Wednesday 12 May 2010

Tooting's Well

If you were to take a stroll up Mitcham Road from Tooting it wouldn't be long before you saw an intriguing item on the pavement on the corner with Church Road. It's not a statue, or an obvious piece of sculpture - in fact it looks a little like a drain stink-pipe crossed with a broken village clock tower - but it is, in fact a commemorative marker. What it marks is the position of Tooting's very first publicly owned artesian well!
I don't really know much about wells and, interesting as it might be, I wasn't really all that sure why having a well was worthy of such a memorial.  If it came to that I wasn't really sure what the difference was between an artesian and any other sort of well*, so I thought I'd see what I could find out about the subject in general and Tooting's wells in particular.

First off there was the question of geology - how deep did the well have to go and what did they have to drill through? I found the answer in a most unexpected place, the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 71 which seemed to have quite a lot of information about the geology of Tooting. This describes the process of boring a well just up the road but I assume it's a pretty good indicator of the task faced by the locals at that time.

Edinburgh medical and surgical journal, Volume 71 1849

To put this into some sort of perspective Richmond Bridge over the Thames is 280ft long, so stand that on end and that's how far down the residents of Tooting had to go to get some fresh water!
That Tooting was short of water must have been bad enough, but the fact that the neighbouring village of Streatham had water in abundance must have rubbed salt in the wound somewhat as they seemed to have more than enough for their needs, even becoming something of a tourist attraction as a result. Wikipedia notes that

The village [of Streatham] remained largely unchanged until the 18th century, when the village's natural springs, known as Streatham Wells, were first celebrated for their health giving properties. The reputation of the spa, and improved turnpike roads, attracted wealthy City of London merchants and others to lay out their country residences in Streatham.

Streatham's spa supply actually failed in 1792 but faced with ruin a new source was 'discovered' near by and seems to have slowed down the decline for some time after, even into the 20th century. According to some reports you could still get a bottle of Streatham water pretty much up to the First World War                                                    It is curious to note that while several spas near London have disappeared, that at Streatham still exists at the end of Wells Lane, now Well-Field Road, and the water is sold in bottles on the spot and delivered to town daily.
                                                                          Memorials of old Surrey John Charles Cox - 1911
Even as late as 1885 with both Tooting and Streatham beginning to grow appreciably in size and population the issue of water could be a source of friction between them, as seemed to be the case when a
... meeting [was] held in reference to the Southwark and  Vauxhall Water Company who are sinking a great well at Streatham which has had the effect of abstracting the water from upwards of one hundred private springs and wells in the parish of Tooting...
Journal of Forestry - 1885

I'm not sure what the final outcome was but I suspect the Streatham pump would have had to be limited in some way. Shades of a South London Manon des Sources!

However in the early 19th century, back in the small village of Tooting, it was obviously bad news that such a significant  resource as water was in the hand of a few individuals, and so the decision was made to break the monopoly, even if one of these wells, the property of a local apothecary, seems to have been an object of some wonder... Apparently it came up with such force that it gushed like a fountain to the height of a couple of storeys and presumably provided a very useful alternative source of income for the lucky owner!

Without looking through musty old documents and contracts of the period, you might never think it possible to find out much about the individual who actually dug the bore, but through the marvels of the internet I soon came across an important clue                                                                                                                    

The Mechanics Magazine of 1824 published an indignant letter from the very man who had dug the well at the 'coach-road side at Tooting'. This is significant as the memorial to the well is opposite The Mitre Hotel, a famous coaching inn that still has its stable block to the rear. It also ties in very nicely with the date given for the construction of the monument, 1823. He was apparently rather miffed that someone else was trying to pass off his work as their own...             
 John Goode was a professional well-borer with several patents to his name. He specialised in the London area but also went out at least as far as to Chelmsford in Essex. He obviously did a good job in Tooting and was presumably well-paid for his efforts.

There was also a helpful diagram  showing the rough strata of the London area that John Goode had to deal with and this was pretty much a clay basin with a chalk sub-strata. This chalk was the source of the purest and softest water and it was its sponge-like characteristic that was able to provide sufficient pressure to force water up the lucky apothecaries bore pipe.  Now however, thanks to their finance and John Goode's efforts the good people of Tooting were able to drink their fill at their own Parish Pump well. They were independent with a high quality water source filtered by huge chalk beds, and an occasion definitely worth raising a monument !

(*An artesian well is apparently one that does not require pumping, but which forces water up the bore tube on its own. Mostly this happens when the water level is suppressed by something like a layer of clay. When that 'cap' is pierced the water shoots up to find its natural level. So now we know...)


Nutmegger Workshop said...

Your research is so thorough and very much appreciated! Great post!

cheap mulberry bags said...

I just found your page and it is fascinating. I have always been intrigued by these phantom fingerprints of the past that still haunt our cities.

Dub said...

I've often wondered about Tooting's links to water: The other side of Tooting from where the artedian well is are: Fishponds Road, Broadwater Road, Hillbrook Road, Springfield Hospital.

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Anonymous said...

All your posts on Tooting are fascinating. I'm now looking more deeply into Norfolk House and those 2 stone heads. The one on the left reminds me of W.P. Mellhuish, the Tooting undertaker in the late 19C, who also sported a magnificent 'tache! Can I interest you in coming to the next Tooting History Group meeting on Tuesday 13 March @ 7.30pm at the Tooting Progressive Club (nr Amen Corner)- surely worth a look in itself?

Darren Demers said...

I don't really know much about wells and, interesting as it might be, I wasn't really all that sure why having a well was worthy of such a memorial. vintage cross necklace , handmade ladies shoes , cute anklets , embroidery on leather bags , men's embroidered leather belts , jeans with belts , boots with attached belt , mens leather bracelet If it came to that I wasn't really sure what the difference was between an artesian and any other sort of well*, so I thought I'd see what I could find out about the subject in general and Tooting's wells in particular.