The River of Wells
by Chesca Potter
The River Fleet in London was once called the ‘river of wells’ due to the numerous healing wells which ‘sprung up’ along its banks. This article is concerned with those in the area which is now called Kings Cross. The Fleet has its source in the ancient ‘Caenwood‘ on Hampstead Heath, and from thence it flows through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, and Clerkenwell, emptying into the Thames at Blackfriars.
The river was one of the major rivers in London, and once must have been clear and sparkling, probably regarded as sacred and healing in itself. As early as the 13th century, complaints were made about the increasing pollution of the Fleet in the City of London, and by the 18th century, when the river was virtually an open sewer in the more built areas, more and more of the river was arched over. By the end of the 19th century, the Fleet was one of the lost rivers of London. Unfortunately, most of its wells vanished also, and sadly, this article deals with what was, rather than what is.
St Chad’s Well
St Chad’s Well stood near the ‘Battle Bridge’, an ancient arched bridge which crossed the Fleet. The area surrounding the bridge was called Battle Bridge until 1836 when a statue of King George IV was erected at the meeting of what are now Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross Road and York Way, thus Battle Bridge became the ‘King’s Cross’. The strongest tradition associated with Battle Bridge is that the name commemorated the final battle between the British led by Boudicca, and the Romans. Boudicca and 80,000 Britons are said to have been slaughtered here.
Another tradition is that hand-written on the rather idealised drawing of St Chad’s Well (see picture); ‘On this spot was fought a battle between Canute and Edmund Ironside; an old monkish legend says that this water sprung at ye foot of Edmund at ye moment of victory.’ There is no ancient documentation of St Chad’s Well, and the first written mention appears in 1762, calling attention to the popularity of its waters. In 1772 an advertisement mentions that ‘at the opening for the season of St Chad’s Wells at Battle Bridge last week upwards of a 1,000 persons drank the waters’.
From the middle to the end of the 19th century, the well was in considerable repute, at least locally. The gardens were then spacious, and well stocked with trees and flowers. The water was heated in a large cauldron and thence drawn into glasses. By the beginning of the 19th century, the well was in decline. A visitor in 1825 found it neglected and dilapidated; ‘Entering by an elderly pair of wooden gates, a scene opens which the unaccustomed eye may take for the pleasure ground of Giant Despair…You perceive painted on an octagon board “Health Restored and Preserved”. By an open door stands an ancient ailing female in a black bonnet, a clean cotton gown and a check apron…this is the Lady of the Well’.
To attract more people a temporary circus was erected in the grounds in 1829, and in 1833 a new pump room erected. The site was eventually destroyed by the Midland Railway, who did so much damage to the area’s historic places.
St Chad’s Well is thought to be of very ancient origin, and was one of the most important of the many wells in London. St Chad, born in Northumbria, became Bishop of Mercia in 669 and died in Lichfield in 672. St Chad is the patron saint of wells and springs, and a famous healing well at Lichfield preserves his memory to this day. By tradition, the waters of St Chad’s Well in London were similar to those in Lichfield, containing sodium, magnesium, sulphates and iron. All that is left of this well is its commemoration in the placename ‘St Chad’s Place’.
Black Mary’s Hole or Well
This well is so often confused with the nearby Bagnigge Wells that I have tried to clarify their difference in this article. Firstly, one must try to account for the extraordinary name ‘Black Mary’s Hole’. People have offered so many theories as to its origin that it is obvious that no-one is certain of its etymology. One suggestion is that the well was once owned by the Benedictine nuns of St Mary’s, Clerkenwell. They were called black nuns because of the colour of their habit and thus the well could have belonged to ‘Black Mary’s’.
Other suggestions are that the keeper of the Well had once been a woman called Mary who kept a black cow; or alternatively the well was run by a negress called Mary.
