‘The Beauties of Epsom’
Poets are always glad to see their first effusions in print, and it must have been gratifying for young ‘Promotheus’ (sic) to open the Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1763 and see ‘The Beauties of Epsom’ set in small type on pages 138–9, between an ode to the Lake District and an allegory on the Shepherd and Truth. ‘Ye gentle nymphs’, he opens, ‘For you the daring poet tunes his lyre/ Oh listen to the strains yourselves inspire’.
An offer which we might be tempted to decline, since Promotheus’ occasional verse does not rise to a very high standard; but it is about Epsom, after all, and the Beauties are not anonymous, since in his footnotes he conscientiously identifies them as Miss Betsy W—d, Miss Betsy F—r, Miss Polly E—d, Miss Betsy R—s and Miss E—h H—. A little work with Lehmann’s Copyholds and the parish records of St. Martin’s has made it possible to identify the girls who had such a lasting effect on this impressionable versifier.
The youngest of them was Delia, upon whose cheek ‘eternal roses bloom/ Her ruby lips exhale a sweet perfume’, and who turns out in the everyday world to have been Elizabeth Foster, the eldest daughter of James Foster, the bricklayer, and his wife Mary. She was 17 when the poem was composed; she lived at 22 The Parade, down the footpath of Heathcote Road, and left the town after marrying Stephen Dungate.
Sylvia – ‘Gay sportive Cupids flutter round the fair/ Pant on her breast, and wanton in her hair’ – was Elizabeth Wood, the 19-year-old daughter of the plumber, Edward Wood. Two years after this publication of her charms, she married Samuel Parish, the parish clerk; they had one child, a boy called Samuel, before she died in 1776. Young Samuel followed his father as clerk and afterwards became a bookseller.
‘When Flora sings there’s rapture in the sound/ We tread on air, and think ’tis heaven around’, and sadly this was to be the case, as Elizabeth Robards (or Robarts) died seven years later at the age of 31, unmarried, and with no monument in the churchyard to her memory, or to that of her father John, the baker.
The oldest of the nymphs was Belinda, otherwise known as Mary Eastland, who was 29 when she led the dance. ‘O still with soul-dissolving graces move/ And musically swim the maze of love’ says the enraptured Promotheus, ‘Thy waving arms in snowy circles play/ And all the easy conqueror display’. Mary was the only daughter and heir of John Eastland, who had recently risen from being a barber to a peruquemaker; she was a friend of Elizabeth Wood, having witnessed her marriage, and Elizabeth’s mother acted in turn as a witness when Mary married the cooper Richard Ragge in 1769. They moved into Mary’s property at 94/8 in the High Street (the old Yew Tree Cottage) and business must have prospered there, since her husband was ‘Mr. Richard Ragge’ when he died in 1796. Mary followed him five years later to an ornate tomb in St. Martin’s churchyard.
But Promotheus reserved his sweetest strains for Aurenelia, ‘pride of my verse, and object of my care’ – the beauteous and lovely Aurenelia, whose peaceful breast he longed to share, and afterwards ‘the long-wish’t nuptial knot to tie’. Whether he was successful must ever remain unknown, the disguise of Miss E—h H— being impenetrable to local history research – though she appears as Elizabeth rather than Betsy, she may have come from a better background than her sister nymphs. Clearly Epsom had descended a long way from its heyday as a spa by 1763, if the annual ball (if that is where the Beauties danced and sang) was limited to the daughters of bakers, plumbers, bricklayer-builders and a barber turned peruquemaker. Behind the flowery verse, we catch a glimpse of those social and personal networks between small trading families which in the next century would bring about the revival of Epsom as a town.