In modern-day Britain, perhaps we take for granted that when we want water, we simply
turn a tap. Another article on this web site (Link: Ponds) has highlighted how historically
ponds served as the lifeblood of a community , sustaining man and beast. This page
is devoted to the wells and wind pumps of Preston in the late nineteenth and first
half of the twentieth centuries.
The well at Preston Green, photographed above in the 1950s, is an historic, iconic
image of village life - its picture appears on today’s Preston Parish News letter
and is featured on the title page of the Preston Scrapbook (1953). Yet the background
to its sinking may be misunderstood.
The Scrapbook states: ‘The Well on the Green was the gift of William Henry Darton........It
was dug up in the hot dry summer of 1872 when most of the ponds had dried up.’ This
may well be true, but a document that has recently come to light paints a different
In 1870, Mr Weeks was residing at the Temple Dinsley mansion. On 12 October 1870,
he felt constrained to write the following letter to William H Darton:
‘I have observed with deep regret that my poorer neighbours in the village of Preston
have no water fit to drink and medical gentlemen of the district have certified to
me that a large amount of illness results from the unwholesome and filthy water which
the cottagers are compelled to use.
I, with many other residents in the neighbourhood, consider it a duty we owe to those
who cannot assist themselves to use our utmost endeavours to procure such a supply
of pure water as is necessary to preserve the life and health of the inhabitants.
I therefore beg to solicit your co-operation in this desirable undertaking by giving
permission for the opening of ground on Preston Green on which to sink a deep well
and also granting a convenient place where the excavated soil may be deposited.
I shall be glad to receive any donation you may be pleased to give in furtherance
of the work which although urgently and undeniably needed, cannot be undertaken without
your sanction and consent.’
Thus, although Darton may have allowed and financed the sinking of the well, the
prime mover in its construction was Mr Weeks.
When sunk, the well was 211’ 8” deep. Two people operated the winding mechanism and
they toiled for five minutes to raise the water. The villagers appear to have become
attached to its drawn water: ‘The water from the new well was considered to be very
good. One young man, ill in Hitchin Hospital, asked his old father to bring some
water from Preston as he could not drink the Hitchin water. His father spilt it on
the way down so filled up his can in Hitchin, never thinking the son would know,
but when he drank it he just turned over and died!’
Another villager remembered, ’Collecting water from the village pump on the green,
even after mains water was piped to the houses, because people were suspicious of
This is how the well was constructed: It has an octagonal well house open at the
sides with a steep-pointed octagonal slate roof and 8 chamfered stout oak posts which
are raised on concrete pads from an octagonal Yorkstone step.
The cast-iron well gear is arranged east-west over the top of the well. It consists
of an rectangular, openwork, moulded iron trestle with battered ends. There are longitudinal
bars at half height carrying the lower axle with another near the top with another
axle and a top member swept up in a segmental curve. Moulded braces sweep in to support
the lower bar and then intersect as cross-bracing to the upper panel. It has two
large four feet diameter flywheels with handles, one at each end of lower axle. A
cog of fifteen teeth engages a gear of ninety-six teeth on the upper axle, which
also carries a flanged iron drawing pulley. There is a larger gear of sixty teeth
on the lower axle. The king-post roof is fashioned from softwood.
Photographs show that the well was disused and fenced off by around 1930 (see right).
(Below, the well in 2012)
Other wells at Preston
There were other wells dotted around the village which were noted on a map dated
(Above) Poynders End Farm - 327’ deep
(Above) Minsden Cottages, Jacks Hill - 180’ deep
Cottage on corner of Preston Green Lane
At various times there were also wells at Castle Farm, Ponds Farm, Austage End, Preston
Hill Farm and Temple Dinsley.
Robert Sunderland has kindly written to add ‘My family lived at The Wilderness from
1934 to 1961. There is a well there not mentioned on your list. It has recently been
recapped by the present owner. I think he took my concerns over my grandfather’s
concreting it over after we got mains water in 1947 seriously. ...(the well) was
rough chalk-sided and about 3 feet in diameter. I remember it being 215 feet deep.
Apparently, it was rediscovered in the late 1870’s after the then owner/tenant stuck
his pitchfork into the woodwork covering it. My guess is that it was covered over
after someone fell in many, many years before. Wells are very rare in Preston (a
long way to dig for water - ponds are easier) and the well may be very old predating
the cottage and is a relic of nearby Hunsden House aka The Castle. Butchers Lane
is so-called because The Wilderness was a butcher’s shop, possibly after being a
Illustrating the potential dangers of sinking wells, in 1901, Edward Wilson died
at Hitchin Hospital from injuries received by falling down a new well which was being
sunk at Temple Dinsley. While he was being lowered down, he by some means, fell off
the chair and was very severely injured. He was removed to hospital as quickly as
possible and everything that could be done for him was done but he never rallied.
The deceased was a Luton man and left a widow and eleven children. The Luton Times
and Advertiser of 19 July 1901 printed this detailed report of the horrific accident:
‘An inquest held at Hitchin Hospital on Friday morning by Francis Shillitoe, Esq.
