Richmond Wells

by Simon Fowler

What better place to be on a hot day then in a shady park, with friends and a little something to refresh the palate. The Georgians excelled in such Pleasure Gardens. The best known was Vauxhall Gardens in south London, a vast complex of walks, music stages, food and drink booths and, for the unwary, cutthroats and prostitutes.

For the proprietors, pleasure gardens could be very profitable. And, as a result, they
spread rapidly around London. One of the most popular, at least for a while, was the
Richmond Wells, which was roughly between the Poppy Factory and Terrace Gardens off Petersham Road. It began as a spa where people came to sip the supposedly
health-giving properties of a chalybeate spring, that had been discovered during the 1670s. The water had similar properties to Epsom salts. But by 1696 the Wells had become a pleasure garden, open every day during the summer months between May and September. In 1730, the grounds included a pump room, assembly and gaming rooms.

The gardens offered a wide range of entertainments for a discerning audience. In its early days it boasted the presence of John Abell, one of the most prominent singers and composers of the day. A visitor to the town in 1724 noted that there were balls on Monday and Thursday evenings. And advertisements promised that: “There is an extraordinary set of music to play mornings and evenings and on Mondays will be a select band of music from the Opera that perform the most celebrated opera songs accompanied with the harpsichord, French horns, flutes and German flutes.”

Patrons were mixture of affluent men and women who either had escaped from London for the summer months, and those who had just come for the day. Many of whom must have been rowed up from London, for an advertisement in 1705 reassured possible guests that “The tide of flood begins at 1 o’clock, flows to 5, and ebbs to 12, for the convenience of returning.” And, in May ,the proprietor was able to boast that “Stairs at the waterside are new built for the convenience of the company.”

It was gambling which led to Richmond Wells’ downfall. In 1730 the gardens were offering “card-playing and raffling: gold chains and equipages, and, many other curious toys and fine old China, being put up as prizes.” Gradually the fashionable clientele, put off by the loss of respectability, found other places to frequent. By the 1750s it was attracting a noisy and rowdy crowd who disturbed the local inhabitants.

Two sisters Rebecca and Susannah Houblon, who lived almost opposite the Wells, purchased the buildings in 1763 and closed them down – much to the relief of many local residents. No trace of the Wells survives: not even a painting.

This article was originally published in Twickenham and Richmond Tribune on 12 August 2022.