Historical introduction: The well of Dame Agnes Clare

Pages 25-29

Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1922.

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The Well of Dame Agnes A Clare.

In the course of his narrative concerning wells in the neighbourhood of London, Stow writes: (fn. 1) "Somewhat North from Holywell, is one other "well, curbed square with stone, and is called Dame Annis the Cleare." (fn. 2) The origin of the name is unknown, (fn. 3) and no early record mentioning the well has been traced. The history is strangely complicated. Chassereau's Map of 1745 (Plate 1) shows the well on the south side of Old Street at the junction of that thoroughfare with Willow Walk, and most documents relating to it agree in assigning it to this site and to one of the prebends of St. Paul's. This account, however, is not the only one. Among the surveys of Crown property made in the time of the Commonwealth is one of "some small sheddes & of a certaine well called Dame Ann A Cleere. . . late parcell of the possessions of Charles Stewart, late King of England." (fn. 4) The premises are described as "all that well comonly called or knowne by the name of Dame Anne A Cleere invironed aboute with a brickwall, scituate, lying and being on the late King's waste . . . in a certaine higheway leading from a certaine streete called Old Streete towardes Shoreditch. And att the west end of the same there is standing over some parte of the said well one shedd or tenement builte highe, made with boardes & covered with boardes, consisteing of two roomes, one above another, with a pumpe standing in the said well reaching upp to the highermost roome, where there is a place made for a laborer to stand to pumpe water out of the said well to convey it unto some ale brewers dwelling in some parte of Old Streete. Which said well is bounded with the land of Mr. Marsh on the north and the way leading from Old Streete to Shoreditch on the south, and the garden of one Mr. Pollard on the east, conteining in length three score and seaventeene foote of assize, and in breadth 28 foote and a half, now in the occupacion of some brewers in Old Streete. And is worth per annum xjl."

The Commissioners refer to an inquisition taken on 11th September, 1622, whereby it was found that the well was on the king's waste, in the tenure of John Million, and of the annual value of 40s. They then proceed: "Memorandum, the above said well is but only a cisterne which doth receave and hould the water as doth proceede and runn from severall little springs which arrise out of Mr. Marshes grownd of Newington and other mens growndes thereaboutes, which said springes ye nearest lyeth 40 pole from the said well, and doe runn downe into the said well thorough some brick channells which lye in the aforesaid groundes, which said well is very comodious and of good use for some ale-brewers in those partes. Provided allways that the gen1 whoe are the owners of the land from whence theis small springs doe proceed and passe thorough doe not convert it to some other use, or turne it some other way or plasse: which they may easily doe in two houris tyme, without any trouble or charge and mak it of small use." The document is endorsed to the effect that the premises had been sold by "ye contractor for Deanes and Chapters Landes."

It will be noticed that in the above description, the property is quite explicitly stated to have been on the north side of the street and to have belonged to the Crown. On 5th July, 1661, the Crown leased the premises to Jonathan Ash (fn. 5) for £5 a year, and in 1662 a warrant was issued for a grant to Rebecca Ash, (fn. 6) "tenant of a waterspring in Shoreditch parish called Dame Annis St. Clere," of recognizances forfeited by Thos. Dawson and others in connection with their disturbance of her possession of the said waterspring. It would appear, therefore, that the tenancy was being interfered with, and an entry in the Receiver's Accounts for 4 James II. (1688) shows that the rent for 13 years (£65) was in arrears, and that the premises had never been enjoyed by the lessee. To explain this, it is necessary to go back to the sale of the well among the property of the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's.