Coroner touching the death of Edward Wilson who fell down a new well while at work
at Temple Dinsley on Wednesday. He was being lowered into the new well which is over
200 feet deep. When about 80 feet from the bottom, he either fell off or the seat
came off the hook in some way. His back was broken by the fall. The seat on which
he went down is of the kind commonly used in such work. It is put on a hook at the
end of the lowering rope: and then a piece of cord is tied round the upper part of
the hook so that the ring of the seat may not be jerked out in case of a sudden stop
for any cause - such, as for instance, as the seat coming in contact from the side
of the well. Wilson attached the seat himself; and he seems after the accident to
have have thought that by some mistake he did not put the ring over the hook, but
that it was only attached by the piece of string, which was not strong enough to
sustain his weight during the time needed to make the descent.
The following evidence was given:
Henry Parsons said: I am a well-sinker and live at Luton. The deceased was my stepbrother.
He lived in Park Street, Luton and was employed as a well-sinker.On Wednesday I was
at work with him at Temple Dinsley, sinking a well.I had been employed there about
six weeks; two other men were also at work there, David Crewe and John Kilby. Wilson
had been working at the bottom of the well nearly all the week. About half past nine
in the morning he was lowered into the well; he fixed the seat himself, as he was
in the habit of doing. The well is about 213 feet deep. When he was about 80 feet
from the bottom I heard him say, ‘Wo, Oh Dear’, and then he seemed to fall. When
he had been brought up, I helped to take him to the hospital. He had long experience
in such work.
By the Foreman: I think he did not fall off the seat; the seat went down with him.
David Crewe said: I live in Luton and am a well sinker. The deceased was engaged
with me in sinking a well at Temple Dinsley. He has been employed with me in similar
work for about four years. On Wednesday morning he went down at six o’clock and about
half past nine he was going down again - in doing so he fell of the seat. I was helping
to lower him down. He was going down very steadily. I do not know how he fell off.
When he fell, Parsons went for help and I wound up the rope. When it came up, I noticed
that the string on the hook was broken. I had seen him put the seat on the hook;
he seemed to do it in the usual way. From the time he fell to the time he was brought
up was about half-an-hour. He did not speak when he was brought up. The hook that
was on the rope had been in use for years. I have tried spring hooks, but found they
did not answer. When he fell off, we let the seat down to the bottom of the well
and it may then have unhooked itself.
By the 1930s, the skyline of Preston was punctuated by pylonesque wind pumps.
They were used to pump water from a well into a storage reservoir using a multi-bladed,
wind turbine atop a lattice tower made of steel. They had a large number of blades
which turned slowly with considerable torque in low wings and were self regulating
in high winds.
There were wind pumps at the rear of the gardens of Chequers Cottages (shown, far
right), Poynders End and Preston Hill Farm. They were still used in the 1950s.
(Right) The wind pump at Chequers Cottages was clearly visible from St Martin’s
James Belton said: I live at Hitchin and am a plumber in the employment of Mr Francis
Newton. On Wednesday I was at work at Temple Dinsley house, three or four minutes
walk from the well. On hearing of the accident I at once went to the spot. I found
that the rope was down the well; we tried to get it up but could not at first, either
because of the injured man sitting on it or holding it. After a while we succeeded
in getting it up. I put a seat on the rope and went down. On reaching the bottom,
I found him on his back with his legs and head out of the water which was about 12
inches deep. I secured him on the seat and sent him up. He seemed to be quite helpless.
When I began to pick him up he said he was cramped and when I put him on the seat
he made a remark that I was tying him too tight, but that was a mistake. He called
out, ‘Pull up’ when I had put him on the seat. The seat I went down on was the one
from which he had fallen; how it came up I do not know; I suppose he must have put
it on the rope himself. I noticed nothing unusual in the well; there were no projections
of any importance from the side. The well was 4½ feet in diameter.
Crewe recalled said he believed the seat on which the deceased went down did not
come up until after the last witness went down.
Belton said the seat on which he went down was wet as if it had come out of the well.
Parsons, recalled, said they called down to Wilson, ‘Send the seat up if you cannot
get on’ and he did so. It was on that seat that Belton went down.
Mr Richard Shillitoe, surgeon, Hitchin said: I saw Wilson at the Hospital at half-past
twelve, the man in the meantime having been seen by young Mr Foster. I found that
Wilson was quite sensible. He had no feeling in the lower extremities, but complained
of great pain in his back and chest. He was somewhat collapsed. All the symptoms
pointed to his back being broken as Mr Foster told me was his opinion. I asked him
if he could give any account of hoe the accident happened. He said he could not say
exactly how it happened, but he thought the seat had let him down - that the ring
was not over the hook but only fastened to it by string.That idea seemed a very plausible
one. His case was hopeless and his wife was telegraphed for. He died at ten o’clock
the same evening.
The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ and expressed the opinion that
a spring hook should be used in attaching the seat to the rope.