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The Chalybeate Springs Flitwick

Advertisement for Flitwick water [Z50/143/449]
Advertisement for Flitwick water [Z50/143/449]

The adjective chalybeate means water containing salts of iron. In 1967 Flitwick resident T R Key wrote an extensive piece on these springs on Flitwick Moor which is held at Bedfordshire Archive and Record Service as CRT130Flitwick2, of which this is a synopsis. Flitwick Moor is a tract of marsh and woodland where rare plants are found and peat was dug as late as the 1960s. Both Flitwick Moor and Folly Wood are now [2017] a wildlife preserve administered by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.

About 1859 Henry King Stevens took the tenancy of a 22-acre smallholding called The Folly including a house on the edge of the Moor. He lived there into the 1890s, describing himself variously as bird-stuffer, nurseryman and finally proprietor of mineral springs . His house was shown on the inclosure award for Flitwick of 1807 known as Turf Ground.

In 1877 Stevens attempted to buy the land he rented from Henry Ward, though no purchase price seems to have been paid. Stevens seems to have believed that the spring water on his land had curative properties: “No record of its virtues can be found in any book or pamphlet of the period, although many springs in the district with medicinal qualities are listed; chance, therefore, or perhaps a conversation with some knowledgeable visitor, may have provided this surprising and valuable information”.

Stevens had samples of the water analysed by London chemists in 1880, the findings being reported to the British Medical Journal, but the analysis was held to have been incompetently carried out. Through Stevens’ efforts the water at least became famous in the locality and it was entered in the National Health Society’s Exhibition in 1885 where it secured top prize.

More rigorous analysis in 1885 and 1886 was reported in The Analyst, stating that “an enormous quantity of available Flitwick water may be seen meandering to waste among the woods and bogs that mark the place”. The article did not, however, comment on any supposed healing powers. Stevens sold the water at 2d per bottle and it became increasingly popular locally as a cure-all. Clothes were soaked in the water in the belief that it cured sores and even cancerous growths.

In 1891 the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a long article on the water. It noted “certain examples of a remarkable chalybeate water … aroused much interest and curiosity … the water is found oozing from a fissure in a surface cutting about a foot and a half in depth and thirty feet in length, through a layer of black peat … this valley is the richest district in the county for rare and curious plants, no fewer than 720 varieties being known to the student of botany … the temperature is 45 degrees [Fahrenheit - 7.22°C] at all times of the year. The water is of a clear cherry colour , and not unpleasantly acid to the taste … so delicately is the iron balanced in solution that mere warming suffices to precipitate a portion of it, and tis precipitate contains as much as 85.24% of ferric oxide - it is not improbable that iron in this form is eminently fitted for a speedy absorption and assimilation into the system … Flitwick water does not produce constipation in the same degree as the ordinary salts of iron - it may be taken in a very palatable form with good lemonade - it is doubtful whether any other springs in this country are known at the present time which contain iron in this unique form - it may be deemed especially worthy of a trial”.

A London depot was established, advertisements placed in the national press and in journals and magazines. Stevens began to lay-out the surrounding grounds of the house more attractively. They already contained an avenue of birch trees and a cherry orchard and Stevens added a second avenue to join the first. T R Key noted that, although overgrown, the avenue was still in existence in 1961.

The water from the springs was directed into channels from which it was bottled in increasing quantities. Unfortunately for Stevens, attempts to interest London firms in bottling and selling the water failed as they believed the flow was not sufficiently great. Henry King Stevens died in 1898, aged 62 (a young age for someone who, presumably imbibed his own product) at “Mineral Spring” as he had renamed his house.

In October that year Stevens’ daughters and a man named Ward sold the estate and mineral water rights at auction for £2,450 to R W White & Company, manufacturers of soft drinks. The Flitwick Chalybeate Company was formed and a painting by Gainsborough adapted to sell the product. The water was used in some London hospitals and sold at some chemist shops throughout south-east England. Too many extravagant claims were made for it, notably that it could improve the ability of “backward children”. At best it was probably a mild tonic and good for people with anaemia.

T R Key notes: “The two medicinal springs were surrounded by a high fence of corrugated iron, enclosing about a quarter of an acre of the Moor. Within this were the 60 foot sheds covering the springs and also a large filtering shed; in this were racks containing bags of peat that had been dug from the Moor and thoroughly sifted; the water from the springs was channelled into tanks, into which the racks were lowered and the dried peat soaked for two or three weeks. The liquid having absorbed the iron from the peat was then finally conveyed to a corrugated iron pump-house where it was raised by a hand pump to a large tank on the roof; from there it was siphoned off into ten gallon glass containers. At the time of the Company’s greatest prosperity cartloads of these large vessels were taken two or three times a week to Flitwick station for transport to the London depot of R W White & Company. The firm’s managing director, Mr F H Sergeant, still vividly recalls the golden colour and the unpleasant taste of the product forty years ago”.

By the 1930s Flitwick Water had lost virtually all its appeal to the buying public. In 1938 R W White & Company sold the property and the buildings around the springs were dismantled, gradually the once-cultivated fields and gardens reverted to pasture and by 1961 were a meeting place for Flitwick Gun Club. Only the shed with the hand-pump remained by 1961 as well as “two trickles of dark water rising sluggishly from the peat among the silver birches and meandering slowly towards the Flitt”.

Digging peat on Flitwick Moor [Z50-50-37]
Digging peat on Flitwick Moor [Z50/50/37]