As belies its present day ruined state, Reffley Spring has, in fact, had a glorious history, coming to prominence in the middle of the 18th century at the time when the Spa towns elsewhere in the country developed. The wood and spring were visited mainly as a place of healthy recreation rather than for curative purposes. Then in the middle of the 19th century, it became the popular place to go for special occasions, according to the newspaper reports of the time, it may well have been even earlier, but any such events have not been reported.
Over time, the Reffley Wood was reduced in size as trees were felled to supply fuel and wood for building etc. which slowly destroyed its attractiveness and thereby its appeal for visitors. However, it was most likely the coming of the railways in the middle of the 19th century that did most to expand peoples’ horizons. The pace of life speeded up, goods ordered from London, which formerly could take weeks to arrive, would often be received the next day. Similarly it became possible for people to more easily, visit attractions further afield, against which Reffley Wood, would pale in comparison.
The site of the now, sadly neglected spring, is situated within a small patch of privately owned woodland, which at one time was fenced off, situated in the middle of a number of housing estates which have been built upon the land which once belonged to the Reffley Farm. Unless one is familiar with the history of the site, then the only remaining artefact from earlier times that is still visible, is the bason built around the spring, the waters flowing only intermittently these days, which is filled with rubble, and in the centre of which, are the vandalised remains of the square base upon which the obelisk once stood. If one looks around the site, there are still to be found remains of wooden posts from the seating which at one time surrounded the spring and also the perimeter fence. The old bricks scattered around the site are all that now remains of the Temple and the kitchen building that was situated behind it. Of the open lawned area, upon which games of bowls and quoits were once played, there is now no trace. Similarly, the magnificent trees that once surrounded the site are no more, and many of those that do remain, are now smothered by Ivy.
The Reffley Society:
Although it has not proved possible to date the beginning of the Reffley Society with certainty, any further back in time, than Jun 24th 1756-the date of the dedication of the Spring as inscribed on the Obelisk, it can be inferred that this was not the date of the inception of the Society. For instance, the obelisk itself, according to the inscription, states that it replaced an earlier ruined one. Also, a surviving letter written by M. Richardson to Sir Martin ffolkes in 1772, refers to that time, when permission was sought from the ‘owner of the soil’ then, not Sir Martin ffolkes, but Cyril Wyche Esq., for permission to build the bason (sic) to enclose the spring and affix the obelisk in the centre of it, plus some seating. At this time the gentlemen involved referred to themselves as “The Subscribers to Reffley Spring,” they were known by this name for perhaps one hundred years.
Prior to 1756, we can only surmise, that the tradition handed down through the Society, is correct. Had the Society originated in the 18th century, it would surely have held its meetings in one of the Lynn hostelries, not least because several were owned by members rather than incur the inconvenience travelling to Reffley Wood with its lack of conveniences. This supports the contention that the Spring was integral to the existance of the Society. c.f. The novel "Lady of Lynn" by Walter Besant see extraxt in Extras. The fictional 18th century Society meets in a hostelry in Lynn Tuesday Marketplace. It is significant that the Society has stuck to its limit of thirty for its membership, based upon the supposed Cromwellian Edict, banning ‘The Assembly of Thirty or more Men’. If this Edict could actually be found and its date acertained, then this would indicate that the Society had came into existence sometime after the date of the Edict.
From recently discovered newspaper reports, in the Echo and Sphere July 1939-see later section The 1930's to 1950's, it is said that the Society was founded in the year 1650, the year after the execution of King Charles I (the Martyr). This information can only have been obtained from Mr Ellis Middleton Hon. Sec. of the Society at that time. It was around this time (1930’s) that mention appears in press reports of the Society’s Cromwellian origins. Mr Middleton also wrote, most likely to Percy Scoles, who was working on a book about Charles Burney, of the Society’s origins, a copy of his letter is held in the Lynn Library Reffley file.
The date 1650, would fit in with Mr Middleton’s mention of a “Ban on the Assembly of Thirty or more Men”. The only references to such a Ban, in the Laws passed during the Cromwellian period, are to be found in the” Newcastle Propositions” which were actually presented to Charles I twice, which on both occasions he refused to sign, and so were never enacted laws.
There is nothing to be found in the chronological list of Edicts passed by Parliament at the time of the Protectorate, nor in the records held in Norwich or Lynn to suggest that it may have even been a local prohibition. The only matching regulation, to be found, is in the Newcastle Propositions which were put before King Charles 1, but were never given royal assent. It was no easy task unearthing it, even with the benefit of the internet. It therefore, seems most unlikely that in the 18th century many people would have heard of the ‘Newcastle Propositions’ of a century earlier, let alone have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of their contents, to be able to use one of their provisions in the creation of a romantic history for a newly founded society.
