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Chapter 6. Sadlers Wells. - John Ashton 1888

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Sadler's Wells does not really feed the Fleet River, but I notice the spring, for the same reason that I noticed the White Conduit.

A very fair account of its early history is given in a little pamphlet entitled "A True and Exact Account of Sadlers Well: or the New Mineral Waters. Lately found out at Islington: Treating of its nature and Virtues. Together with an Enumeration of the Chiefest Diseases which it is good for, and against which it may be used, and the Manner and Order of Taking of it. Published for publick good by T. G. (Thomas Guidot) Doctor of Physick. Printed for _Thomas Malthus_ at the _Sun_ in the _Poultry_. 1684."

It begins thus:--"The New Well at _Islington_ is a certain Spring in the middle of a Garden, belonging to the Musick House built by Mr. _Sadler_, on the North side of the Great Cistern that receives the New River Water near Islington, the Water whereof was, before the Reformation, very much famed for several extraordinary Cures performed thereby, and was, thereupon, accounted sacred, and called _Holy Well_. The Priests belonging to the Priory of _Clarkenwell_ using to attend there, made the People believe that the virtues of the Waters proceeded from the efficacy of their Prayers. But upon the Reformation the Well was stopt up, upon a supposition that the frequenting it was altogether superstitious, and so, by degrees, it grew out of remembrance, and was wholly lost, until found out, and the Fame of it revived again by the following accident.

"Mr. _Sadler_ being made Surveyor of the High Ways, and having good Gravel in his own Gardens, employed two Men to Dig there, and when they had Dug pretty deep, one of them found his Pickax strike upon some thing that was very hard; whereupon he endeavoured to break it, but could not: whereupon thinking with himself that it might, peradventure, be some Treasure hid there, he uncovered it very carefully, and found it to be a Broad, Flat Stone: which, having loosened, and lifted up, he saw it was supported by four Oaken Posts, and had under it a large Well of Stone Arched over, and curiously carved; and, having viewed it, he called his fellow Labourer to see it likewise, and asked him whether they should fetch Mr. _Sadler_, and shew it to him? Who, having no kindness for _Sadler_, said no; he should not know of it, but as they had found it, so they would stop it up again, and take no notice of it; which he that found it consented to at first, but after a little time he found himself (whether out of Curiosity, or some other reason, I shall not determine) strongly inclined to tell _Sadler_ of the Well; which he did, one Sabbath Day in the Evening.

"_Sadler_, upon this, went down to see the Well, and observing the Curiosity of the Stone Work, that was about it, and fancying within himself that it was a Medicinal Water, formerly had in great esteem, but by some accident or other lost, he took some of it in a Bottle, and carryed it to an Eminent Physician, telling him how the Well was found out, and desiring his Judgment of the Water; who having tasted and tried it, told him it was very strong of a Mineral taste, and advised him to Brew some Beer with it, and carry it to some Persons, to whom he would recommend him; which he did accordingly. And some of those who used to have it of him in Bottles, found so much good by it, that they desired him to bring it in Roundlets."

Sadler's success, for such it was, provoked the envy of others, and one or two satires upon the Wells were produced.

* * * * *

Soon after he opened the Wells, Evelyn visited them, as we read in his invaluable diary. "June 11, 1686. I went to see Middleton's receptacle of water[29] and the New Spa Wells, near Islington." The Spring was still known as Sadler's up to 1697 as we find in advertisements in the _Post Boy_ and _Flying Post_ of June, in that year. But the "Musick House" seems to have passed into other hands, for in 1699 it was called "Miles's Musick House." They seem to have had peculiar entertainments here, judging by an account in _Dawk's Protestant Mercury_ of May 24, 1699. "On Tuesday last a fellow at Sadler's Wells, near Islington, after he had dined heartily on a buttock of beef, for the lucre of five guineas, eat a live cock, feathers, guts, and all, with only a plate of oil and vinegar for sawce, and half a pint of brandy to wash it down, and afterwards proffered to lay five guineas more, that he could do the same again in two hours' time."

That this was a fact is amply borne out by the testimony of Ned Ward, who managed to see most of what was going on in town, and he thus describes the sight in his rough, but vigorous language.

"With much difficulty we crowded upstairs, where we soon got intelligence of the beastly scene in agitation. At last a table was spread with a dirty cloth in the middle of the room, furnished with bread, pepper, oil, and vinegar; but neither knife, plate, fork, or napkin; and when the beholders had conveniently mounted themselves upon one another's shoulders to take a fair view of his Beastlyness's banquet, in comes the lord of the feast, disguised in an Antick's Cap, like a country hangman, attended by a train of Newmarket executioners. When a chair was set, and he had placed himself in sight of the whole assembly, a live Cock was given into the ravenous paws of this ingurgitating monster."

