Flitwick Water

Flitwick Moor would not be the amazing site it is today without its history of peat digging, but also Flitwick Water was once sold at a shop in London

An Article from From 'The Bedfordshire Magazine'

On 24th April 1948 a meeting of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society was held on Flitwick Moor.  They had invited Dr. (later Sir) Henry Godwin, from the Botany Department of Cambridge University, to discuss with them the possibility of an ecological survey being made to find out more about this important site.  From then on Flitwick Moor was recognised as a rare site for the study of peat soil, plants with a tolerance of different depths of water and the forms of water life tolerant of the peat water.  The Beds. and Hunts. Wildlife Trust took an interest in the site and since 1969 they have leased and directly managed an increasing area of the moor.  Each year they hold open days when their work can be seen and demonstrated to the public.

By the standards of other peat moors, Flitwick is comparatively modern.  Dr. Godwin had suggested that the water had gradually drained from the marsh into channels or streams, leaving the peat behind to dry out, over the last 2000 years.  Over the centuries farmers have deliberately dug channels and drained the land, and the so-called moor, which has always been privately owned and not open common land, has been cultivated and mainly used for farming.  The areas which were solid peat were also of value because each year thousands of turves were dug for fuel.  Although the local people may have recognised that the water which divided the different areas of peat had medicinal properties, there is no documentary evidence of this until c.1790.

Dr. Rodomonte Dominicetti

A Dr. Bartholomew Dominicetti caused something of a stir in London by opening a ‘hot bath’ house alongside his fashionable house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.  It quickly became popular and for a time was one of the ingredients of fashionable London life.  His son, (Dr.) Rodomonte, who claimed to have trained at the University of Padua, opened a more sophisticated establishment at the Panton Square in the Haymarket.  His main bath had a spring running in and out of it but he had also arranged warm and hot baths on the Roman principle.  Although it was well planned and advertised and by the standards of the day quite hygienic, it was expensive to run.  It appears that high prices together with the usual fickleness of fashion, caused him to go bankrupt.

He had married a girl from Ampthill and so when they were obliged to leave London they stayed in the town while they looked around for new premises.  Shortly afterwards they bought a house there and Dr. Dominicetti set up a practice.  Little is known about his stay in Ampthill but he must have had baths of some sort or another.  His medical success was so great that he decided to find larger premises where he could provide more varied treatments.  Sometime before 1790 he heard about the unusual Flitwick Moor and someone must have told him that the water which drained into the channels had medicinal properties.  He took a long lease on East End House (long since disappeared) and opened it as a nursing home.  He produced a pamphlet explaining that his practice had outgrown his Ampthill premises and that at Flitwick he had been able to ‘...erect a neat and convenient apparatus for the Preparation and Application of his various artificial Medicated Water, Vaporous and Dry Baths’.  Not only was he trying to attract local custom but he was also trying to attract paying guests.  He described the grounds, the nearby mill stream, the kitchen gardens, the good roads and the stage coach which left the Cross Keys, St Johns Street, London, three times a week.  He offered to accommodate ladies and gentlemen by the quarter or by the year.  They could even cook for themselves if they preferred. Although he made use of ‘...artificial, Medicated Water’ he does not seem to have exploited the chalybeate water for which Flitwick would later become famous.  By the time of his death on 9th December 1817 he had left Flitwick and had been living in London for several years.

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Henry King Stevens (centre with beard) and family at haymaking
Lancet Report

Henry King Stevens

The years went by and nothing more was written that would connect Flitwick and its water with the medical profession.  Then just before 1860 Mr. Stevens, who was a tenant of a small estate known as ‘The Folly’, became aware of the fact that one or more of the springs on his land rose straight out of the peat and as he knew that there was a market for spring water with medicinal properties, he presumably tried samples of his spring water on his family and friends.

The fame of his ‘bottled water’ spread and there was soon a local market for Flitwick water. People were quite prepared to pay 2d. (roughly 1p) a bottle to use as a tonic or medicine for indigestion but soon the water got a reputation for being helpful in healing open sores.  Stevens was very anxious to receive medical approval for his spring water so that he could expand his market.  Repeatedly he sent samples to various doctors and influential people and eventually in 1885 he succeeded; Flitwick Water won the major prize at the National Health Society’s Exhibition.  Tests were made and analysis of the water showed that not only was there a high level of ferric oxide in the water but that it was in a form that was easily absorbed by the body and did not cause constipation.  An article in the Lancet commended the water and suggested that it should be taken with lemonade.  At last Stevens had the recommendations that he needed and he opened an office and warehouse in London and took on extra staff at Flitwick to collect and bottle the water.  Just as he was in sight of success he died, aged 62.  His daughters approached the man who held a mortgage on the property and together they put the estate and mineral water business up for auction.

R.W. White and Co.

This company, whose lemonade and other soft drinks are still well known today, were the highest bidders.  They formed The Flitwick Chalybeate Company and expanded the business; having got recommendations from various doctors and hospitals they persuaded chemists to stock it as well as shops and railway buffets.  The collection of the water became more hygienic, the degree of iron salts was more or less controlled.  Tanks, pumps and siphons were installed at Flitwick and the water was transported to London by train, in 10 gallon containers.  During the 1920’s, White’s and other such companies found that artificially produced fruit drinks were gaining in popularity and were cheaper to produce than bottled water which had to be transported from one place to another.  The business decreased but it was as late as 1938 that it was finally sold, the buildings dismantled and the The Folly, which had become the manager’s house, was taken down.

Medicinal Spring
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