Ipswich Icons - Well-diggers risked being buried alive to bring water to terraced homes

The well at the former Deben Court workhouse in Wickham Market. Photo: Barry Crabtree

The well at the former Deben Court workhouse in Wickham Market. Photo: Barry Crabtree - Credit: Archant

This series of articles has previously covered Ipswich’s early water supply: springs on the valley sides bringing fresh, clean water down Spring Road, Water Lane (Warwick Road), Orwell Street and Brook Street, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

From an early date, some of this water was piped to a conduit (tap) in the centre of town.

In Victorian times there was a marked increase in the number of properties being built in Ipswich: houses to accommodate the influx of workers in the rapidly-developing engineering industries. Few if any of these properties were on this “mains” water; instead, they would share a common supply between, say, a dozen houses. They would take advantage of the abundance of water 20 feet below ground, accessed with a well. A lucky few would have access to a pump fed through a lead pipe, the other end of which was immersed in the water in a nearby well.

When the old Civic College was demolished and when the Mann Egerton’s garage was cleared to make way for Crown Pools, numerous wells were uncovered among the foundations and back yards of the terraced houses that once covered these sites. There is little local evidence or recorded history of the construction of these (Ipswich) wells, so this article relies on the evidence from elsewhere in Suffolk, particularly from village life where the stories and occupations of individuals have been recorded.

In the 18th and early 19th Centuries there was a skilled trade: well-digger – someone who was prepared to risk being buried alive as they dug a vertical shaft deep into the earth. Digging through the clay was reasonably straightforward as the sides of the hole would be self-supporting (while the clay was still moist). The skill of the well-digger was not to leave the clay exposed to the air for longer than was necessary, but first they needed to dig deeper into the crag, and this was much more likely to crumble into the hole.

Crude side-supports were required, known as shoring, but arranged so that the hole, the vertical shaft through which excavated material was removed, remained free of obstruction.

Well-digging was a two-man operation: one in the hole digging in the restricted space and loading the excavated material into a bucket, and his mate hauling the spoil to the surface. The absolute no-no rule for the man at the top was to dislodge loose material and kick it into the hole. The well-digger was no doubt fairly filthy, brushing his shoulders against the sides of the newly- excavated hole without falling dirt going down the back of his shirt.

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It is obvious that the well-digger was a man of skill and courage; many wells in rural areas could be considerably deeper than those mentioned above. The depth depended on the water table: a constant year-round supply of good-quality water.

Having dug the hole, the well-digger would work his way back to the surface, replacing the shoring with a brick lining. Occasionally, special curved bricks were used but for the majority of wells, such as those in Ipswich, rejects would suffice: bricks that had not fused completely in the kiln or had become misshapen. After all, nobody was going down the well to inspect the brickwork.

Extracting water from the well once it was finished wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds, either. The buckets were usually made of wood (in the style of a cask or barrel). Dropping the bucket down the well shaft on the end of a rope simply allowed it to float, not gather water. No amount of shaking the rope would inverse the bucket. The secret was to drop the bucket open end first, allowing the windlass (and handle) to spin as the bucket dropped and the rope unwound. The spinning handle would almost certainly knock out the unsuspecting novice as the bucket dropped. Getting the bucket full of water wasn’t the only skill required. Carrying a bucket full of water without slopping the contents over your trousers was essential.

There was no way of quickly drying out, nor a spare pair to change into.

Worst of all was the necessity to carry out of the house as much water as had been carried in – slops to be emptied into the cess pit which was no doubt situated next to the well...

See more on Ipswich’s rich history here