Two booklets on St. Ann’s Well, Hove


The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, by G. Albert Smith [c. 1897]

The Story of St. Ann’s Well, by Neil Doyle [n.d.]


St. Ann’s Well is a park in Hove with an interesting history.  The well part of the name is drawn from its chalybeate (i.e. iron-bearing) spring water which led to its development as a spa in the mid-eighteenth century. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid laid out a garden the early 1830s and built a pump room for the spring. The site was developed into a thriving pleasure garden, promoted as a rural oasis in treeless Brighton, with a variety of entertainments such as a miniature forest, gardens, swings, lawn tennis, concerts, theatricals and fêtes, in addition to the spring.  Journalist George Augustus Sala, who lived in Hove, referred to the gardens in 1898 as ‘one of the most charming retreats in Brighton’.  The site was sold by D’avigdor Goldsmid to Hove Council for £10,000 and opened to the public on the day preceding Empire day, 23 May 1908.


The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, by G. Albert Smith

My particular interest in St. Ann’s Well stems from its period under the control of George Albert Smith, a significant figure in the early film industry.  Prior to that phase in his career he had been a stage mesmerist and had worked for the Society for Psychical Research.  Having obtained the lease to St. Ann’s Well from Sir Julian Goldsmid, Smith began his tenure in April 1893, with an advertisement for the rebranded St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden in The Brighton Herald, dated 22 April: ‘Refreshing foliage, beautiful flowers, interesting plants. The place for outdoor fetes and picnics, lawn tennis, afternoon teas, and children’s sports. The famous Chalybeate Spring is Free to Visitors. The NEW MONKEY HOUSE. GYPSY FORTUNE TELLER. Swings, see-saws, and other amusements for children.’   There was a variety of attractions for all ages, including a reading room in the Pump House, where light refreshments could also be obtained.  A conservatory was used for entertainment, exhibitions or for private hire.  Outside, greenhouses had ferns, flowers and grapes on sale.   There was even a ‘hermit’ living in a cave.

As an extra money-making scheme Smith produced a booklet for visitors, priced 1d., titled The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, ‘The famous Brighton chalybeate spring’.  It is undated, but John Barnes in Volume 4 of The Beginnings of The Cinema in England 1894-1901 reproduces part of a copy which he dates to about 1897.  It is certainly post-1895 as it refers to ‘The late George Augustus Sala’, and Sala died in December 1895.  An advertisement for Smith’s film-making activities dates it to 1897 or later.  Smith may not have been the author of the booklet: his name appears on the cover but that is in his capacity as ‘Sole Lessee and Manager’ rather than author, and he may have employed someone to write it for him

Inside the cover, visitors are promised ‘HIGH-CLASS Lecture Entertainments, With Magnificent Lime-light, Scenery, and Beautiful Dioramic Effects.  As given with great success at numerous important institutions.’  On the lower half of the page is an advertisement for Smith’s new cinematograph: ‘Cinematographe. Displays of ANIMATED PHOTOGRAPHS, Interesting and Sensational Moving Pictures.  including numerous Local Scenes, taken by Mr. G. Albert Smith.  As exhibited at the principal theatres of the country, FOR PLACES OF ENTERTAINMENT, INSTITUTIONS.  AT HOMES, SCHOOLS, &c.  For terms and vacant dates, apply G. Albert Smith F.R.A.S., St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden, Brighton.’

The bulk of the booklet consists of ‘The Legend of St. Ann’s Well’ itself, referring to a ‘translation from the Saxon’, obviously designed to give the gardens ‘class’.   It seems unlikely the Saxons noticed the spring, let alone wrote about it, and local historian Judy Middleton refers to the legend originating in the 1880s, when ‘an imaginative lady wrote a fanciful account of the origins of St. Ann’s Well.’  Certainly the name ‘St. Ann’s Well’ was only coined in the 1880s as a marketing device.  This co-opting of a fictional history may seem a cynical, and unconvincing, ploy, but as Rosemary Jann argues in The Art and Science of Victorian History, ‘The Victorians plundered the past for the raw stuff of imagination and shaped what they found to their own political, social, and aesthetic ends.’   Saxon times were of impressive vintage and gave the business a cultural cachet, but were conveniently imprecise.