But why was it called a ‘hole’ and not a well? Another suggestion is that it was originally dedicated to Black Mary, the dark Madonna. The Black Madonna, representing the dark side of the moon, and originating from the more ancient lunar goddesses such as Black Isis, was worshipped once in England, and still is on the continent, e.g. the Black Virgin of Montserrat, Spain. It is interesting that another form of the moon Goddess was a cow (i.e. Isis as Hathor) perhaps explaining the suggestion that the keeper of the well was a woman with a black cow. Also, in Italian painting the Black Madonna was sometimes portrayed as a negress.
It is just possible that the ‘Hole’ referred originally to a sacrificial pit. I took Carole Young (now Smith) the psychic, to Black Mary’s Hole. She felt that it was a sacrificial pit to a goddess. She could also feel where the river Fleet was running beside the road, although I had said nothing.
Black Mary’s Hole was a well-known well, and in 1687 Walter Baynes, of the Inner Temple, enclosed it into a conduit, and on Rocque’s map of London (l746-8) it is marked as a conduit near the Pantheon Turnpike Gate. A hamlet had grow up around it, taking its name. In Cromwell’s History of Clerkenwell, p. 318, we hear the last of Black Mary’s Hole. He says;
‘Beneath the front garden of a house in Spring Place and extending under the foot pavement almost to Pantheon Gate, lies the capacious receptacle of a mineral spring, which in former times was in considerable repute, both as a chalybeate, and for its supposed efficacy in the cure of sore eyes…When Spring Place was erected (c. 1815) the builder removed every external appearance of Walter Baynes’ labours and converted the receptacle beneath into a cesspool for the drainage of his houses. The spring thus degraded, and its situation concealed, it is probable that the lapse of a few more years would have effaced the memory of it forever, had not an accident rediscovered it in the Summer of 1826. Its covering, which was only of boards, having rotted, suddenly gave way, and left a large chasm in the footpath. After some efforts, not perfectly successful, to turn off the drainage, it was then arched with brickwork, a leaden pump was placed over it, in the garden where it chiefly lies. But the pump being stolen during the following Winter, the spring has again fallen into neglect and possibly this page alone will prevent it being totally forgotten.’
Spring Place was eventually demolished and a council estate now occupies the spot; the only evidence I could find of the well was its commemoration in the naming of ‘Spring House’.
Opposite Black Mary’s Hole were the Bagnigge Wells. The Fleet was a sizeable river at this point and was named Bagnigge river. The etymology of the name is uncertain, but it goes back at least to the 13th century where William Stukeley found a Domino Thoma de Bagnigge as witness to a charter of William de Ewell, prebendary of Vinesbury.
There were two springs at Bagnigge. They were probably owned by St Mary’s, Clerkenwell at one time, and one was possibly the ‘Rodewell’ or ‘Reddewell’ (Well of the Cross) mentioned in the early register of Clerkenwell.
Nell Gwynne (1650-87) the mistress of Charles II was supposed to have lived at the spacious country house situated at Bagnigge. It is possible that she did, in the 17th century, the area consisted mainly of fields, and churches. Also, the St Pancras/Battle Bridge area had always been Royalist in tendency. However, the importance of Nell Gwynne is that her life and her character accrued symbolic details that made her a sort of living representation of Elen, or Helen, the ‘genius loci or patron deity of London. Harold Bayley, in his fascinating book The Lost Language of London discusses the symbolic nature of Helen. Nell, a diminutive of Eleanor, comes from the same root as Elen, Helen, and the Celtic Goddess, Noualen, who is depicted in art much as Nell Gwynne is; a beautiful young woman, holding a basket of fruit with a small dog beside her. The complex question of the symbolism of Helen cannot be discussed here  but basically she is an important deity, both solar and Venusian in nature. She is often associated with wells, and also with ‘leys’ (Sarn Elen). She is usually called by an epithet bright or shining, or beautiful; it is interesting that Nell Gwynne’s surname means ‘white’ in Celtic languages. Anyway, the point I am making is that the association of Nell Gwynne with the Bagnigge Wells may be in memory of an ancient deity.
The Bagnigge wells were opened to the public as a spa c. 1760. There were two wells, each 20 feet in depth; the water was brought from them to one point and thence drawn from two pumps, enclosed in a small erection called the ‘Temple’ consisting of a roofed and circular kind of colonnade. One well was chalybeate and situated just behind the house, and was nearly two yards in diameter, the water exceedingly clear. The other well was about 40 yards north of the chalybeate, and was thought to possess cathartic properties.
