This year I published my long researched Holy wells and healing springs of Kent, number six in the series. Here is an analysis of the county’s urban wells which may interest.
Ancient water supplies do not survive well in urban areas. What were once the very focal points of such communities quickly become swept away by progress and the need for better sanitation and supply. However, in my research into ancient wells of the county, I have been interested to note that there appear to have been some particularly interesting examples in what is now the most urbanised area of Kent that which has now in the most part been incorporated into the London sprawl. Some of these sites, Lewisham’s Lady Well, Bromley’s St. Blaise’s Well and Keston’s Caesar’s Well, are well known and suitable for articles in their own right, but there are a number of other interesting sites. In some cases unfortunately their existence in most cases is only remembered by their placenames such as street names or wood names and in some cases actually survive.
For example Greenwich drew the majority of its water from a source called the Stockwell, being the main source of the palace’s conduit tunnels. It may well have drawn upon spring water used by the Romans as Roman wells were located nearby. The site has long gone, and all that remains to remind us is a plaque on the site. Another spring head, not given a name anciently it appears, has in recent years been a focus for local pagans.
Blackheath’s water history is even less clear. Two names are noted Cresswell, a road name and Queen Elizabeth’s Well. The origin of the latter name is lost. Does it suggest that Elizabeth I drank from it when resident in the Royal Palace?
Lewisham had a number of noted water supplies, the Lady Well ( probably the same as the Woe Water ) and the Mineral Spring, however modern street names may record other interesting examples: Abbot’s Well, Cordwell and Foxwell. Swanley street names record a Kettlewell.
Further out, in the Parish of Eltham, there was an interesting well called the Lemon Well. The properties and brief histories of this spring are recorded by a correspondent of Dunkin ( 1856 ):
“..a spring which rises in the hedge by the road side a little beyond the residence of Thomas Lewin Esq, in the road towards Bexley. This spring has long gone by the name of Lemon Well; and has been supposed by the sort of people who entertain such notions, curative of sore eyes.”
This correspondent continues to note that the well was once filled in, but complaints from local people resulted in the culprit cleaning out the well and ‘putting it in a convenient form with new brick work.’ Yet an examination appropriate ordnance survey map and of the area fails to show a well or spring in this position; hence one presumes that the site was indeed finally filled in.
Nearby in the Elmstead Parish, was Garret’s Well. This marked on an 1841 tithe award, and may be derived from Old English garra for the triangular pieces of land left once the furrows were established. Indeed, old tithe awards are often the only evidence of these lost water supplies. For example at Downe, one records a Herwell, although no spring is noted, it would appear to be likely to be a site. The name probably derives from O.E hara for a hare or her for soldier, but possibly hearg for a pagan sacred grove.
A Sundridge tithe awards record a Camberwell and an Orpington tithe awards record a Cornwell, whether this records a spring that was noted for being able to predict corn prices? Another interestingly named site is noted on a Tithe Award in the Parish of St Paul’s Cray. It is called Henrietta Spring, and was the main supply for the village, being located north of the road. One imagines that its name came from local lady benefactor. Often ancient wells are recorded in wills and testaments. Such a mentions can suggest that the well was considered of importance. One such example, may have been found in Erith. Here records of a will of Robert Hethorpe of 1493, describe a Belton Well, ‘3s 5d for the mendying of a well called Beton well.’ This well would appear to be described as Beden Well in 1769 and Beeting Well in 1843. The origin for its name is unclear, it was probably taken from a landowner, but it may have been derived from the pagan festival of Beltaine – unlikely but more interesting if it was. The Cray valley has some interesting examples. The name Cray itself is believed to derive from Celtic for ‘fresh water’, so one would except its source to be considered important. This would appear to called as Craegas aeuuelme in the 8th Century, or fons aewielm, otherwise the ‘Great Spring’. In more modern times it gained the name Newell.
Further out was an interesting site, located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place. Located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place on the road side was Jacob’s or Hussey’s Well so called because it was repaired with stonework with a hollow stone by a Jacob Angus, and later by a Rev. Dr. Thomas Hussey, Rector from 1831-54. Its water was rich in calcium and sulphates and considered to be medicinal. Sadly, although the ponds remain, the well’s only monument is the name of the street encircling these pools. Hussey has also given his name to the Archdeacons’s or Hussey’s Well. This being a public fountain set up by Archdeacon Clarke of Norwich and Rector.
Cray has an interesting named site, called the Hobling Well which is probably the same as that marked as Robin’s Hole, on Tithe map. Both names suggest that the well was believed to be the abode of elementals. The name Hob being an Old English name for goblin, and Robin possibly recording the pagan character of Robin-a-Tiptoe, an elemental that would do arduous farm work without pay. Why the site should be so name is unclear. What I have always assume is the site, a boggy spring fed pool in Hobling Well wood still survives and recently saw off a plan to use the area as a waste dump. Presumably there was also a site called Palewell, as it has given its name to a local street.
