for health reasons, having purgative powers, being sent in stoneware jars throughout the land, being a spring, and is with a wall around enclosing a raised well, and the ground paved with bricks.

“It has in the middle an opening in the ground for the water flow. This well stands at the rear of a small house in which there are some small rooms, and many people come there to drink, also to shelter from the sun.

“The practice of the drinking of the water is early in the morning and from then until 8, 9, 10 o’clock. It is drunk on an empty stomach from stoneware mugs holding about one pint.

“Some drink 10, 12, even 15 or 16 pints in one journey, but everyone as much as he can take. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results.

“Gentlemen and ladies have their separate meeting places, putting down sentinels in the shrub in every direction. It has happened that the well is drunk empty three times in a morning, in hot and dry summers when the water has more strength.”

Although the town grew and began to prosper after a second well was dug, its popularity soon began to fade. Other spa towns such as Tunbridge Wells and Bath were just that much more popular – helped no doubt by their royal patronage.

Epsom’s death-knell was sealed when chemists worked out the secret ingredients in the water and what gave it its medicinal quality.

It wasn’t long before Epsom Salts were soon cheaply available over their counters. You no longer needed to go to Surrey to take them!


Stoneware bottle used to take Godstone’s Iron Peartree Water to London. This one is in the collection at East Surrey Museum. Haslemere Museum has another. Yet another was sold at auction a few years ago for more than £1,000.

There was once yet another Surrey village where odd-tasting water with seemingly healing properties was found.

During the 1750s at Godstone, water was drawn from a well, bottled in either two- or three-gallon jars, and dispatched to London three times a week. This was the Iron Peartree Water.

The story goes that it was discovered by a landlord called Bonwick, who had sunk a well in the garden of an alehouse next to a pear tree that bore extremely hard fruit. The water, on the other hand, cured his gout, so he began to sell it.

Later on, people began to visit Godstone to sample the water direct from the well, courtesy of a man called William Halcombe. Or if they preferred, in the comfort of the White Hart inn within the village, from Henry Baldwin, who sold it for a shilling a bottle.

In London, it could be obtained at two shillings a bottle from a Mr Davis, “Purveyor of Water to His Majesty”, in St Alban’s Street; at Mr Eyre’s Mineral Water Warehouse at Temple Bar; and at Mr Cartwright’s, at the George Inn in Southwark.

The last mention of waters from the Iron Peartree well is from 1779. A villager from Godstone by the name of Russell, who evidently had had gout every year since the age of 12, “had a mind to try the effects of the water and got the well opened, being after Christmas, to drink the water and had no fit in that year, and continuing to drink it at times, had none ever after”.

It seems therefore that the waters which, at one time and still do, spring forth in Surrey villages may have the powers to cure all kinds of ailments – from sore eyes to gout, or as a laxative, or just perfect for making that delicious pint of home-made beer!

One Response to “Belief For Centuries That Surrey’s Water Can Cure Ailments”

  1. Mary Alexander says:

    Guildford Museum also has a bottle for Iron Pear Tree water. It was on display for many years but is currently in store. It can be seen on request.

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