Bagnigge Wells became a fashionable meeting place; there was a bowling green and skittle alley, and tea and ale was served. It was the butt of much satire;
‘Wells and the place I sing, at early dawn
Frequented oft, where male and female meet
and strive to drink a long adieu to pain.
In that refreshing vale with fragrance fill’d
Recknowned of old for nymph of public fame
And amorous encounter, where the sons
Of lawless lust conven’d, where each by turns
his venal doxy woo’d, and stu’d the place
Black Mary’s Hole – there stands a dome superb
Hight Bagnigge; where free our forefathers hid
Long have two springs in dull stagnation slept,
But, taught at length by subtle art to flow,
They rise, forth from oblivion’s bed they rise,
And manifest their virtues to mankind.’
Bagnigge Wells by W. Woty, 1760.
Far had they fallen from sacred wells! Like most wells, Bagnigge’s popularity declined in the 19th century, and by 1842 it was described as ‘almost a ruin’ . Sadly the site is now heavily built upon but the springs are commemorated by ‘Wells Street’ and ‘Gwynne Place’. A stone inscription said to have come from Nell Gwynne’s House is now set into the wall of number 63, Kings Cross Road. It reads; ‘This is Bagnigge House Neare The Pindar A Wakefeilde 1680’. The ‘Pindar’ was a noted local inn.
St Pancras Wells
The river Fleet ran right past the ancient church of St Pancras; this church is raised on a mound called Church Hill. Pancras Wells were situated on the south side of the hill. St Pancras Church is the oldest in London, thought to be founded c. 314 A.D., commemorating the death of the child martyr Pancratius in Rome in 304 A.D. Again, there is a connection with Helen, this time St Helen the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She is said to have founded the the church after her son declared Christianity the official religion due to his vision of the True Cross. The church was built on Roman remains and was probably on a very ancient sacred site. So, although the wells are not mentioned until the 17th century, they were, I think, of great antiquity.
Their first mention occurs in 1697, when the proprietor of a local tavern called the ‘Horns’ issued a handbill stating their virtues; the waters were declared to have been found ‘by long experience, a powerful antidote against rising of the vapours, also against stone and gravel, and as a general and sovereign help to nature’. By 1700 an extensive garden had been laid out with long straight walks, shaded by avenues of trees. There was a Long Room, two pump rooms and a House of Entertainment. The ‘Adam & Eve’ tavern stood next to the church and in 1722 the proprietor of the wells complained that the good name of the place had suffered by ‘the encouraging of scandalous company’.
In June, 1769 the Pancras waters were advertised as being ‘in the greatest perfection and highly recommended by the most eminent physicians in the Kingdom’. During the period 1795-1811 the well appears to have been enclosed in the garden of a private house near the churchyard, ‘neglected and passed out of mind’. Part of the site of the old well and walks was formerly occupied by the houses in Church Row, where Percy & Mary Shelley lived. These houses were destroyed along with most of St Pancras’ churchyard in the massacre of the district by the Midland Railway.
The area of St Pancras and Kings Cross is very rich in ‘earth mysteries’ material; sadly due to the destruction and loss of the wells, this article may seen devoid of my own personal response to them. However, I did have one of the most ‘spiritual’ experiences of my life by a well in this area. I went for the first time to visit a friend. At lunch, I could ‘feel’ a divine presence by the fireplace, very ‘pure’, very ‘loving’, with the image in my mind of a shining woman, a Lady of the Well. When the presence disappeared, I asked my host if there was a well nearby; she said there was one in the garden, and that her house had been a convent. Sometimes the rooms were filled with the strong smell of lilies. The whole feeling of the place was very sacred, feminine and warm. It is the only time I have experienced the real ‘feeling’ of a well. My friends want no publicity and would prefer their address not to be published, so you will have to take my word for it! I am very happy anyway that there is at least one well left where so many have been destroyed.