Ladywell had an actual well until about 1857. Local historian, film-maker and founder of the Ladywell Society ROBERT SMITH wrote about it in his book The Well of Our Lady in 1986. He is now revisiting his research to take in the Ladywell Spa, the ford and other significant sites in the area. He has researched the publicly available archives – so now he is appealing for papers, photographs or folk memories not catalogued in established collections which might fill in the holes in the story. Here, he tells the story as far as it is currently known.
Ladywell Village grew around a spring that first broke through the earth in 1472.
Chronicler, John Warkworth DD records that when the water overflowed it was said to signal death, pestilence or great battle. “…that whenne it betokenythe batayle it rennys foule and trouble watere; and whenne betokenythe derthe or pestilence, it rennyth as clere as any watere,.”
It soon became famous and is shown in the Bridge House Estates map of 1592, the earliest map reference, as the Lady Well with the name applied to the surrounding area, “Lady Well Mead”.
There is a strong association with nearby St Mary’s church, St Mary being “Our Lady” thought to have been the connection.
More recently a plaque was discovered in the crypt marked simply The Well 1855 possibly prepared prior to the well’s demise around this date.
Or could it refer to a well revealed in the church crypt after renovation works early this millennium.
This is just one of the mysteries… Butts’ Historical Guide to Lewisham (1878) has this account: “Our informant (not an old man), when a boy, used with other lads, to clean it out on Saturdays,’ and be ‘paid a penny or two-pence by the woman for doing so. It had a railing of iron around it, was 6ft or 7ft deep, with a small grating at the bottom, where the spring rose, which used to fill the well and flow over – it was beautiful water. This well was filled up and covered over some years ago when a sewer was made just there.”
As well as the famous well, Ladywell also sported a spa or mineral spring where people came to take the waters for sore eyes. This is now marked by a plaque erected by the Ladywell (Village) Society in 1987.
Both the spa and the Lady Well were reputed to be run dry by the now infamous Penge and Bell Green Sewer which was constructed between 1855 and 1856.
This has since been brought into doubt, with geology suggesting that the spa may have suffered from increasing water extraction.
The well appears to have suffered from a drought recorded in the local press in 1854 and was still operational in 1855 when consideration was being given to deepening the shaft.
The well was finally covered when the railway came to Ladywell in 1857 and the bridge carrying Brockley Lane was widened and the span increased to take traffic over the new railway lines.
Long before the Ladywell Society erected the current plaque, Brockley Lane was renamed Ladywell Road as a lasting commemoration of our heritage.
The well was not to be ignored, as in 1880, there was subsidence at the western end of the bridge near the site of the well.
This required underpinning works, during which the original coping stones were discovered.
These were taken by a railway signal man, named Moore, who used them to surround a flower bed on the platform of Ladywell railway station.
For many years the Congregational Church in Courthill Road had a mission hall adjacent to the Lady Well.
There is little recorded about this but being so close to the well the congregation must have been aware of the connection.
Eventually, in 1896, there was a renewed interest in the well and the Baths Commissioners agreed to use the coping stones in the grounds of the Ladywell Baths to surround a fountain to which “the youths and maidens of to-day may once more resort and there whisper their heart’s desire”.
The coping stones and the base of the fountain were still to be seen in the grounds up until the baths, then known as the Playtower were closed.
They were put in store in a locked cupboard under the supervision of the centre staff and witnessed by members of the Ladywell (Village) Society.
These original Ladywell Baths are now to be converted to a Curzon multi-screen cinema and searches inside the structure have failed to find the coping stones. Another mystery…
Do you have any old photographs, papers or family tales? However small or insignificant the items or information, Robert would love to hear from you. He said: “get in that loft or cellar and check out those long-forgotten boxes of photographs, letters, papers etc. and talk to friends and relatives. You may find something of real interest to our shared history.” Any information to WellofOurLady@gmail.com.
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