South London Memories: All’s well that’s Camberwell

Noreen Morrin was washing her dishes in her kitchen when she heard a shout from her garden. “Oh my God – I’m standing in the well” called the voice It was a moment Noreen, from Grove Park, Camberwell, had been looking forward to, for three years. But she had begun to think it might not happen.

The voice came from John Chaple, a local historian and amateur archaeologist. He had found the watering hole which gave Camberwell its name.

Nine years later, Noreen still has a very big hole in her garden – it actually takes up most of the space.

The structure is at least 2,000 years old – it dates from the Roman occupation. But John and Noreen hope and believe it is much older.

He has sifted through the evidence of how Camberwell got its name and believes it might date back to the aftermath of the Trojan War– one of the leaders of the city defeated by the Greeks around the year 1,200 BC was the founder of London, Prince Brutis.

His son was called Kamber, who would give his name to a tribe in what became their home Cambria – now known as Cymru or Wales. Walworth gets its name from a similar notion – its name means “a farm of the Britons”.

John Coakley Lettsom (1733-1810) physician with his family Picture: Wellcome

Kamber is believed to have found the spring, which soon had the reputation for healing powers. People and animals living over a vast area used it. Even into the 19th century, it was giving fresh water to Peckham .

Noreen would like it to be properly restored, even if she would not like to have animals and people visiting from miles around.

“At the moment it is just a hole in the ground,” said Noreen, 75. “About nine years ago, John said to me over my fence ‘I think the well of Camberwell is in your back garden.’

“I thought he was joking. But I had a black moss I could not get rid of, so it must have been caused by the well.

“I soon wanted to find out if he was right. He doused for it – and concluded there was water there. After he took the topsoil off, he did the rest with a trowel, very painstakingly.

“Three years later, he decided he had been digging in the wrong place.

“An hour later, I heard this shout. I thought something terrible must have happened.

“But he had uncovered the layer of brick and stone around the well. It is big, about 12ft across.

Well map with current properties outlined

“We had a cup of tea to celebrate.”

The site had previously been part of land owned by a Dr John Lettson – it ran all the water features on his land and fed a lake which Londoners and Surrey residents believed had healing powers.

Photos show that the well was in use until about 150 years ago with a donkey-driven pump.

Camberwell was first recorded in the Domesday Book as Cambrewelle – meaning “Well of the Britons” – at a time when the aristocracy was dominated by Anglo-Saxons, the area was dominated by Celts. The village was of some medieval significance and St Giles’ was the mother church of a parish that took in Dulwich and Peckham.

King John enjoyed hunting here and, much later, so did Charles I and Charles II.

Philanthropist John Passmore Edwards funded new buildings that became the South London Gallery and the Camberwell School of Art – now Camberwell College of Arts, part of the University of the Arts London – from 1887.

Lettsom was part of the urbanisation of Camberwell in the late 18th century – wealthy families liked Camberwell’s fresh air, clean water supply and proximity to London. Henry Bessemer, inventor of the Bessemer Converter, which was crucial to Britain’s booming steel industry, built a house on Denmark Hill.

Dr Lettsom’s estate was at the top of Camberwell Grove. Industries soon sprouted, especially along the Grand Surrey Canal.

Kamber also gave his name to the tilt on a road – its camber. But the water’s curative properties also prompted the name of the nearby church – St Giles was the patron saint of people called, in those days, “cripples”.

Scientific genius Doctor Lettsom, who was famous in his day as founder of the Medical Society of London, bought his estate in 1776 which included the well. He may have had it relined. He may also have installed the donkey driven pump. He certainly built a cold bath next to it.

Several old wells have been found in Camberwell, but only the one in the garden of 13 Grove Park is a serious contender.

Camberwell resident Mr Chaple found Roman coins at the bottom of the well, which would make it at least 2,000 years old. He told the Standard in 2009: “I have been fascinated for a long time by the Camber Well. I laid the old Ordnance Survey maps from a local library over plans of her garden and dug with a hand trowel.”

Noreen said: “I have been desperate to try and get someone interested in it for years now. There are problems – it goes under the pathway of the nearby flats and some of it may not be too far from the foundations of the house. But I do not want more of my garden dug up – it would cut it off from the house. I have been pretty much without it for nine years. And it would be hard to take the soil away.

“People seem to think it would be better if it was covered up. In the meantime I feel like the mistress of the well – its keeper. It does seem to be sacred – I had white witches come to bless it.

“I do not want people to forget about it. So many people do not know how Camberwell got its name and the wonder of uncovering it after all this time. It looks now as if it has just been built – it is beautiful.”

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