On 21st May, 1650, the Parliamentary Commissioners sold to Thomas Davis the manor or prebend of Hoxton, including "all that building or waterhouse within the libertyes of Hoxton, on the south side of the highway there leading betweene Shorditch and Old Streete at the west side of a certeyne pond there commonly called Annis a Cleare." (fn. 7)

After his purchase, Davis found that the deeds of the property were not forthcoming, that he had no evidence as to rents, etc., due to him, and that there was a not altogether surprising reluctance on the part of the natives" to give him precise information on the point. Not only so, but "although they know that the waterhouse and the pond called Annis A Cleere are parcell of the mannoure of Hoxton and within the perambulation thereof, yet . . . endeavour to make a title to the City of London to the said waterhouse as parcell of their mannour of Fynnesbury." But possibilities of ownership were not yet exhausted.

In June, 1671, Henry Halsteed was made prebendary of Eald Street. From information apparently in the possession of the prebend he came to the conclusion that the well was situated on the waste of that manor and forthwith took steps to recover it. He accordingly demised it on 1st May, 1672, to William Winchester under the description of a messuage and half an acre covered with water. This at once led to an action at law, which resulted in the victory of Halsteed. (fn. 8) Further proceedings ensued, in the course of which certain interesting particulars were disclosed. (fn. 9) In the first place, the petitioners (brewers in Shoreditch and St. Giles, Cripplegate) identified the well thus seized by the prebendary, which was undoubtedly on the south side of Old Street, with that "upon the Kings Majesties Wast" and moreover claimed that they held the premises under Jonathan Ash, the Crown lessee. It is quite clear, therefore, that there is only one well in question, not two. According to the petitioners, from a time "whereof the memory of man is not to the contrary," all persons "having occasion" had been used "to fetch water from the said spring and well, as well for the brewing of ale and beere as for other occasions at their . . . wills and pleasures, without any hindrance or disturbance of any person . . . whatsoever." The well had formerly lain "open and unfenced" with the result that "severall persons, travellers and others, and also severall cattell" had been drowned therein, and for the prevention of this "and that the water might not be any way annoyed by the casting in of carryon or other filth," the brewers using the well had about half a century before built a brickwall "about the said well, leaving doores for any person or persons that will to fetch water from the said well." The surface of the roads naturally suffered from the passing and re-passing of the watercarts, and in 1647 the brewers "were requested and incited by the parishioners and inhabitants of the said parishes to find out some way for the conveying of the water from the said well . . . and to leave off the fetching the said water by carts and carriages." As a result, they laid pipes from the well to their brewhouses, and built a pump-house. They were now afraid that the pipes were going to be broken up, with the result that their trade would be ruined, their families reduced to want and the King's reserved rent lost, as well as the excise duties amounting to £1,500 a year.

In spite of this piteous appeal the prebendary won his case. For twenty years he continued in enjoyment of the premises, which, nevertheless, yielded very little income or proffitt towardes the recompenceing the said Henry Halsted for his said great paines, trouble and expence." This he attributed to the fact that he could not legally make a lease for longer than 21 years or three lives, and in 1691 he obtained an Act of Parliament (fn. 10) enabling him to grant a lease of 40 years.

How long after this the water continued to be used for brewing is uncertain. When Chassereau made his survey in 1745, however, the well was "a cold bath, and much frequented for cure of rheumatick pains, etc." It seems to have undergone this metamorphosis before 1731 (at the end of the first 40 years' lease), an advertisement in that year stating (fn. 11) "that there is now opened at St. Agnes le Clear, Hoxton, not far from Moorfields, the place formerly distinguished by the sign of the 'Sun and Pool of Bethesda,' (fn. 12) a new cold bath, larger and more commodious than any in or about London, being 30 feet long, 20 feet broad, and 4 feet 6 inches deep, the water continually running, where ladies and gentlemen may depend upon suitable accommodation and attendance." Further references to the baths in 1748, 1756 and 1778 are given by Foord, (fn. 13) and a memorandum of agreement dated 6th November, 1778, (fn. 14) refers to the "dwellinghouse with the ladies' and gentlemen's cold baths." (fn. 15)

