Reffley Spring in Fiction

    Phillis Hembry, in her books, has suggested that in addition to the attractions of Spas for health and leisure reasons, there were commercial and even political factors underlying their development, however, even she does not tell the whole story. This, surprisingly, is where fiction can come into its own:


    Walter Besant’s 1901 book, The Lady of Lynn, paints a picture of Spa life, that no book of historical facts can convey. Besant was a historian and a prolific writer both of fiction and non-fiction. He combined the two disciplines in his 1901 novel, The Lady of Lynn.


    The Lady of Lynn -of the story; was a three-masted full rigged tall ship of 380 tons, a stout and strong built craft carrying a cargo of wines to Lynn. But not everything is quite as it seems, in this book. The novel tells the fictional story of the ship’s young owner “Molly”, who could equally well be considered “The Lady of Lynn”, and seafaring “young Jack Pentecrosse” her childhood friend, who narrates the story. Additionally, the novel also  vividly describes life in the middle of eighteenth century Lynn, -quoted at length for its relevance to the story of Reffley Spring - as discussed by William Putt:

    A novelist, who dealt with life in Lynn in its prosperous days, and when it was for a brief while a popular spa (in his novel), had his hero describe the town in flattering terms. This was the late Sir Walter Besant, who, in his " Lady of Lynn," has a fair Lynn maiden, Molly Miller, for his heroine " a fact which may have caused Jack Pentecrosse to see the town through rose-tinted glasses. " I have sailed over many seas," he says; " I have put in at many ports; I have taken in cargoes of many countries " the way of sailors I have found the same everywhere. And as for the food and drink, and the buildings, I say that Lynn is behind none. Certainly the Port of London, whether at Wapping, or Limehouse, or Shadwell, cannot show anything so fine as the Market Place of Lynn, or St. Margaret's Church, or our Custom House.

    Nor have I found anywhere people more civil of speech, and more obliging and well-disposed, than in my own town, where, apart from the sailors and their quarters, the merchants and shipowners are substantial; trade is always brisk; sometimes week after week one ship arrives and a ship puts out; the yards are always busy; the hammer and the anvil resound all day long; carpenters, rope-makers, boat-builders, block-makers, sail-makers, all the people wanted to fit out a ship are at work without intermission all the year round, from five in the morning till eight in the evening. They stand at good wages; they live well; they dress warm; they drink of the best. It is a city of great plenty." And Jack goes on to sing the praises of his native port, of the Spanish and Portuguese wines, and the Bordeaux claret which filled its cellars, its trade with Norway and far remoter lands, of the sheep, and hogs, and geese, and wild-fowl of the Fens, and the wonderful fertility of the reclaimed lands. Nor could he, for his father was Master of the Grammar School and an antiquary, though he himself was but a simple sailor " fail to be impressed by the " ancient buildings, walls, towers, arches, churches, gateways," of the town, " fragments which proclaim its antiquity and speak of its former importance." But even the simple sailor could not help admitting that Lynn was a place which ^ It is a pleasure to me to quote Jack Pentecrosse's testimony to the civility and good nature of the inhabitants of Lynn, more especially as the reputation of the townsfolk, as they were in the earlier half of the eighteenth century, may be suffering somewhat in consequence of the lately published opinion of Dr. Pyle (" Memoirs of a Royal Chaplain ") that "The people of Lynn are very fine people" as a man would wish to stick a knife into!"."


    Those readers of "The Lady of Lynn " who know the old port of Fenland, will easily recognise most of the scenes and places described in the novel; for Sir Walter Besant was not content to write without a personal acquaintance with the town. It preserves, he says through his hero " " in spite of neglect and oblivion, more of the appearance of age than most towns. The Guildhall, where they show the sword and the silver cup of King John, is an ancient and noteworthy building; there are the old churches; there are almshouses and hospitals; there is a Custom House, which the Hollanders enviously declare must have been brought over from their country and set up here, so much does it resemble their own buildings. Our streets are full of remains.Here a carving in marble; here a window of ancient shape, cut in stone; here a piece of carved work from some ancient chantry chapel; here a deserted and mouldering court; here a house overhanging, gabled, with carved front; here a courtyard, with an ancient house built round it; and with the narrow streets such as one finds only in the most ancient parts of our ancient cities. We have still our winding lanes, with their irregularities; houses planted sideways as well as fronting the streets; an irregular alignment; gables instead of a flat coping; casement windows not yet transformed by the modern sash; our old taverns; our old walls; our old marketplaces; and the ancient bridges which span the four streams running through the midst of our town." from Some Literary Associations of East Anglia. Putt William A. 1907


    Besant makes a couple of passing references to Reffley Spring in his book referring to it as Riffley’s Spring on one occasion; maybe typical of the hostelries those visiting Reffley Spring would visit on their journey home:


    It was at a place called Riffley’s Spring: the inn is “The Travellers Rest”; it stood just two and a half miles from Lynn, and one mile from the village of Wootton. It was a small house, gloomy, and ill-lighted at the best: there was a door in the middle. The diamond panes of the windows were mostly broken in their leaden frames; the woodwork was decaying; the upper floor projecting darkened lower rooms; in the dim twilight, ….the house looked a dark and noisome place, fit only for cutthroats and murderers…….


