Some lost wells and found wells of eastern central London
Finsbury’s Sadler’s Well is believed by some to have been a converted holy well. Indeed, Hood (1813) records that in A True and Exact Account of Sadler’s Well, 1684:
“the new Well at Islington is a certain Spring in the middle of a Garden, belonging to the Musick-house, built by Mr Sadler… the water whereof was, before the Reformation, very much famed for several extraordinary cures performed therby, and was therefore accounted sacred, and called Holy-Well… But, upon the Reformation, the Well was stopt up’, until some workmen uncovered it, and Sadler began to market it as a spa.”
Despite the likelihood of the site being a holy well it is more probable that the site had a back history created for the benefit of advertising the spa. In the recent refurbishment of the Opera House, the old Sadler’s well was not forgotten and now has been given a clear cover so that the well can be observed just right of the foyer up the stairs.
In Holborn, the Powis Well was discovered according to Foord (1910) before 1721 as it is mentioned in The Weekly Journal of 1721 January 17th::
“Tuesday morning last happened a very odd and deplorable accident; a man going to a little spring at the back of Lord Powis’s house, in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, to which there is a great resort on account of its being reported good in several impurities; stooping to wash his eyes, as ’tis supposed, he fell headlong in and was suffocated.”
Clearly named after the house it was found in the garden of, now the north-west end of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and as stated its water was said to be good for eyes. The well had a house of entertainment and walks associated with it. Foord (1910) notes an advertisement dated August 4, 1748 (the name of the newspaper does not appear) announces that :
“The Long Room at Powis Wells by Lamb’s Conduit will be opened for the Summer Season, with an assembly of Country Dancing. To begin on Monday next. Tickets to be had at the said Wells at two shilings each. The doors to be opened at four o’clock. There will be good Musick and good accommodations.”
Another advertisement (of 1754) is in these terms:
“Powis Wells by the Foundling Hospital. These waters are now in their full perfection. They are of a sweetening, diuritic, and gently purging quality, and are recommended by many eminent Physicians and Surgeons for the cure of breakings out, sore legs, inflammation of the eyes, and other scorbutic and leprous disorders, &c. Those who send for these waters are desired to take notice that the Bottles are sealed upon the cork with the words ‘Powis Wells Water.’”
The site is now lost, but is remembered in Powis Street. Three noted healing springs existed in the Clerkenwell parish, one of which gave the borough its name. The Clerks Well is the best preserved holy well in this area of London. The spring is so called because as Hone (1823) notes that the Miracle Plays were performed here by virtue of its suitability of its aspect,
“being a rapid slope from Clerkenwell Green down to the valley of the Fleet, forming a sort of natural amphitheatre, whence the spectators could see distinctly all that went on below them.”
Stow gives its position as:
“ not far from the west end of Clerkenwell Church, but close without the wall that incloseth it.”
Agas’s (1558) pictorial plan of London shows that the water gushed from a spout at the south-west corner of St. Mary’s Nunnery, and falling into a trough, enclosed by a low wall as described by Stow. In 1673, James third Earl of Northampton donated the water and its land to the poor of St. James. However, this did not stop the Vestry leasing the spring to John Crosse a brewer, who enclosed the well and ran a conduit from it to Hockley in the Hole. The well had formerly iron- work and brass cocks, which are now cut off. The water spins through the old wall. I was there and tasted the water and found it excellently clear, sweet, and well tasted. The Clerks’ Well was still marked by a pump in 1858 in the south-east corner of Ray Street, the spring from which it was supplied being 4 feet eastwards. An iron tablet which was erected over the pump remains and it commemorates the Clerk’s performances and that ‘the water was greatly esteemed by the prior and brethren of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the Benedictine Nuns in the neighbourhood.’ By 1897, the well existed being covered by a massive brick arch, but under the floor of No. 18, Farringdon Road, formerly the parish watch-house. But by 1924, the exact location was unknown, but it was rediscovered on Farringdon Lane. The site was finally renovated in 1984, with a small exhibition.
Of the Skinner’s Well, another spring associated by Miracle or Mystery plays, this time done by the Skinners, it is noted in a Feet of Fines MS notes a Godewell described as between the Priory and the Holeburne ; apparently somewhat to the south. The name at least dates from 1327 as a Charter was granted to the Skinners then by they would have existed before then to be granted such a charter so the well may be older in its dedication.
Foord (1910) states that the Skinners’ Well had been lost by 1720 if not by Stow’s time but he was informed that it lay west of St. James Church Clerkenwell and was enclosed within certain houses there. He notes that:
“Dr. Rogers, who formerly lived in an house there, showed Mr. Edmund Howard, late churchwarden, marks in a wall in the close where, as he affirmed, the pipes lay, that it might be known after his death.”
Yet exact site of Skinners’ Well is not now known. Another site may be considered a holy well by virtue of association, Loders Well; was granted to the Nuns of Clerkenwell in year 1200 by a Muriel de Montigny who gave the ‘fons qui vocatur Lodderswell’ with a right-of-way thereto from the Priory. The site of the well has now been lost.
The final Clerkenwell site was the Coldbath spring was located near the Clerk’s wel, near river Fleet and Turnmill Brook. It was described as a mild chalybeate spring at first drunk and then by 1697 to be bathed in. Sutherland (1915) tells us that Walter Baynes noted it as the most noted and first bathing place in London. Water was good for scorbutic complaints, rheumatism, chronic disorders and help with the appetite. It consisted of a 103 foot by 60 foot bath and in its large garden was a four turret summer house. In 1815 the front of the building as removed but the bath remained until 1870. The neighbourhood was called Coldbath fields and now nothing is left to remember it
There are a number of well sites at Cripplegate; possibly some recall the same site. The most confirmed was at the back of St. Giles Church was the Crowder’s or Crowd’s Well which according to Childrey (1661) as tasting like new milk and was good for eyes. Near the site was a Jewish cemetery and it has been commented that a Crowell is close to a medieval Jewish cemetery in Oxford and a Crowder’s Terrace in Winchester near a medieval cemetery. This view is further supported by the presence of a Jacob’s Well north of the cemetery plot. It has been postulated that this well may have been a mikveh used on the site for ritual ablutions (cf Jacob’s Well Bristol, also near a Jewish cemetery). Until fairly recently a Pub, Crowd’s Well remembered it, but it too has gone. Monkwell Street commemorates the Monk Well. The site is possibly linked to a hermitage or Chantry chapel established in 1347 by Lady Mary de St. Pol, Countess of Pembroke. She granted the Cistercian Abbey of Garendon, Leicestershire, two tenements one in Fleet Street and the other in Sherbourne Lane. In return the Abbot and Convent were to maintain one monk in a hermitage near Cripplegate, to pray for the soul of Aymer de Valence, late Earl of Pembroke. Foord (1909) notes that a little west of Well Street and Monk well was a site called St. Giles’s Well. There is no evidence of this well having this name and so may have been a site by association with St. Giles’ church and a confusion with Monk well or Crowd’s well.
As this brief article shows, the restless urban progress of London has robbed us of many interesting sites, but like many great cities, some sites remain, preserved like flies trapped in aspic giving us a view of when London’s wells were a vital part of their society.