Friday, 21 March 2014

The Sandrock Chalybeate Spring

Another example where John Ptak's blog Ptak Science Books category - "History of Blank, Missing and Empty Things" - is applicable: the Sandrock Chalybeate Spring, Isle of Wight.

George Brannon's Vectis scenery : being a series of original and select views, exhibiting picturesque beauties of the Isle of Wight, with ample descriptive and explanatory letter-press (various dates, including 1840, Internet Archive vectisscenerybei00bran) has this nice image captioned "Sandrock Chalybeate Spring, Situated near Blackgang Chine, about a Mile southward of Niton, Undercliff, Isle of Wight". It shows the Sand Rock Cottage below the upper cliff, with steps leading down to the spring building.

Readers familiar with the Isle of Wight will recognise the general location as the landslip terrain at the foot of Gore Cliff, between Niton and Blackgang, now overgrown wilderness.

May 2012 - see The road more travelled ...
 The early history of the spring is well summarised in the Reverend Edmund Venables' 1860 A Guide to the Isle of Wight (see Google Books ID shMHAAAAQAAJ); at the time of writing, it seems to have already fallen out of vogue.
Till the formation of the road from the Sandrock to Blackgang, in 1838, the traveller, on reaching Niton, was completely cut off from further progress along the coast westward. As late as 1813 Cooke [New Picture of the Isle of Wight] complains of the difficulty of access to the newly-discovered Sandrock Spring, "there being no carriage road, or even pathway" to it. "The approach" to the spring was "by a steep descent through vast masses of broken rock, and the ruggedness of the lofty cliff." Thence "a narrow path, almost imperceptible in some places," wound its way along the sides of the cliffs, and presented "the nearest road from the spring to Blackgang." In consequence of the growing fame of the "Aluminous Chalybeate Spring," which at one time promised a panacea for all human ailments, a road was constructed "with great labour, by voluntary subscription, for the convenience of reaching it." This road terminated about a mile from the Sandrock Hotel, whence a winding footpath led to the spring below. The route was then "from the spring to the shore, whence the tourist soon reached the Chine." At the present time, in spite of the elaborate analyses and reports of Doctors Lempriere and Marcet, of the past generation, and the assurance of Dr. Martin, in our own days, that "in general properties it rivals the most famous in England," the Sandrock Spring is forgotten,— the little cottage, erected by the roadside by its discoverer (Mr. Waterworth, surgeon, of Newport), is passed unnoticed, —not one traveller out of a hundred cares to inquire about it, or remarks the little grotto which points out its source, perched on the side of the cliff midway between the upper and lower road to Blackgang. Nevertheless, we owe to it the establishment of a good hotel and the formation of an excellent road, and are bound to view the spring with grateful regard, even if we decline to disorder our digestion by partaking of its nauseous streams. 
Thomas L Waterworth was a Newport surgeon who was active on the local natural history circuit ("Honorary Member of the Physical Society, Guy’s Hospital; Surgeon to the Vectis Light Dragoons; one of the Surgeons of the House of Industry; and Member of the Geological and Humane Societies of the Isle of Wight").

Whether he strictly the spring's "discoverer" is debatable; he was following a lead in Sir Richard Worsley's 1781 The History of the Isle of Wight:
In ſeveral places the ſprings are found to be impregnated with minerals, though none have yet attained any degree of reputation. At a place called Pitland, in the pariſh of Chale, there is one, which, whilſt flowing, appears pure and tranſparent, but on ſtagnating depoſites a white ſediment equal to half its depth, and as thick as cream. This water is ſuppoſed to abound with ſulphur, but it has not yet undergone a chymical analyſis; cattle drink it without any ill conſequence. About half a mile weſtward of this ſpring, at a place called Black Gang, under Chale cliff, there iſſues a ſtrong Chalybeate water, which, by an infuſion of galls, exhibits a deeper purple than is given to the water of Tunbridge wells by the ſame experiment.
- pages 5-6, The History of the Isle of Wight, Richard Worsley, 1781
The problem with Worsley's description is that there had been a major landslip in 1799 that completely disrupted the landscape at Pitland. Perhaps Waterworth found Worsley's spring; perhaps it was a similar one arising from the same geology. Either way, as an amateur geologist, he spotted it; as a doctor, he saw the medical possibilities; and as an entrepreneur, he wasn't slow to capitalise on it. He obtained a lifetime lease to build a grotto to house it - with the inscription from Horace "Infirmo capiti fluit utilis, utilis alvo" ("useful for ailing head, useful for stomach) - and a dispensary cottage above to sell it. See The Sandrock Chalybeate Spring at Alan Champion's Isle of Wight History site.