In the same year, in his "Walk to Islington," Ward gives a description of the people who frequented this "Musick House."

"---- mixed with a vermin trained up for the gallows, As Bullocks[30] and files,[31] housebreakers and padders.[32] With prize fighters, sweetners,[33] and such sort of traders, Informers, thief-takers, deer-stealers, and bullies."

It seems to have been kept by Francis Forcer, a musician, about 1725, and the scene at the Wells is graphically described in "The New River, a Poem, by William Garbott."

"Through Islington then glides my best loved theme And Miles's garden washes with his stream: Now F--r's Garden is its proper name, Though Miles the man was, who first got it fame; And tho' it's own'd, Miles first did make it known, F--r improves the same we all must own. There you may sit under the shady trees, And drink and smoak, fann'd by a gentle breeze; Behold the fish, how wantonly they play, And catch them also, if you please, you may, Two Noble Swans swim by this garden side, Of water-fowl the glory and the pride; Which to the Garden no small beauty are; Were they but black they would be much more rare: With ducks so tame that from your hand they'll feed, And, I believe, for that, they sometimes bleed. A noble Walk likewise adorns the place, To which the river adds a greater grace: There you may sit or walk, do which you please, Which best you like, and suits most with your ease. Now to the Show-room let's awhile repair, To see the active feats performed there. How the bold Dutchman, on the rope doth bound, With greater air than others on the ground: What capers does he cut! how backward leaps! With Andrew Merry eyeing all his steps: His comick humours with delight you see, Pleasing unto the best of company," &c.

But a very vivid description of Sadler's Wells is given in "Mackliniana, or Anecdotes of the late Mr. Charles Macklin, Comedian" in the _European Magazine_ for 1801 (vol. xl. p. 16):--

"Being met one night at Sadler's Wells by a friend, who afterwards saw him home, he went into a history of that place, with an accuracy which, though nature generally denies to the recollection of old age in recent events, seems to atone for it in the remembrance of more remote periods.

"Sir, I remember the time when the price of admission _here_ was but _threepence_, except a few places scuttled off at the sides of the stage at sixpence, and which was usually reserved for people of fashion, who occasionally came to see the fun. Here we smoked, and drank porter and rum and water, as much as we could pay for, and every man had his doxy that liked it, and so forth; and though we had a mixture of very odd company (for I believe it was a good deal the baiting place of thieves and highwaymen) there was little or no rioting. There was a _public_ then, Sir, that kept one another in awe.

"_Q._ Were the entertainments anything like the present? _A._ No, no; nothing in the shape of them; some hornpipes and ballad singing, with a kind of pantomimic ballet, and some lofty tumbling--and all this was done by daylight, and there were four or five exhibitions every day.

"_Q._ How long did these continue at a time? _A._ Why, Sir, it depended upon circumstances. The proprietors had always a fellow on the outside of the booth, to calculate how many people were collected for a second exhibition, and when he thought there were enough, he came to the back of the upper seats, and cried out, 'Is _Hiram Fisteman_ here?' This was the cant word agreed upon between the parties, to know the state of the people without--upon which they concluded the entertainment with a song, dismissed that audience, and prepared for a second representation.

"_Q._ Was this in Rozamon's time? _A._ No, no, Sir; long before--not but old Rozamon improved it a good deal, and, I believe, raised the price generally to sixpence, and in this way got a great deal of money."

Space prevents one going into the merits of the Theatre here, but it may not be out of place if I mention some of the singers, and actors, who have appeared on those boards--Joey Grimaldi, Braham, Miss Shields (afterwards Mrs. Leffler), Edmund Kean, the great traveller Belzoni, Miss Tree, Phelps, of Shakespearian fame, Marston, and others, testify to the talent which has had its home in this theatre. One peculiarity about Sadler's Wells Theatre was the introduction of real water as a scenic effect. It seems to have been first used on Easter Monday, April 2, 1804, in an entertainment called _Naumachia_. A very large tank was made under the stage, and filled with water from the New River; and in this tank mimic men o' war bombarded Gibraltar, but were repulsed, with loss, by the heroic garrison. Afterwards, it was frequently used for _Spectacles_, in which water was used as an adjunct.

After this digression let us follow the course of the River Fleet. Leaving St. Chad's Well, and before coming to Bagnigge Wells, there stood in Gray's Inn Road an old public-house called the Pindar of Wakefield, the pounder, or keeper of the pound at that town, the famous George a Green, who gave Robin Hood a notable thrashing, extorting from that bold outlaw this confession--

"For this was one of the best pinders That ever I tryed with sword."

This old house was destroyed by a hurricane in November, 1723, when the two daughters of the landlord were killed by the falling walls. It was, however, at once rebuilt, and a public-house, bearing the same sign, exists at 328, Gray's Inn Road -- most probably occupying the original site.