Wells in Bell Street

Why did people suffer 'a low fever'?

Abandoned well at 32 Bell Street.
Reinforced concrete with its steel bars
exposed above a red brick dome.

The photograph shows one of four wells found in Bell Street in 1998. Architects CZWG were building the new Peabody flats between Bell Street and Marylebone Road which appear later in the website.

At the north of the site had been four houses, each with a well. Later these houses had been demolished and a new building with a reinforced concrete floor built on the site. CZWG cut through this floor and found the wells.

There were other deep holes in three rows parallel to Bell Street, of which some were cess pits. Each of the four houses had a well over four metres deep, which had been dug through the top soil, through the clay, through the gravel, deep enough to make sure there would still be water in the driest period. The photograph shows the domed top, broken by later excavation. Above is broken concrete, with the steel reinforcement bars splayed apart.

The brickwork at the top was strongly built to resist pressure and keep out dirt, but the lowest courses were laid without mortar, with gaps of about 25 mm between the ends of the bricks to allow water to flow in.

Each house had a well. It was common at this period for a number of houses to share a common well, yet each of these houses had its own, so they must have been quite expensive houses when first built. If each house had a well, there were over a hundred wells in Bell Street alone. When building Marylebone Lower House of North Westminster School, in 1960, (now part of Westminster Academy) a hole dug to take one of the steel pillars supporting the Hall roof, penetrated an old well shaft. It was hurriedly filled with concrete and work pressed on. The squalid square of tenements described in the Mercury Independent in June 1881 had the stench from a broken drain in one corner, a communal water pump in the centre, and several tenants already ill at the Fever Hospital. The very ground the houses were built on spread the infection from cess pits to wells.

Clearly the whole district was studded with wells and near to each one would have been an earth closet polluting everything. No piped water. No sewers.  It was the sanitation system of a medieval country village crowded into a London suburb. Looking at this old well and its adjoining cess pit in the 1990s, it was clear that one of the great acts of the Victorian era was the removal of the pump handles, so that people could no longer kill themselves in this particular way.

The original research had been done by Dr Stone who had a practice in Soho, London. He found that patients who drew their water from a particular well, were dying of cholera. He made a map of the local streets showing the houses where the deaths occurred and forced the local vestry (council) to remove the pump handle. This particular outbreak was stopped.

Despite this success, the old ideas of disease persisted and cholera deaths continued elsewhere. It was not until after Dr Stone was dead, that his ideas were accepted.


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Updated August 8, 2011