There was also a unnamed pin well in the Parish at Beckenham. Langley was famed for its woe water, but also had an unnamed spring, which was used by a local physician, Dr. Scott in his research into the production of anti-bilious pills. This is now dry, but was known to have medicinal properties.
Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known. The first apparently is where Pett’s Wood derived its name, being that of Swellinde Pette, a name first recorded in 862 as Swelgende. The name refers to Whirl Pool, which was in Pett’s Wood. I have been unable to find any details regarding why local people should have believed there was such a site. Its early date suggests that it was Saxon, and may have been there interpretation of a local Dane Hole. But it is interesting that Horblingwell wood and pookridden woods are nearby was someone trying to warn us of these wood’s danger.
Despite there being some confusion over this site, Chislehurst still has one surviving site, a little known holy well called the Bishop’s Well. I searched for this site whilst undertaking research for my forthcoming book on the subject and was pleased to find that it was still extant. The well, like St. Blaise’s Well, was said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed into the grounds of the Crown Inn in Victorian times. This is not the current Crown, but now the private residence of Old Crown Cottage. I was fortunate to discover the owners in Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known.
I was informed by the then present owner, Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, laying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. So despite the fear of such watering holes spreading cholera, and hence cleared away on sanitary grounds, such an interesting site exists. Fortunately the sprawl of London into the county, the interesting water history of this region of Kent still continues in documents and antiquarian accounts.
During my research into Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire book (available now), I made contact with the Brigg Local history society, who in turn put me in contact with the owner of perhaps one of the counties more unusual sacred springs.
St Helen’s well (TA 013 077), it can be suggested is the most significant of the county’s springs with evidence of its usage going back to Bronze age periods. However, the first recorded account of it is in 1697 being noted in the diary of Abraham de la Pryme (published in 1870). He notes:
“having passed through Brigg on our way towards Melton, we went by a great spring, famous in days of old, called St Helen’s Well.”
It is unknown what the spring consisted of when Pryme visited, or why it was famous is unclear. It probably filled a large pool, rather than be associated with any structure, or possibly as the topography suggests a great fountain head, as suggested by it being considered a great spring. The next note of the site is probably that of Helingwell noted 1724 may derive its name from a vulgarisation of Helen or else O.E halig meaning holy. Interestingly, White (1856) refers to the site as St Anyan’s spring, and Peacock (1895) later spoke to:
“an old man brought up in its vicinity …. says that its true name is St Anyon’s Well”.
Although, he suggests that both authors have confused this site with St Trunnian’s Well at Barton-upon-Humber or St Aniel’s Well at Burton upon Stather. However, being a substantial spring, it would be identified in the 1850s as being a suitable source for a public water supply for the growing town of Brigg. Therefore in 1852, a Robert Cary and Cary Charles Elwes built a pumping house. This is what remains of St Helen’s well today: a plain rectangular building without windows built of yellow gault brick with a Welsh slate roof and York stone gable copings. The structure sits upon a large earthen mound.
However this is not all what it seems for with the door opened to the pumping house a deep chamber is revealed. Upon descending by means of a ladder, this deep chamber opens up to something far more impressive a large rectangular chamber with an oval roof burrowed deep within the hillside. The floor is inches deep in water and with the light of a torch only I followed this flow to its source: the springhead.
The spring arises via a pipe, set about four feet in the back wall, through which a considerable flow of clear water emerges. A large circular shallow basin, looking like a quern obviously from the nearby mill but possibly a precursor to the present structure, is found beneath the outflow. It may have been set up to be filled by the spring water but even with the present considerable volume and force it currently does not fill it. It may be setup to be filled by an outflow higher above the source. The present spring water now hits a slate stone tablet beneath it and forms a stream in the middle of the tiled floor, slanted to allow this. The spring filled the whole chamber at one point I was informed when the chamber was not opened up to allow it to now flow to a stream below.
Mr Day, the present owner gave an unlikely story that it was named by Emperor Constantine on his journey up to York. What is clear that the site lies within the area Jones (1986) describes as his core zone (containing 25% of Helen site) although it is missing from his gazetteer. Archaeological remains and finds suggest it was an important site. Mr Day informed me of the presence of a Roman settlement in the field adjoining the spring and showed me a number of coins of Constantine so perhaps this is an early site to be Christianised. Recently was found a more significant Bronze Age find, which is currently treasure trove, and so I cannot comment. However it was an object of some value to its owner and had been bent. He was told by a local expert that it had been damaged to prevent it being reused, but it is more obvious that it was so treated as a offering. If so it is a significant find and emphasises Thompson’s belief that the spring was cultic.
This site has clearly much yet to reveal and perhaps will become one of the most important of such sites in the county.
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