A preamble reads: ‘The legend associated with the famous Brighton Chalybeate Spring, which nominally forms the chief feature in the pretty and fashionable resort now known as St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden has been published from time to time with more or less important variations. The following account which originally appeared in the Brighton Herald, in July, 1882, may, or may not be a correct translation from the Saxon M.S. referred to by the Editor, but it has the merit of being more complete than some of the other versions, and “the story will perhaps be allowed to take rank among the most graceful and pleasing of our local legends.”’  Most of the rest of the booklet is given over to the story of The Lady Annefrida, her pursuit by the wicked Black Harold and the murder of his love rival Wolnoth, to whom Annefrida had given her heart.  One part is of particular interest, bearing in mind Smith’s prior history in, and continued membership of, the Society for Psychical Research.  The dead Wolnoth, accompanied by an angel, appears to Annefrida in a dream:

‘One night especially, dream after dream haunted her, and at early dawn, one, one dream, more real and dear than all the others, came to her.  She thought she heard a voice – her dear Wolnoth’s voice – calling to her, “Annefrida, my loved one, wake and listen to me!”  She saw her lover in white robes – the dear face which she knew so well, wore such a noble, kind expression – and by his side stood an angel.

‘“My beloved one,” said Wolnoth, “all your love and all your sorrows I have seen, and how you have daily watered my grave with tears.  It was hard not to have met you once more on earth.  Alas!  You know whose cruel hand it was that prevented it; but we shall meet again!  till then, my loved one, for my sake, for your own, and for the sakes of those who love you on earth; let your grief and sorrow for me sleep.  Yes! sleep; keep it in your faithful loving heart, but let it not become a burden to others.  Help those little ones!  Help all you can, and God will surely bless your efforts.  The tears, which you have shed on my grave shall not be lost; for where they fell, a HEALING SPRING SHALL RISE AND FLOW FOR EVERMORE.  The blessing of God rest on you.”  With these words the vision passed away.  Cenneth [her nurse] that morning found the sweet maiden in a sound slumber, which continued until the next day.  Her physician said it was a restful slumber and would at length restore her.  When Annefrida awoke she told Cenneth all her dream and bade her tell her parents.’

Following the lengthy story of Annefrida, and the alleged origin story of the well a reformed Harold built around the spring, are the more prosaic season ticket prices and details of an analysis which had been undertaken by Professor Wanklyn of the chalybeate water, assuring the reader that ‘it is quite free from sewage contamination’.  On the back is more information about the gardens and the range of pursuits offered, stressing the rus in urbe angle but also its accessibility: ‘Where are all the Brighton trees? They are all at St. Ann’s Well & Wild Garden, the delightful wooded retreat.  Furze Hill, West Brighton. Ten minutes from the sea, Western Road ‘buses stop at Brunswick Place, four minutes from the Garden.’  Afternoon tea under the trees must have been a pleasant experience.


The reproduction of the cover in Barnes’ book, credited to East Sussex County Libraries, has Smith’s name scored out and replaced by ‘A. H. Tee’.  This was Archibald Horace Tee, who took over as lessee after Smith left St. Ann’s Well, most likely in 1903.  It is possible Tee continued to sell the pamphlet, but I have not seen a copy with his name on the cover; however, it is a scarce publication and Tee’s tenure was relatively brief, so perhaps none has survived from his period.



The Story of St. Ann’s Well, by Neil Doyle

The Story of St. Ann’s Well, written by Neil Doyle and published by The Friends of St. Ann’s Well Gardens, is a heavily illustrated A4 booklet designed for the casual visitor, giving some information on the park’s evolution and acting as a guide, copies of historical photographs having been dotted around the gardens that are reproduced and discussed in the booklet.

The illustrations are excellent, including rare postcards, photographs and ephemera, both from the period of the gardens as a private fee-paying attraction and since it became a municipal facility, still of benefit to the community it serves if less glamorous than it was in its heyday.  Doyle covers the history and features of the gardens – the spring of course; the Pump House; the old cave, with a photo of the hermit outside.  There are photographs and descriptions of some of the attractions that could once be found there; sections on Smith and Tee; ballooning; the Swiss Cottage at the main entrance and Grasshopper Cottage; the gypsy caravan; the May 1908 opening, and the philanthropic contributions of benefactor Flora Sassoon.  It is a must for anyone interested in the history of this fascinating garden.

Copies can be obtained at St Ann’s Well.  It is also available for £4 (at the time of writing), and can be purchased online.


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