For hundreds of years, water was provided to High Street residents through a number of wells which supplied drinkable water, even though they were so close to the sea. To supplement the supply, a conduit head was set up at Tatnam under a license granted by Henry VIII in 1542, to tap the plentiful natural springs there. This water was brought into town on carts and sold in the streets.
Water was not only needed for drinking and washing but also to supply outward bound ships, and for many trades such as brewing, baking, dyeing, tanning and potting. It was also vital for the animals that were kept in the High Street. A Tudor record of 1568 describes how the town herd of cows was taken out on the heath to graze and drink, returning via Sterte to be watered before returning to the town in the evening. This helped to conserve the town’s water supply and reduced the labour of hauling up buckets for the livestock.
The importance of wells and access to wells is shown by frequent references in deeds and wills. In a deed of 1603 for instance, John Nicholls, sailor, granted a tenement in High Street to Henry Fulford and Agnes his wife, including the use of the well. In Joseph White’s will of 1771, he made sure to mention ‘free liberty and use of the pumps’ when describing the facilities of his house in High Street which he left to his kinsman, John Jeffery.
For centuries, getting water was one of the major tasks of the day, whether by hauling and carrying buckets or later by pumping. Swilling down the streets with water was one of the few sanitary measures used in the town right up to the 19th century and householders were required to empty two buckets a day in front of their houses to wash the rubbish further down the gutters. Later this job was taken on by the Corporation. It is not surprising that infectious diseases were rife and epidemics common in the crowded Victorian High Street.
It was not until the 1850s that the first steps were taken towards providing a piped water supply using water from Constitution Hill. A reservoir was built on Longfleet Hill to take the water and a trunk main was laid into the old town. Even in the 1870s, however, the supply was inadequate. Not all houses had piped water and those that did were not receiving the scheduled 12 hours a day supply. In the summer, this sometimes stopped altogether. Many people still relied on public and private pumps connected to wells by lead pipes. With many cesspools next to the bigger houses, there was always a danger of water contamination.
A detailed map of High Street in 1888 shows pumps in the following locations: behind the Port Mahon Castle Hotel (now BHS), outside the Ansty Arms (now in the middle of Falkland Square), at the rear of No. 169 (Santander), at the rear of No. 165 (HSBC), at the rear of Linens Direct, at the rear of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, at the rear of Trueboy, at the rear of Shoe Repairs Plus, at the rear of the Hospice Shop, at the rear of Men’s Room, in front of Orchard Plaza, behind the Slug and Lettuce, at the rear of Lush (formerly the Bell and Crown), at the rear of No. 18, at the rear of No. 10, behind No. 8 (the King’s Head) and at the rear of Scaplen’s Court. There were also some public fountains and horse troughs.
Improvements came slowly over the next few decades. A resident of Scaplen’s Court in the early 20th century remembered only one outdoor tap serving the five or so families that lived there. All the washing had to be done outside or if the weather was bad, bowls of water had to be carried into the house. Today, a good water supply is more or less taken for granted and the labour of getting water is forgotten but I wonder how many of the High Street wells still remain? Does anyone have any personal knowledge or memories of wells and pumps in the area?