Above: Modern map from Google highlighting the site of the well and other topics described in the article.
Most residences have as many water taps as they require but that is just a sign of the affluent times in which we live. In the 1800s a whole street of houses had to share one water pump, located outside in the roadway. In times before that, most people got their water by filling a bucket from a nearby well. Unbelievably, although wells were in very short supply, people often threw their rubbish down the shaft – thus polluting the water at the bottom. It was this unsavoury habit that led to the building of a water pump above the well which thus covered over the well and prevented rubbish being thrown down.
We know – from early maps in Tudor times – that there were not more than about 20 or 30 wells in the whole of the City of London and even less per head of population in the area we now know as Westminster. The focus of our attention in this article is on a well that was sited just north of the church of St Clement Danes, in the Strand. The site of the well would be on the west side of today’s Royal Courts of Justice which were not built until the end of the 19th century. The site is highlighted in red on the above map. The land is owned by the Royal Courts of Justice and used as a small car park.
Stow, writing in 1605, in his ‘Survay of London’ says that ‘The fountain called Saint Clements Well, north from the parish church of Saint Clements, and near unto an Inn of Chancerie, called Clement’s Inne, is yet fair and curbed square with hard stone and is always kept clean for common use. It is always full and never wanted water.’
His account shows that it was obviously a popular place for drawing water and it seems that it was fed from a reliable spring because he says that it never ran dry. It would be fascinating to see it marked on an 18th or 19th century map but there is no map that shows the exact position. That, you might have thought, would be the end of the story but there is another piece of quite unexpected evidence to be seen.
The Strand faced considerable upheaval in the early 1900s when the semi-circular road called Aldwych and the nearby Kingsway were laid out – thus obliterating the smaller streets and alleyways around that part of the Strand. If you refer to maps earlier than 1900 you will find that the Strand had a collection of small streets at odd angles near the two churches. If you have the inclination to look at earlier maps, then remember that there are three constant factors: (1) the two churches (St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes) have always occupied the same position; (2) the site of Temple Bar is now marked by a monument; (3) many streets have been altered over the centuries but Strand Lane and Milford Lane (both shown in green on the above map) are both very ancient in origin and appear on maps of any age.
Above: Plate from the pump, dated 1807, mounted near the eastern end of the church of St Clement Danes.
Above: En;agreement of the plate with rather curious wording.
The final piece of evidence for St Clement’s Well is the original plate (dated 1807) from the pump which is now to be seen at the edge of the churchyard, on the eastern end of the island site of St Clement Danes. Quite what the point of preserving the plate was or when it was moved is not clear but it is an interesting echo from the past.
Unlike water that is piped, water from a spring remains for ever. It cannot be removed. Chances are that someone, who maintains the buildings on which the Royal Courts of Justice stand, may just know where the well of water is to be found. It may be that under one of the man-hole covers is that same spring issuing well water that may possibly be draining into a sewer somewhere in the Strand.