There was actually a market for the stuff, as explained in JD Mather's paper Sandrock Spring and Shanklin Spa: contrasting chalybeate waters from the Lower Greensand of the Isle of Wight (Geoscience in South-West England, Volume 12 Part 3, 2010, ISSN 0566-3954). Its introduction - see the abstract - mentions the context for Waterworth's spa-hunting: the war in Europe that since 1793 had closed European spas to English visitors.

Waterworth promoted his spring through newspaper advertisements and outlets such as the 1817 publication A Letter addressed to the Gentlemen of the Medical Profession [... etc - see Google Books ID YOBZAAAAcAAJ] and this 1825 letter to the The Medico-Chirurgical Review - Sand Rock Spring - which reports on his extraction of the mineral salts from the water, and just happens to mention that "comfortable Lodging Houses" are available near the spring for anyone who might want to visit. You could also buy the water bottled via Waterworth's agents, the London-based Messrs. Savory, Moore, & Co., "Chemists to the Royal Family".

The promotion was also helped along by analyses by his colleagues - one might more accurately say cronies -  Dr Alexander Marcet and Dr William Lempriere. Marcet was a Guy's Hospital physician, also interested in geology, and Lempriere was an army doctor and travel writer stationed in Isle of Wight.  Both were in the same Isle of Wight medical, scientific and social circuit as Waterworth (when Lempriere gave his Popular lectures on the study of natural history and the sciences, vegetable physiology, zoology, the animal and vegetable poisons, and on the human faculties, mental and corporeal, as delivered before the Isle of Wight Philosophical Society - Google Books TSlFAAAAcAAJ - Waterworth was Treasurer of that society, and Lempriere one of its vice-presidents).

Marcet's account is in the 1811 Transactions Of The Geological Society, Volume 1 (page 213 - A Chemical Account of an Aluminous Chalybeate Spring in the Isle of Wight). Lempriere's Newport-published Report on the Medicinal   Properties of Aluminous Chalybeate Water recently discovered at Sandrock in the Parish of Chale in the Isle of  Wight came out in the same year. The latter's not findable online, but a number of favourable reviews are, such as those in the Medical & Physical Journal, Volume 28, page 72, and The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 61, page 119.

The spring, helped by such endorsements, featured in guidebooks for a couple of decades. There's an account, for instance, in Augustus Bozzi Granville's The spas of England, and principal sea-bathing places (pages 546-549). George Brannon's 1848 The pleasure-visitor's companion to the Isle of Wight said of it:
Is the first individual object we come to, deserving notice; situated in the face of a bold gloomy cliff, composed of black clayey earth interspersed with rock, at about 130 feet above the sea, and which, together with the appropriately simple style of the dispensary cottage that stands nearly on the edge of the cliff, gives to the whole scene an interesting air of wildness. It was discovered in 1809, by Mr. Waterworth, a surgeon of Newport.
     The water, according to the analyses of Dr. Marcet and others, contains a larger proportion of iron and alumina than any other mineral water yet discovered. It has been found very efficacious in the cure of those disorders which arise from a relaxed fibre and languid circulation, such as indigestion, flatulency, nervous affections, and debility from a long residence in hot climates. For more precise information, we refer the reader to the “Report” of Dr. Lempriere. Persons may take the water directly from its source, and receive medical aid when required, at the Dispensary Cottage, where a book is kept for visiting parties who may choose to enter their names.
Amid all this puff, it's refreshing to find a dissenting description by George Soane:
The Sand Rock Spring finds an honourable mention in the guide-books—why, the compilers of such trivia best know themselves. For my part, I only mention this quackery to caution my readers against being deceived by it. The chalybeate was discovered—so say its admirers—by one Waterworth, an obscure apothecary, and, it is to be presumed, of little practice, or he would not have found time for spring-hunting. Be this as it may, the spring had been known for years to all the old women of the island, as well as to their mothers and grandmothers before them, but, not having the worldly craft of the pill-vender, the simple souls never thought of bottling up a filthy, useless fluid, and puffing it off as a real elixir vitae?. Bile tumet jecur—my bile rises at the thought, as it once did at the taste of this abomination.
- My First Visit to the Isle of Wight, George Soane, page 201, The English Annual, for MDCCCXXXVIII, ed. Caroline Norton, 1838
In 1838, Soane was a lone voice. But by the time Venables wrote his 1860 account, this minor spa had gone past its sell-by date in everyone's view. Perhaps there was recognition that it had been over-hyped; perhaps it was the general decline in the popularity of one-horse English spas now that the Continent was accessible again. The 1866 Nelson's Handbook to the Isle of Wight described the spring as "now disused". Waterworth himself had died in 1840, aged 73 ( Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries, Jackson's Oxford Journal, July 11, 1840) after which the cottage and spring were sold at auction. The owner by the 1870s was a Mr Augustus Frederick Livesay, an architect and proprietor of the Ventnor Gas and Water works, who died in 1879.

