Sadler's Wells
Medicinal Spring to Music-Hall



From "The Political State of the British Empire" by John Adolphus, 1818


Mr. MALCOLM has given a description, containing the following particulars. Although there is nothing in the exterior of the theatre at Sadler's Wells worth describing, further than it is a strong brick building, fronted by a handsome house, its vicinity to the New River, and the number of trees surrounding it, give the place a decided superiority over every other theatre near London.

Without doubt the springs, afterwards known by the appellation of Sadler's Wells, were those of the priory of St. John of Jerusalem. ... As the water was found to be ferruginous [by Mr. SADLER], though not so much impregnated with iron as those of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, they were immediately recommended as useful in removing obstructions in the system, and purifying the blood.

Sadler's Wells was inclosed within a wall of considerable extent, with several fine trees within it. A gate faced the New River, on which was inscribed Sadler's Wells, under a pediment. The house contained seven windows in front on the first floor, with angular mullions—, and probably the same number below. Francis FORCER owned the Wells in 1735: by which period the proprietor appears to have been doubtful whether he should be permitted to proceed with his exhibitions, as he thought it necessary to petition the parliament for a licence. In it he represented the place as having been used for music, rope-dancing, ground-dancing, a short pantomime, and the sale of liquor, for forty years. A petition from the proprietor to the House of Commons, many years past, states, that the site was a place of public entertainment in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. If this assertion is correct, but no proof is adduced, SADLER was far from being the first possessor for musical purposes and drinking.


From "The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction" by Reuben Percy, John Timbs, 1839


SADLER'S WELLS Theatre derived that appellation from a well of mineral water, of a feruginous nature, which belonged, in the olden time, to the monks of the priory of St. John of Jerusalem. ... Henry VIII., in 1538, dissolved the priory and its revenues; when the well, to which superstitious uses were ascribed, was covered over: and as no water was in any way known to be derivable from it, time, which obliterates all things, annulled, even in the memory of man, all cognizance or remembrance of it for nearly a century and a half.

The dissolute manners prevalent in the reign of Charles II., gave encouragement to a variety of music-houses in and about the metropolis, but none of them attained the popularity or celebrity of that erected on the north side of the New River Head, on the site of the present theatre, by a person named SADLER; who, being made surveyor of the highways, and having good gravel in his own ground, the garden attached to the music-house, employed two men to dig there, and in digging, the pickaxe struck upon a broad flat stone, which being raised, was found to have been supported by four oaken posts, and under it a large well, encircled by stone, arched over, and curiously sculptured. SADLER, impelled by its singularity, conceived it had some medicinal quality, and as such, had been used in former times: his conjecture was confirmed on reference to a physician.

He at first sold the water in bottles, then in roundlets, till at last Dr. MORTON advised his patients to drink the water as a restorative; and its salubrity induced Sadler's Well to be visited, in 1684, by from five to six hundred persons every morning.

The discovery of the well by SADLER's men, appears to have been early in 1683, but how long he retained it, is not known. ... James FRAZER, who had been physician to Charles II., in a letter to Sir Robert SOUTHWELL, dated London, Aug. 16, 1687, says,

'This place [Clerkenwell] is become so empty of people by reason of the resort to Tunbridge and the Bath, that even Islington itself, notwithstanding the advantages it has of drinking waters, is become very solitary, and, for ought I see, is to continue soe till Michaelmas.'

The fashion of the day appears to have turned the current against the practice of drinking the water, till June, 1697 ... SADLER was doubtless then dead, and the well only advertised in his name, on the faith of its recent celebrity. The London Gazette of the [21st October] ... intimates —

'SADLER's excellent steel waters at Islington having been obstructed for some years past, are opened this morning, and will be continued all the season.'

In 1699, the music-house, which was a wooden building, hence the term 'boarded house' was in the occupancy of a person named MILES. ... Ned WARD, in his periodical paper, called The Weekly Comedy, which began in May, this year, describes the company frequenting this place, not much to its advantage in the colouring, at the same time with a fidelity not to bo doubted as to the outline —

'... an abundance of inns of court beaux and lady bumsitters, mingled with an innumerable swarm of the blue-frock order, flocked into MILES's music-house.'

Ned WARD, in his Walk to Islington, printed in 1699, also describes the entertainments, and the persona of the performers. The advertisements of October, 1700, mention

'the proprietors of Sadler's last found mineral wells at Islington, &c.'

so that SADLER, it is evident, was no longer a person concerned. It has been asserted, after the death of SADLER, Francis FORCER, musician, and the composer of many songs, in Playford and Carr's Theatre of Music, published in 1685-86, and 87, became the occupier of the wells and music-house; the circumstance of MILES' name appearing at the same time, has created some doubt as to the consistency of the fact; but the word 'proprietors' may possibly embrace the co-partnership of MILES and FORCER, the latter, probably, the director of the music, and MILES having the arrangement for disposing of such

'good cheer, as cheese-cakes, custards, bottled ale, and cider.'

Their being proprietors, commenced possibly on the reopening, in June 1697.

In June, 1711, The Inquisitor, a periodical paper, speaks of Sadler's Wells as a nursery of debauchery. A lawyer of the Temple, named FRENCH, on August the 14th, 1712, in a quarrel about some women, killed a naval lieutenant, named WAITE; and in the pamphlet that incident occasioned, it is mentioned —

'This famous place, called Sadler's Wells, otherwise Miles's Music-house, is so well known to most people in town, that I need not describe it — it is a daily meeting, or rendezvous, of people who go thither to divert themselves; and though 'tis in many very innocent, and in the people of the house, only getting an honest livelihood, yet the method of so doing is apt to draw many unaccountable and disorderly persons to frequent it, under the colour of diverting themselves.'

