Heritage: When Wimbledon lived from its wells
It is just over a year since one of the most important relics of daily life in historic Wimbledon was given due recognition. Yet it is probably passed unnoticed by the vast majority of visitors to the Common.
In August 2012, a new granite cap with stainless steel fittings was fitted to the 438-year-old Village well on the Common at Southside, opposite Murray Road.
The cap replaced two earlier ones fitted in 1931 and the early 1990s, both of which had been vandalised and removed, leaving nothing but a circular concrete plinth. The new cap, financed jointly by the Wimbledon Society and the Commons Conservators, has the inscription: ‘Before 1882, the people of Wimbledon drew water from a well beneath this stone.’
Until that time there was a pump beside the well and early every morning a crowd of villagers would gather from throughout the area to queue up, holding a tub or a barrel. When his or her turn arrived, each person would collect the water they needed for the day and head home with their load.
Wimbledon had no water pipes in those days but the Southside well, then located near both Wimbledon Lodge and Lauriston House (see Heritage stories for 18 November and 2 December 2011), was actually one of five on the Common that served the local community in the 19th century.
It was the most popular as it was reputed to provide the softest water but the villagers could opt instead if they wished to draw their daily requirement from one of the other four - on the Village Green, the green area opposite the Crooked Billet, at West Place opposite Croft’s Timber Yard by the junction with Camp Road, or further away at Caesar’s Well.
Only the last of these can still be seen today, albeit long since blocked off. There is no trace today of wells on The Green or the Crooked Billet and the one opposite Croft’s might have disappeared when the sawpit there was closed by the Conservators in 1897 as a blot on the landscape.
A publication from 1910 entitled Wimbledon and Merton Annual describes in detail what Wimbledon looked like 60 years before that.
An elderly man interviewed for his memories of 1850 said of the well on Southside: ‘The old ladies in the Crooked Billet preferred it to the one nearer at hand and so we boys had to go with our tubs to fetch it.’ The boys seem to have been well behaved. But interestingly, the description goes on to show juvenile delinquency too.
It says: ‘If the old ladies were tyrants in the morning, the boys could be tyrants at night. In the dark evenings as the old folk came back along Southside, carrying their lamps with them, the boys would throw a bundle of rags at the lamps and leave the poor wayfarers in darkness.
'A still better game was to tie up a tempting bundle of sticks and fasten it to a long cord, then to creep behind a hedge in the dark, and as the old lady came along and stooped to pick up the tempting prize, to jerk it quickly away and run off in the darkness with derisive laughter.’
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.
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