Questions & Answers


Can you explain where there is a Public Spring of water in the London area? If there is no Spring then perhaps a well?


Historical context of wells and springs

London was supplied by the rivers and then later by springs and shallow wells (Holywell, Clerkenwell and Clement’s well) into the superficial deposits. As the supply fell short or became polluted, water was sought from further afield.

For a long time, springs from the superficial deposits near London were brought to the City by wooden pipes. In 1236 from springs at Tyburn (now Stratford Place, Oxford Street), from Paddington (1471), from Hackney to Aldgate in 1535 and Hampstead (from springs at base of Bagshot Sands) in 1549. Subsequently water was brought from a great distance, eg Chadwell (yielded at one time 4 million gallons/day) and Amwell springs in Hertfordshire (New River System) in 1613.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century many of the tributaries had become choked and partly buried and few of the public wells remained. There are references in the ‘Records of London Wells’  “Springs, streams and spas of London, A S Foord, Fisher Unwin, 1910” which contains an account of many of the old springs and wells and others in ‘Water supply of the county of London from underground sources’ eg  “Our springs and water supply, Pres Address Q J Geol Soc, vol 28, p 53, 1872”, “Davies AM, London’s First Conduit system: a topographical study, Trans. London and Middlesex Arch. Soc. NS 2, 1907, p9-59”.

Wells and Springs that can be easily seen today:

There are two we can think of - one is a Chalybeate Well on Hampstead Heath uphill from the bathing ponds towards Kenwood House, and the other is in the central north part of Hyde Park, near West Carriage Drive, there is a natural spring around it.

Goodison fountain1) The drinking fountain on Hampstead Heath is the Goodison Fountain and located near the head of the Highgate Ponds at TQ 2740 8720 (in this picture you can see that the bowl is clearly iron stained).

The water also tastes very iron-rich and probably comes from a spring between the Bagshot Sands and the Claygate Beds.

The diagram below shows the various spring lines on Hampstead Heath and it is the upper of the two.

spring lines on Hampstead HeathThis is the water that earned Hampstead its reputation as a Spa and the well for that was originally in Well Walk. Now it has been removed from its location in the Spa and can be seen opposite No. 46 Well Walk (see picture below); Chalybeate wellsadly no water flows from it. Surprisingly the Goodison Fountain is not located on the top spring line so the water must be piped to it. Where it is situated is much closer to the lower spring line at the junction of the Claygate Beds and London Clay but is too iron rich for it come from a spring at this junction. This water was considered to be 'soft' water and the main well for that is Shepherds Well situated in Fitzjohn's Avenue. The water from that was the headwater of the Tyburn River but is now pumped directly into the Bazalgette sewer system. Springs can be seen all over Hampstead Heath (and indeed other similar public spaces where there are differences in the geology). They flow into the River Fleet which still flows through all the ponds on the Heath before being committed to the sewer.

2) The natural spring in Hyde Park that is directed into a public fountain is probably sourced from the Tyburn Brook. In the 1920s BGS map, the Tyburn Brook can be seen running from the Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch to join the River Westbourne in what is now the Serpentine. Springs can be seen along this route. It is important to note that the Tyburn Brook should not be confused with the Tyburn River which crosses Oxford Street at the lowest point, around Bond Street.

1912 BGS map

As for wells, there are numerous wells around central London that are used for water but as far as we are aware, none for drinking. Because of over-abstraction until about the 1950s the water was drawn down. As use of private wells ceased when the industry moved out of central London, the water table has risen again but the water now is slightly brackish as it is contaminated with sea water and is unsuitable for drinking. Sadlers Wells marketed their own water for a while but as it had to go for expensive processing before drinking, it is no longer sold. This water comes from the Chalk aquifer beneath London. They still use their water for hydraulics, air conditioning and flushing toilets. Many businesses are being encouraged to do likewise to help lower the water table again. Of the numerous springs and wells that abounded in the middle of the 19th century drawing water from the Thames gravels, it seems none are still operational. Clerk's Well can still be seen but it is capped off. The numerous spas around Islington also boasted chalybeate (iron rich) waters that were supposedly good for the health.

There is a famous instance of a public well described here:

Drinking shallow groundwater from springs or wells in an urban area would not be recommended due to the potential for pollution from both surface sources and sewers. As a minimum UV or chlorination disinfection systems would be needed.

If required we could do a search for all Wellmaster records (springs and wells (with depth of say less than 10 m)) that are in London. Many of these would be disused, but there are some still used by allotments etc, rather than as public springs/wells.


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