He goes on to describe the characters one could have encountered in such an inn:


    There are found scattered scattered about the byroads of the country many small inns for the accommodation of persons of the baser sort. Hither resort on the way from one village to another, the sturdy tramp, whose back is scored by many a whipping at the hands of constable and head-borough. What does he care. He hitches his shoulders and goes on his way, lifting from the hedge, and helping himself from the poultry yard. Here you may find the travelling tinker, who has a language of his own. Here you will find the pedlar with his pack. He is part trader, part receiver of stolen goods.part thief. Part carrier of messages and information between thieves. Here you will find the footpad and the highwayman, the smuggler and the poacher, and the fugitive. If an honest man should put up at one of these places he will meet with strange companions in the kitchen, and with strange bedfellows in the chamber. If they suspect that he has money they will rob him, if they think that he will give evidence against them they will murder him. In a word a wayside inn is a receptacle of all those who live by robbery, by begging, by pretense, by lies and roguery.


   That Besant also makes much of a Lynn “Society” with connections to a spring (admittedly situated in the town) can hardly be a co-incidence.  Although. the “gentlemen” in question, in reality were known as “The Subscribers to Reffley Spring” in the middle of the 18th century, this was dropped over time, and they were commonly called “The Reffley Society” in the late 19th century, when Besant was writing his book.


     But it is his observations of those who established and frequented, the mythical spa in Lynn, that poses the question: were the motives of those who developed Spas in the 18th century, really any different? medicinal qualities dubious at best, and leaning more to the financial than the curative? Also, many of those patronising the springs, probably were only too ready to believe in the “waters” curative powers and the benefits they were said to bestow even “after only one glass.” The primary motivation of the majority of healthy visitors would have been enjoyment, and being part of the trend with no need of the assumed “restorative” properties of the waters.


     The story in the Lady of Lynn, starts in 1747, when Jack is nineteen years old and promoted to the position of mate of “The Lady of Lynn” under Captain Jaggard, then engaged in the Lisbon trade. Three years later, in 1750, the ship has tied up at Lynn Common Staithe quay: At the stairs of Common Staithe Yard Jack made fast the painter and shipped the sculls.” He meets Captain Crowle -upwards of seventy,- who says “come with me to the Crown”-but the proper place for mates was the Dukes Head, “Nay it shall be the Crown. A bowl of punch shall welcome back The Lady of Lynn. She’s as fine a vessel as this old port can show. Nothing ails her. There are fifteen tall ships moored two and two at Kings Staith and half a dozen more off the Common Staith...... They walked up the narrow lane into the great marketplace, where stands the Crown Inn. 


    The room appropriated to the Society of Lynn, the “society” or club which met every evening of the year, was that on the ground floor looking upon the market-place and consisted of “the great and the good” of the town..... Jack and Captain Crowle joined the company. Most of the gentlemen already had before them their pipes and their tabacco. Some had already ordered their drink, a pint of port, a Brown George full of old ale, a flask of Canary and so on. The captain ordered ‘a large bowl of the strongest and sweetest’ and said “gentlemen you will drink with me to the next voyage of “The Lady of Lynn”...............


       A Dr Worship came in and joined the company and thereupon announced that they are all about to become rich. He told them that he had received a letter informing him of a discovery that concerned him as the fortunate owner of a spring or well which is the subject of the discovery. The letter, he said, intimated that the newly discovered “Waters of Lynn” were a preventative for gout and numerous other ailments. He went on: You are aware that the curative properties of certain wells and spas in the country, the names of Bath Tunbridge Wells and Epsom are familiar to you. It now appears that a certain learned physician has obtained a jar of water from your well and having subjected it to rigorous examination, concluded that it contains curative qualities or ingredients in much higher degree than any other well in the country, and this discovery has already been announced in the public journals. In short, the Doctor continued, the Nobility and Gentry from the surrounding area would want to visit Lynn to partake of the waters, and accommodation and all the facilities of a Spa should be made ready for them.