In view of the risks the ‘Bretheren’ ran to make their “rebellion” even on one day a year, they are unlikely to have coined a name for themselves at least initially, for, should it have become known, there was a high degree of risk of reprisals. Since they kept no records had, what would eventually become the Subscribers and later be known as the Reffley Society, died out, most likely after the Restoration, when the political impetus for its continuation no longer existed, then knowledge of its existence would have been lost. This again would suggest the likelihood of its’ continued existence, new members being co-opted as necessary, with probably less than thirty at times and certainly no more.
In light of the fact that what would eventually become the Reffley Society, was formed in reaction to the political despotism of the Cromwellian Protectorate, it is interesting to note that the events of those times are to some extent, mirrored in reverse today, starting with Heath’s act of political treachery in 1973, signing the United Kingdom into the Common Market, which he knew full well, was intended to become the Federal EU. Our Rights, Liberty and Sovereignty are being handed over to unelected Eurocrats and the Continental invasion this time, is not military but bureaucratic and (il)legal; it is progressively removing the benefits brought about by William’s earlier ‘Invasion’- our Common Law rights, through a tidal morass of regulations. Also the brutal treatment by William III of the Scots and Irish is still playing a part in the disruption of the Brexit process. The EU’s agenda for the break-up of the UK into regions, plays into this - Wales N.Ireland and Scotland being designated regions- whereas England is to be broken up into 9 separate ‘regions’ Threatens to bring to an end, the benefits the UK has enjoyed from the 'Glorious Revolution'. One can envisage that those ‘bolder spirits’ from 17th century Lynn, who formed what would eventually become the Reffley Society, would be similarly disaffected today.
One hundred years later after William 3rd landed on English soil at Brixham Torbay , such was the enthusiasm with which the country celebrated the ‘Centenary of the Glorious Revolution,’ on the 5th November 1788, especially in Norfolk, that mention of the Subscriber’s celebrations at Reffley Spring came to be recorded in the Norfolk Chronicle. This appears to be the first published reference to the Reffley Subscribers as they were then known.
n.b. There is an earlier reference to Reffley Spring and its popularity with the general public in” The History and Antiquities of the County of Norfolk” Vol 5 by Crouse Jan 1 1781. However,” An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk” by Parkin Vol iv 1775.has no reference to Reffley Spring. Nor is there any mention of Reffley Spring in” The History and Antiquities of the Flourishing Corporation of King’s-Lynn in the County of Norfolk” by Benjamin Mackerell 1738. Reffley Spring would, therefore, appear to have begun to grow in popularity with the general public from the middle of the 18th century.
Unfortunately, there is no record of when the earlier Reffley ‘Bretheren’ became the Reffley “friendly” Society, as such. This could have been at any time in the 18th century as ‘clubs and societies of all descriptions began to flourish throughout the country. It could even have been set in motion by the events following the ‘Subscribers’ decision to invite the eminent Dr Burney, who was established in Lynn at that time, to become one of their number. Toasting must have played an important part in the ‘Subscribers’ annual gatherings, as that custom has a tradition going back many centuries before the formation of the Reffley ‘Bretheren’, and although springs traditionally were dedicated to a ‘deity’, it is not so certain how much of a part this had played a part in the ‘Bretheren’s earlier activities.
Therefore, Dr Burney with his association to Thomas Arne (who must have paid a visit to Burney in Lynn at some point) and their music for the popular Vauxhall Gardens in London, could well have taken the pre-existing custom of mixing spring water with spirits for the toasts, and elaborated it into the ceremony appearing in the Cantata, as well as creating the Dedication Ceremony to Venus and Bacchus -who had become popular through the mysteries of Ancient Rome and its Mythology, having captured the publics’ imagination at that time. It came about through the popularity with wealthy ‘young things’ to take the ‘Grand Tour’ effectively an extended holiday in the warmer climes of southern Europe and return with ‘souvenirs’: statues carvings and artifacts from Roman antiquity,- maybe their intention could have been for occasional fetes to be held at Reffley Spring after the style of Vauxhall Gardens. The Norfolk Chronicle in the early 1800’s does note that it “often had occasion to report on the fetes at Reffley Spring”, though many of these reports no longer appear to exist.
Reffley Spring was at the height of its popularity from the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, and it was most probably the coming of the railways which gradually led to its decline in popularity with the general public. Sadly, vandalism can now be seen to have been a recurring element throughout the history of the Reffley Society at Reffley Spring, indeed, almost from its very beginnings. Though the “tide may have gone out” on Reffley Spring as a “resort” for the people of Lynn and elsewhere, and for the Bretheren’s Temple situated there, but it certainly has not, for the Reffley Society, itself.
The Society still takes its membership from ‘men of good repute’, and is said to have some very influential people amongst its membership. Although the Society no longer meets at Reffley Spring, and sources its chalybeate waters elsewhere these days, it still continues the tradition of “conviviality and good fellowship”, handed down from its founding forefathers, albeit in a more restrained format, in its annual meetings.
It is still hoped that a suitable public site may yet be found, where the sphinxes, stone table and obelisk can be safely situated on public view. Currently, the sphinxes are back at Hillington Hall and the other items are held in secure storage.