The spring continued to get small references in medical texts until the end of the 19th century, and in geological texts for rather longer. The Sandrock Spring Cottage meanwhile remained with the Livesay family into the 20th century. In the 1930s it was a guest house (ref: The Times, Jun 02, 1933) while the spring itself declined. By the 1950s, its natty little grotto was reduced to little more than a tumble-down hollow cairn (see 1950 image, above right, from Alan Champion's The Sandrock Chalybeate Spring).

According to Alan Champion's article, a landslip destroyed the last traces of the grotto in 1958. The chalybeate spring itself is marked on the 1962 Ordnance Survey map, but not on the 1977 one; at some time in between, it was obliterated by the ongoing slippage and coastal erosion in this part of the Isle of Wight. Finally, the Cottage itself - a little further upslope - was destroyed in the major landslip of March 1978.
By Saturday night, Sandrock Spring, a five-bedroom house valued at more than £40,000, was in ruins. Its walls leaned at crazy angles, its beams were cracked, and every ceiling was collapsed.
- Hugh Noyes. "Huge landslide smashes homes on the Isle of Wight." Times [London, England] 6 Mar. 1978: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 20 Mar. 2014

from The recent history and geotechnics of landslides at Gore Cliff, Isle of Wight,
Slope Stability Engineering, 1991, fig.3, page 191
I haven't done an orthocorrected map yet, but the chalybeate spring was probably somewhere around the centre of this map view:

View Larger Map

Update, 15 April 2014: see Sandrock Spring: quaffing the lymph for some weird verse testimonials from grateful patients. The Isle of Wight County Press Archive has a couple of interesting descriptions, one of the finding and decline of the spring, and one of its overall appearance:
Shanklin Spa (article reprinted from The Hotel)
"Dr Waterworth ... discovered in his ramblings near Blackgang Chine a spring of water largely impregnated with alum and sulphate of iron. So enthusiastic was he with the result of the analysis that he returned to the scene in the depth of winter to procure a supply of the water. ... His disappointment was great when he found that one of the frequent landslips which occur in this neighbourhood had completely covered up this tiny trickling stream, leaving no trace on the shingly sea-shore to mark its iron-stained track into the angry sea which invariably lashes this rocky coast. It was no easy matter to scale the precipitous cliffs near Blackgang Chine, and Dr. Waterworth, returning there on a winter's day, found the task so difficult that he had to abandon the attempt. When one reads the account of this enthusiastic searcher after Nature's treasures, published in 1809, the keenness of his disappointment  can be better estimated than described. also the joy he must have experienced when a few months later he again  discovered the tiny rivulet oozing out of the ground far up the almost perpendicular cliff, temporarily dammed up at its source by the foundering clay.
So great was the importance attached to the spring that ... it was regarded as one of the spas of Europe, and the water was used in the Government Hospitals of the day with most satisfactory results. But after a while it was found that Nature had been too lavish with its mineralsthe alum and the sulphate of iron (the latter in a very indigestible form)preponderated in so large a degree as to militate against the general use of the water, the taste was by no means pleasant, and the fastidious patient recoiled from its somewhat nauseous and astringent flavour. But the innaccessibility of the Sandrock spring hastened its declining use; and there, hollowed out of the steep, craggy cliffs, is the little shelter-house, still receiving it its basin at the bottom the tiny stream which flows on, an almost forgotten monument of that which once bade fair to be famous; and over its portals could now be appropriately placed "Ichabod."
- IWCP, Saturday Oct 17 1896, (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive

Dr JB Williamson, writes: "... The building itself consists of an outer and an inner chamber, and at the further end of the inner chamber is a stone water trough which is filled by the spring. Between the two chambers is a lancet-shaped arch, round the top of which is a Latin hexameter: "Infirmo capiti fluit utilis, utilis alve" ... On the sides of the arch is another inscription telling how Dr. Waterworth, of Newport, found the spring and enclosed it. The floor of the building is full of brown crystals.The water was bottled and sent to London in comparatively recent times by the late Mr Butt, antique dealer, of Lower Niton, and I believe his activities in this respect came to an end when he was made to pay patent medicine duty!"
- IWCP, An Islander’s Notes, May 15, 1954, (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
- Ray


  1. A fine story, well told and with delightful quotes and illustrations. I know the area well and your account is superb.