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The name Sydenham was formerly Sippenham, or Cippenham, and it was known under this name until about two centuries ago, when the modern form came into use. The greater part of the district, Upper Sydenham, with which we are particularly concerned, was called Westwood, the name dating back to Edward the First.
In 1332 Cippenham was referred to in a manuscript of Bermondsey Abbey. In 1442 Sir John Welles, an alderman of the City, left the manor of Sippenham to be sold for pious uses, saving an annuity of forty shillings to one William Osborne.
In 1498 the Manor of Sippenham was the property of one Robert Chiesman, who left it to his wife for life.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, Westwood or Upper Sippenham was well wooded and an order was made by that monarch, dated the 28th October 1559, reserving the wood for building the ships to fight against Philip of Spain.
On the 2nd September 1675, the diarist Evelyn wrote: "I went Dulwich way to see the pious foundation of one Alleyn (Dulwich College) and returned by a certain medicinal spa, the waters being called Sydnam Wells, much frequented by the quality in summer."
The knowledge of the springs is probably derived from a pamphlet written by one John Peter, a physician, from whose account it would appear that in 1648 a poor woman suffering from a disease was cured by the waters and in consequence their fame spread. Previous to this, he says, the inhabitants had noticed that the water was frequented by multitudes of pigeons. The wells were subsequently dug and built round, and the water could be obtained by anyone who desired.
Peter's treatise was written in a very pompous style and he advised that the waters should be taken warm.
In 1699 Benjamin Alleyn also wrote a treatise about the waters of the wells and said they were medicated with a salt of the nature of common salt, but which had the properties of iron pyrites.
The were twelve of the wells and the stones on which the water fell were petrified. The water was 28 grains heavier than rain water and it was hawked in the City of London up to about 1678. Poor people making the pilgrimage to the wells lived in wooden huts on the common round about. It is thought that these huts, subsequently enlarged and possibly rebuilt, survive today and are the wooden houses still standing on what was formerly Westwood Common.
The numbers who flocked to drink the waters excited the suspicion of Oliver Cromwell's government and he made a declaration "To all that go to drink the waters to behave themselves properly at their utmost peril" and a party of horses attended to prevent tumult.
In 1760 we find the wells mentioned by a writer who says "Age comes to drink itself young, dissipation to drown weariness, and imagination to be cured of never-ending diseases".
Marked by a dragon on a pole, one of the Wells stood in the garden of a rude cottage and King George III spent a day here, surrounded by an escort of Life Guards to ensure his privacy.
In 1789 the wells were the Headquarters of St. George's Bowmen, a company of archers.
The situation of the Wells is indicated on Rocques map of 1745, which is now in the possession of the GLC, and one of the wells is supposed to be under the font of St. Philips church.
A writer of the period, referring to the sylvan beauties of the place, said:
And there you will find a wild rural retreat|
From time immemorial called Sydenham Wells
With old Betty Evans, complacent and neat,
And the gypsy who, if wish'd, your fortune fortells
The wells continued to exist down to the enclosure of Westwood Common, but by that time they had ceased to be regarded as a fashionable resort.
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