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 picture. 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 piped water.’
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 above). (Below, the well in 2012)
Other wells at Preston
There were other wells dotted around the village which were noted on a map dated 1898:
(Above) Poynders End Farm - 327’ deep
(Above) Minsden Cottages, Jacks Hill - 180’ deep
Cottage at School Lane
At various times there were also wells at Castle Farm, Ponds Farm, Austage End, Preston Hill Farmand 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 tailor’s shop’. 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.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.
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.