MILES, who by beautifying and improving added greatly to the popularity of the Music-house, was succeeded by Francis FORCER, the son of the musician, who, notwithstanding he had been educated at Oxford, entered of Gray's Inn, and had practised for a short time as a pleader, found this pursuit more congenial to his mind. He first introduced the diversions of rope-dancing and tumbling, and continued the improvements till the time of his death, in April, 1743; when, as directed by his will, the lease of the house he lived in, called or known by the name of Sadler's Wells, with the scenery and furniture thereunto belonging, were sold to discharge his specialty and other debts.

On the attraction ceasing to draw company to drink the water, the well appears to have been again covered in, and amid the improvements hidden from view; but, about forty or fifty years since, the old well was again accidentally discovered, in the space between the stage-door and the New River: it is said to be encircled with stone, and a descent of several steps. There is at present, adds MALCOLM, a well under the stage, sunk for the purpose of concentrating the waters of the spring, which is always full, and very clear: the wall of the sides seem to show a congelation of the iron that impregnates it.

The view of Sadler's Wells Theatre is from a volume, entitled Divers Views of noted Places near London, 1731, .... After the death of FORCER, ROSOMAN purchased the theatre; and in October, 1764, the old building shown in our view was pulled down, and a new one, the present edifice, as MALCOLM states,

'was erected and tiled in, in seven weeks, at an expense of 4,225l.'


From "The Thespian Dictionary" 1805

[Thomas KING, in 1771] purchased three-fourths of Sadler's Wells, which he extended and beautified, and conducted in such a manner, that it became a fashionable place of entertainment. In 1782, on being solicited to become deputy-manager at Drury Lane, he disposed of his interest in Sadler's Wells, to Mr. WROUGHTON.


From "The Monthly Mirror"


SADLER'S WELLS CONTINUES, with its water and its wine, to go on swimmingly. Full houses, and universal expressions of satisfaction from the audience, prove a mjst grateful reward to the proprietors, for the pains and expence they have been at, in preparing so elegant and novel an entertainment for the public. The last scene of the Siege of Gibraltar is, beyond all question, the most interesting exhibition of the kind ever presented in this country, or perhaps on any public stage in Europe.


PINDAR begins his Olympic Odes with these words, Water is best; and the attractions which it produces at the Aquatic Theatre can leave no doubt in the mind of the manager, that the Theban Bard was right. The cleverness of Mr. C. DIBDIN, Junr. is again and again exemplified. Like his father and his brother he appears inexhaustible. An Baratack, or The Wider Spectre, a superb Caledonian melodrama, and the pleasant pantomime of Harlequin and the Talking Bird, are deservedly great favourites with the public. The excellent music of REEVE, like that of Orpheus, sets every thing in motion.


If this theatre is not more profitable than any other, it is merely because it is smaller; for the entertainments have given so much satisfaction to all ranks, that the house overflows every night. Mr. C. DIBDIN's Wild Man is still running, and nothing in scenic representation can be more delightful. GRIMALDI's serious ballet acting is little inferior to his pantomimic, and Mr. REES junr. in Sancho shews a good portion of comic talent.


From "London and Its Celebrities" by John Heneage Jesse, 1850

SADLER'S WELLS ... not a hundred years have passed away, since the daughters of George the Second used to quit St. James's every day, to drink the waters.

In the middle of the last century, when any extraordinary performance at Sadler's Wells Theatre was likely to tempt thither the nobility and gentry from the fashionable quarters of London, it was the custom to announce in the play-bills, that a horse patrol would be stationed, for that particular night, in the New Road, and also that the thoroughfare leading to the city would be properly guarded.

NOORTHOUCK writes, in 1773:—

'Here, apprentices, journeymen, and clerks, dressed to ridiculous extremes, entertain their ladies on Sundays; and to the utmost of their power, if not beyond their proper power, affect the dissipated manners of their superiors. ... a small theatre for the summer evening exhibition of tumbling, rope-dancing, and other drolls, in vulgar style.'

On the 15th of October 1807, Sadler's Wells theatre was the scene of a fearful catastrophe. A cry of "fire" having been raised, the terrified audience in the gallery made a simultaneous rush to the doors. The avenues becoming blocked up, several persons were crushed to death, while others, in a fit of desperation, flung themselves into the pit. No fewer than eighteen persons were killed, and several others were seriously injured.

At Sadler's Wells, in front of the Sir Hugh Myddleton Tavern, is laid the scene of Hogarth's "Evening."

For many years the theatre was celebrated for its aquatic exhibitions, which were contrived by removing the boards from the stage, and introducing a flow of water from the New River. Here, also, for many years, the famous GRIMALDI performed his inimitable antics. Under the auspices of, and by the refined taste of Mr. PHELPS, Sadler's Wells theatre has been converted to worthier purposes, and is now deservedly popular with those who prefer the plays of Shakespeare and Massinger to a monster concert at Covent Garden, or an exhibition of horsemanship or wild beasts at Drury Lane.


From "The Treasury of Knowledge and Library Reference" by Samuel Maunder, 1853

In the time of Oliver CROMWELL, [the wells] continued to be visited by invalids, but were prohibited, among others, by the then hypocritical rulers of the land as objects of superstitious notice. During the reign of Charles II., SADLER took the ground, and whatever buildings might be upon it, and opened a place of public recreation and entertainment, called Sadler's Wells' Music-House, and he reopened the two wells. The latter are still on the premises; one in the yard, arched over; the other in the cellar of the theatre. The water is now done away with, and the theatre has for many years maintained a well-deserved celebrity for the performance of the plays of Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, &c.


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