     He thereupon pointed out the importance of this event to the town. Visitors, he said, would flock to the town and should find Lynn provided with all the attributes of a Spa. I mean music, the pump room, a garden, the ball and the masquerade and the card room. Clean lodgings, good wine, and flesh, fish and fowl in abundance. The good doctor then said, “ Gentlemen, you have heard my news, Captain Crowle, may I request that you permit the society to drink with me to the prosperity of the spa-the prosperity of the spa-the prosperity of Lynn. Let us drink to it, said the Captain, to the newly discovered spa. The toast was received with the greatest satisfaction…… No one, however, thought to question the veracity of the letter, and the Doctor also subjected the water to examination and by a curious coincidence his results coincided exactly with those of the previous report! News of the discovery spread and the town prepared for the impending influx of visitors.


    Without divulging more of the story, the Lynn Spa lasted a short while and left the townsfolk poorer than it found them…….…..this has been the fate of many spas. First there is a blind belief in the sovereign virtue of the well; at the outset the place is crowded with visitors; there is every kind of amusement and pleasure; then this confidence becomes less and presently vanishes altogether and is transferred to some other well. As faith decays so the company grows thinner and less distinguished. There was formerly a fashionable spa near London, at a place called Hampstead. This spa had such rise, such a period of prosperity, and such a fall. Another spa which also rose, flourished and then decayed and is now deserted, was the spa of Epsom, a village some miles south of London. These places, however, lasted more than a single season……


n.b. Just how many Spas were established for purely financial gain, it is not possible to say, suffice that some probably were. For example, the Spa at Thetford, may well have started out with good intent, but came to sudden end when two men were caught out passing off river water for that of the spring, which they were selling in London. n.b. See the next section: "A Brief History of Thetford Spa" and "Lost London Springs and Spas" -which are based on material discovered while researching  Reffley Spring.


There is a wealth of historical detail about Lynn, in Besant's book, as seen through the eyes of Jack’s father:  

    Jack then reminisces about his father who was a master at Lynn Grammar School. One day he stood on the Lady’s Mount and looking down upon the gardens and fields which now lie between the ancient walls and modern town. “Look boy” he said, “you see the fields and gardens: on those fields stood formerly monasteries and convents: these gardens were once enclosed- you may still discern some of the stone walls which surrounded them, for monk and friar. All the friars were here, so great was the wealth of the town. On that green field behind the church of St Nicholas was the house of the Austin friars: some fragments of these buildings I have discovered built into the houses on the west side of the field: I should like to pull down the modern houses in order to display those fragments: almost at our feet lay the house of the Black Friars, yonder to the south, between the gate and the river Yar, was the Friary of the White Friars or Carmelites: there is the tower of the Grey friars or Franciscans. On the south side of St Margarets there are walls and windows, with carved mullions and arches-they belong to a college of priests or perhaps a Benedictine House-there must have been Benedictines in the town: or perhaps they belonged to a nunnery: many nunneries stood beside parish churches.

    This is part of the wall of the town, “Tis a pity that it should fall into decay, but when walls are no longer wanted for defence they are neglected. First the weather loosens the stones of the battlements; or perhaps they fall into the moat; or the people take them away for building. I wonder how much of the wall of Lynn is built into the churches and houses and garden walls; then the whole face of the wall disappears; then if it is a Roman wall there is left a core of concrete………….The town preserves, in spite of neglect and oblivion more of the appearance of the age than most towns. The Guildhall, where they show the sword and silver cup of King John, is an ancient and noteworthy building: there are the old churches: there are almshouses and hospitals; there is a Customshouse which the Hollanders enviously declare must have been brought over from their country and set up here, so much does it resemble their own buildings.


     Our streets are full of remains: here a carving in marble: here a window of ancient shape, cut in stone: here a piece of carved work from some ancient chantry chapel: here a deserted and mouldering court: here a house overhanging, gabled, with carved front: here an courtyard with an ancient house built round it. And with narrow streets such as one finds only in the most ancient parts of our ancient cities. We still have our winding lanes with their irregularities: houses planted sideways as well as fronting the street: an irregular alignment: gables instead of a flat coping: casement windows not yet transformed by the modern sash: our old taverns; our old walls: our old marketplaces; and the ancient bridges which span the four streams running through the midst of our town.


     By the riverside you may find the sailors and craftsmen who belong to a seaport: at the Customhouse you may meet the merchants and the shippers; in the marketplace you may find the countrymen and countrywomen-they talk an uncouth language and their manners are rough, but they are honest: and if you go to the church of St Margaret’s or St Nicholas any day for morning prayers and especially on Sunday you may find maidens and matrons in rich attire, the former as beautiful as in any town or country may be met; the latter stately and dignified and gracious withal..............

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