The ancient springs of London’s first commercial water supply – The great scheme
In the early 1600s London undertook an ambitious project to bring clean drinking water from the countryside into the heart of the metropolis. Central to this play were two ancient springs. Unlike their Victorian entrepreneurs who often emasculated their spring heads, those utilised in Sir Hugh Myddleton’s New River remain picturesque relics. He was given the responsibility in March 1609, with the provision that he completed it in four years. However, he encountered considerable problems with acquiring the land necessary, and many land owners believed that the scheme would result in their lands being flooded. Indeed, they even petitioned the government over the matter, but fortunately Parliament was dissolved and the matter was not discussed.
Finally, in 1611, the Corporation of London extended the contract for another four years, but Myddleton sensibly approached James I for help. He agreed to take over half the costs and take half the revenue. This not only helped financially but landowners were impressed by the Royal patronage, and furthermore the King’s connection discouraged a rival scheme to use the River Lea at Hackney.
On Michaelmas Day 1613, the scheme was completed, and a ceremony took place, not far from where Saddler’s Wells Theatre now stands, attended by The Lord Mayor, Myddleton’s brother, Thomas, and a great number of Alderman. With the accompaniment of rolling drums and ringing church bells, the sluice gates opened and water direct from Hertfordshire gushed into the Clerkenwell reservoir.
The total cost at the end was £500,000 in those days an enormous amount. A joint stock company entitled ‘The Governor and Company of New River Brought from Chadwell and Amwell to London.’ The company enjoyed a Royal Charter, and Myddelton was appointed governor. However, it was not until after his death, in 1631, that any profit was made. Yet, in 1640s it saw great periods of prosperity, and remained a separate company for 300 years until it was absorbed by the Metropolitan Water Board. Myddleton in 1622, he was duly made a Baronet, and apart from those at Amwell, monuments at Islington Gardens, The Holborn Viaduct, and the courtyard of the Royal Exchange were erected to his enterprise.
The most picturesque of these is the ancient spring, called Emma’s Well (TL 372 125) which has given the parish its name still exists, having formed part of the system established to supply freshwater to London via the New River It is a well known beauty spot, but the actual well is often missed by visitors, who focus on the delightful turfed islands with their monuments. The well itself is located opposite to this site, and is defined as a small piped opening, through which the spring flows. Just above the well is a small stone monument, slightly obscured by foliage. Upon this source stone a poem is inscribed:
“O’vering with shrubs that fringe the chalky rock. A little fount purr’d forth its gurgling rill. In flinty channel trickling o’er the green, From EMMA nam’d perhaps some sainted maid, For holy life rever’d so such erewhile, Fond superstition many a pleasant grove, And limpid Spring was wont to consecrate, Of Emma’s story nought Tradition speaks, Conjecture who behind Oblivion’s veil. Along the doubtful past delights to fray, boasts now indeed that from her well he place Received as appellation. In Domesday book this village Amwell written Emmaswelle.”
The well’s water flows under the road, and fills the aforementioned artificial pool, created by damming, with its two interlinked manicured turfed isles. Upon the islet is a monument to this scheme’s deviser Sir Hugh Myddleton (1609). It states:
“From the spring at Chadwell 2 miles west and from this source at Amwell the aqueduct meanders for the space of XL miles conveying health, pleasure and convenience to the metropolis of Great Britain. An immortal task since man cannot more nearly initiate the Deity than by bestowing health. This monument was dedicated by Robert Mylne, architect, engineer in 1800. Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddleton Bart., whose successful assisted by the patronage of his King, conveyed this stream to London. This humble tribute to the genius, talents and clarity of mind.”
The second smaller islet has a yew tree with another monument (1818) with lines of verse penned by locally renowned poet Scott (whose grotto nearby at Ware is well worth a visit ). This he called ‘Amwell ‘ :
“Amwell. Perpetual be thy stream. Nor ever thy spring be less. Which thousands drink who never dream whence flows the streams they bless.”
The name Amwell appeared after the 14th Century before then the well retained its original dedication of Emma. The name is believed to be derived from the wife of King Cnut or Canute. Confusingly, folklorist Gerish (1899) appears to suggest that the churchyard well was that regarded as ‘Holy’, being used in baptisms and being efficacious in cures. He does not give an exact location and I have been unable to locate another well. Easier locate is that commonly called St Chad’s Well (TL 350 135) is located between below the road between Ware and Hertford. It would appear that, rather than being associated with the Mercian missionary and patron saint of springs, its name is derived from O.E ceals for ‘cold’ spring, for in the middle ages, the site was called ‘chaldwelle’ or ‘caldewelle’. The name St. Chad’s well only appears from 1727. However, its water was said to be good for eyes.
The spring arises in this large stone lined pool, and joins the flow from Amwell, into the New River towards London. Around the pool are the stone monuments. The largest one states (on one side):
This belongs to New River Company 178 feet. Chadwell Spring. The other side: This belongs to the New River Company 270 feet. Repaired 1728. The side panels reading, one side: 269 Feet. Opened 1608, and on the other: 43 Feet. Conveyed 40 Miles.
The other, smaller stone which appears to have a trig-point attached also states:
This belongs to the New River Company.
According to Hawkwood (1924) these monuments predate an older inscribed stone, which was found with the words ‘Chadwell’ on it in 1743. The presence whereabouts of this is not known.
An oft repeated piece of folklore
An interesting piece of folklore is connected with both this site and Amwell. Recorded by William Vallens in the ‘Tale of Two Swannes’ (1589) and referred to by Cussans, the Hertfordshire historian, it relates how the two sites were connected by an underground tunnel. It states:
“A tale there is deliver’d unto us, from hand to hand, how that a haunted ducke, Diving within this chalk-well head or hole, Was forced underneath the hollow ground, To swimme along by wayes that be unknowne, And afterward at Amwell Spring (they say) Was thrown up featherless and bare.”
This is a common folklore motif, and is often connected to mysterious caves and legends of secret tunnels. However, it has also been connected to holy wells. For example there is said to be a tunnel between Guildford Castle and St Mary’s Well, Farnham, both in Surrey. This was supposedly traversed by a goose, who also like the above tail appeared a little worse for wear the other end!
What is pleasing to note that unlike their Victorian counterparts, the scheme did not emasculate the spring and enclose it within an inaccessible chamber, they celebrated and romanticised their water supplies rather than santise and have left a romantic site for future generations to enjoy.