Above: Map showing the site of Holy Well whose original location was on the north side of an ancient thoroughfare called Holywell Street.
The construction of the semi-circular road called Aldwych and the nearby Kingsway took place in the early 1900s as a slum clearance project. If you look on maps older than 1900 you will see that the area was a ‘rabbit warren’ of narrow streets and alleyways. They were all swept away when the bold plan to lay out Aldwych and redevelop the land within it with a large group of offices called Bush House – named after the American businessman Irving T Bush who was responsible for the bold project.
The easternmost block was built for the Australian High Commission and called Australia House. It is still in use for that purpose today. Australia House stands on top of several old streets but one of them was called Holywell Street. It was so-named because for many centuries there had been a well about mid-way along its northern side. Unfortunately there are no pre-1900 maps showing the site of the well but we know where it was situated from other accounts.
Today it is quite difficult to work out where things were before Aldwych was laid out. There are three constant factors which will help work out the position of earlier features: (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.
The so-called ‘Holy Well’ is described in very early documents and was, no doubt, used for drawing water for the domestic needs of the inhabitants in Saxon and Norman times. You may be surprised to learn that human behaviour was no better then than today. Many people threw their rubbish down wells and thus adulterated the water. As Tudor times came, wells were covered over and a mechanical pump was installed so that the water could be pumped up from below the ground and thus prevent people throwing their rubbish into it.
Holy Well therefore became a pump but, of course, the spring supplying the source of water remained in the ground. By the 1900s, the area was being redeveloped and Australia House was built over the site. A spring cannot be ‘moved out of the way’ just because it is no longer requires and so provision had to made for the ancient source of water. This was done by placing an access man-hole cover over the cavity where the water settled and that man-hole cover remains to this day!
The authorities in the building know where it is and, if you have a good enough reason to ask to see it, they will take you into the basement and you can actually see the small pool of water under the floor. Like most springs, it still produces very clear water which is good enough to drink. In fact, of recent times, a film crew from ABC made a feature of the well on their television channel and had the water scientifically tested. The results showed that it was indeed of high enough quality to drink.
The great interest in this little piece of history is that the spring remains in its original position in spite of the endless redevelopment of the land by those who wished to build there. Romans are not known to have lived on this particular part of London but there is archaeological evidence for Saxons living there. It is entirely possible that Saxon dwellers found the spring and used for their drinking water nearly 1,500 years ago – and its still in existence on the exact spot!
Above: Looking east near the western end of Holywell Street, from a painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd made about 1860.
Holywell Street had become very run down by the 1860s and for the remaining 40 years when it was finally demolished about 1900. However, as the painting shows, it had interesting houses that were probably built in the late 1500s so they were around 300 years old when they were demolished. Such houses were extremely rare in London by the time of their demise. Today houses from that date are almost non-existent in Inner London.