The Birch Well – a forgotten medicinal spring?
Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.