OS Grid Reference: TQ 31452 82134. On Farringdon Lane in Clerkenwell, London EC1, there is an interesting old well. It may have originally been a “holy well” but was probably more a “sacred well” where, in the distant past miracle plays were performed by the parish clerks (clerics), and further back into history it was perhaps associated with St Mary’s nunnery, a 12th century house of Benedictine nuns and, later of Franciscan nuns, which stood beside the well; the sisters making good use of the water. Adjoining the nunnery was St John’s Priory, the headquarters of the medieval Knights Hospitallers. Clerkenwell, a north London suburb that is now part of Islington, gets its name from ‘this’ ancient water source. The well has sometimes been called ‘Clark’s Well’ though usually ‘Clerks’. It was re-discovered back in 1924 after having been lost for some time. A pump at the corner of Ray Street used to be connected to the Clerk’s Well, a chalybeate spring first recorded way back in 1174. Its stone-built circular well chamber is located down some steps in the basement of no. 16 Well Court, a modern office block in Farringdon Lane – between Ray Street and Vine Street – east of the A201 at the north side of the city.
Arthur Mee (1949), says that: “The Clerk’s Well, from which Clerkenwell takes its name, goes back to Norman times, when London’s parish clerks attracted crowds to the well every year to see their miracle plays. In mid-Victorian days the well was filled with rubbish, but was reopened a few years after the war during excavations in Farringdon Road. We can now go down to a basement and look into the clear water. The wall of the chamber is partly of stone and Tudor brick, and it seems that one side must have formed part of the boundary wall of a nunnery called St Mary’s Priory. Here is part of the pump which stood in the street when the 18th century ended.”
Robert Charles Hope (1893 & 2012), said of Clark’s or Clerk’s Well that: “Stow, speaking of the wells near London, says that on the north side thereof is a well called Clark’s Well; and in assigning the reason for this appellation, he furnishes us with a curious fact relating to the parish clerks of London. His words are these: “‘Clark’s Well took its name from the parish clerks in London, who of old times were accustomed there yearly to assemble and to play some large history of Holy Scripture.”‘—Brand, Pop. Ant., ii 370, 371.
There are several other wells and springs in and around London, some having been built over by modern buildings and roads, while others have been lost to time. These include: Bride’s Well (Fleet Street), Black Mary Well (Church End), Black Well (Blackwall), Camber Well (Camberwell), Caesar’s Well (Wimbledon), Fagg’s Well, Moss Well (Muswell Hill), Rad Well, Sadler’s Well (Islington)), Shepherd Well (Hampstead), Skinner’s Well (Finsbury), St Clement’s Well (Strand), St Chad’s Well (Shadwell), St Eloy’s Well (Tottenham), St Govor’s Well (Kensington), St John’s Well (Shoreditch) and St Pancras’ Well, and no doubt others that are now no longer in existence, or difficult to find and locate, with only the name to remind us.
Please note:- The well is in the basement of a private office building. Anyone wishing to look at the well close-up should contact The Islington Local History Centre. There is a blue plaque saying: “Clerks’ Well” and an information board – inside the window of no. 16 Farringdon Lane.
Sources & related websites:
Bottomley, Frank, The Abbey Explorers Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey, 1981.
Hope, Robert Charles, The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, (Classic Reprint Series), Forgotten Books, 2012. [Originally published 1893].
Mee, Arthur, The King’s England — London — Heart of the Empire and Wonder of the World, Hodder & Stoughton Limited, London, 1949.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2018.