The site of the well, with some adjoining property, seems to have been the only portion of the corpus of the Eald Street prebend which survived, the remainder having been lost before 1650, "and supposed to be swallowed by Wenlock-barnes on one side, and Hoxdon on the other." (fn. 16)

In the Act of 1691 the property is described as "a certaine spring or well commonly called Dame Agnes de Clare alias Annis the Cleere, and certain wast ground to the said prebend belonging and to the said well adjoining, containing from east to west 520 foote of assize or thereabouts and abutting upon a parcell of land formerly belonging to the priory of Holywell, east, and upon the King's highway called Old Street, north and west, and abutting upon the common shoare bounding the manor of Finsbury south, and containing from north to south at the east end thereof 86 foote of assize or thereabouts, and at the south and west end thereof 40 foote of assize or thereabouts." A number of plans of the property are extant, (fn. 17) copied from old deeds, in which, although the inclusive length of 520 feet given above is reproduced, the lengths of the various portions added together make only 499¾ feet. From a comparison of these plans with the Ordnance Sheets for 1871 and 1896 it is evident that the easternmost portion of the property coincided with the spot marked "Site of St. Agnes Le Clere's Well," in the 1896 Ordnance, and the boundary between the Holywell Priory property (the unnamed field) and that of the Eald Street prebend may therefore be assumed to have entered Old Street at a point about 68 feet west of the present Bath Place.


  • 1. Survey of London (Kingsford's edn.), I., p. 16.
  • 2. The name appears in several forms, most of which occur in the following account.
  • 3. It is unnecessary to state that no reliance is to be put in the story that the well is called "by the name of a rich London widow called Annis Cleare, who, matching herself with a riotous courtier in the time of Edward I., who vainly consumed all her wealth and leaving her in much povertie there she drowned herself, being then but a shallow ditch or running water." (The Pleasant Walks of Moor Felds; a dialogue between a Country Gentleman and a Citizen, 1607.)
  • 4. Parliamentary Surveys, 1650, No. 79.
  • 5. Treasury Books, Calendar, 1660–7, p. 308.
  • 6. Domestic State Papers, Chas. II., Vol. LXI., No. 73.
  • 7. See statement by Davies in Chancery Proceedings, C. VII., 396/64.
  • 8. Exch. Pleas, C. 13, 24 Chas. II., Mich. 5, No. 689.
  • 9. See Chancery Proceedings, C. V., 64/26.
  • 10. 3 & 4 Will. & Mary, c. 39 (Private).
  • 11. Quoted in Foord's Springs, Streams and Spas of London, p. 110.
  • 12. The latter name certainly suggests that the water was used for therapeutic purposes before 1731. There is an interesting notice concerning the place in the London Post for 9–12 June, 1699: "On Tuesday evening last a gentleman who lived near Tower Hill, walking as far as Anniseed Clear, went into the Spring Garden there, and called for a bottle of drink, and as soon as he drank a glass thereof, he instantly fell down and dyed."
  • 13. Op. cit., pp. 110, 111.
  • 14. Between John Tipp of "St. Agnes le Clair" and Thos. Watts of the same place (in possession the London County Council).
  • 15. According to Foord (op. cit., p. 111) the baths were discontinued after a destructive fire in 1845, but in 1852 the well was still running, the water being used in a drug mill.
  • 16. Ellis's History of Shoreditch, p. 108. That the corpus of the prebend was formerly much more extensive is shown by the facts (i) that Thos. Catcher, in 1629, left the White Lion and 3 acres of land in Hoxton held of the prebend of "Eld street alias Old Streete" (Inq. P.M., 2nd Series (Chancery), 9 Chas. I., 491), and (ii) that the large property afterwards held by Sir Charles Pitfield (see p. 78) was on the death of Sir Anthony Roper in 1635 (then described as 60 acres) held of the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, as of their prebend of Eald Street (Inq. P.M., 2nd Series (Chancery), 766/64).
  • 17. In the possession of the London County Council.