The History of the Village Well and Pump

During the medieval period, the importance of the village well continued to grow. Wells were typically located in the center of the village, making them accessible to all residents.

Water is one of the essential ingredients of life on Earth and access to water is a human right recognised by the UN.

Throughout history people have found ingenious ways to access and tame this life sustaining liquid.

Wells, dating back thousands of years, have been used around the world to provide a steady supply of water to settlements, with some of the oldest examples of wells predating the pyramids.

Until recent centuries, wells were dug by hand, a physically strenuous and dangerous job. Meanwhile methods that seemed to mix the mystical and scientific were used to find groundwater sources in ancient times.


Wells in the UK have a fascinating history – they have been gifted to the thirsty by Indian princes, and dug hundreds of metres into the earth by the poor and destitute.

While in a modern world, wells are still used by people across the world to access water, including in homes around Britain, many wells around the world may soon come under threat from dropping water tables and rising salinisation levels.

Read More: Tyneham ‘Ghost Village’ Evacuated in WW2

However, one thing is for sure, the story of water can’t be told without including the story of the humble well.

How Were Wells Dug?

Up until the nineteenth century when machine drilling became a viable option for digging wells, building wells was a labour intensive and physically demanding process.

Milburys public house, Beauworth, Hampshire, England,This is a 300' deep well that is serviced by a circa 250 year old tread wheel
Milbury’s public house, Beauworth, Hampshire, England,This is a 300′ deep well that is serviced by a circa 250 year old tread wheel. Image Credit: Chris Allen

Wells were dug by hand, with people using shovels and other hand held tools to remove dirt, often by the bucketful, to create a well shaft that reached down to the water table. As dirt and debris was cleared, bricks or other materials used to line the interior of the well shaft were put in place.

Digging wells, particularly deep ones, could be incredibly dangerous and bracing was often needed to reduce the risk of collapses while the well was still under construction.

Read More: Ancient Villages Now Sitting on the Bottom of Reservoirs

Deep wells also offered the risk of injury and death from falling during construction. During the digging of the deepest well in the UK, at least one winchman, an individual who assisted in winching dirt and other debris out of the well shaft, fell to his death during construction efforts.

Finding Water

Various methods considering a range of factors have been developed around the world and across the generations for knowing where to dig wells.

In modern times, a mixture of expert knowledge and technology is used to determine the placement of new wells, but until recently, people didn’t have the luxury of relying on technology to determine the best well placements.

Life on George Casely’s Farm, Devon, England, 1942 George Casely uses a hazel twig to find water on the land around his Devon farm. According to the original caption “Casely has the power of divining and has sunk a well in several of his pastures”.

People read the landscape, searching for natural clues to determine areas that may be close to the water table.

Water dowsing, also called water divining or water witching, also emerged as a method to locate groundwater.

Often now considered a pseudoscience by scientific bodies, water dowsing involves using a Y shaped stick or rod, or a pendulum tool, to search for underground water or other substances.

Read More: How Did Trackways Evolve into Turnpike Roads? 

It is claimed that the tools move in response to groundwater, allowing water diviners to locate groundwater sources, and hence, determine the best spot for well digging.

While water dowsing has been around since ancient times and is sometimes still used in the modern world, it has come under criticism with claims that it is a highly inaccurate method of finding ground water.

The Village Well

The Industrial Revolution allowed for mass produce cast iron pumps. The village well started to be capped, instead of a bucket and pulley, a pump was installed. Furthermore, by the 1800s, public health concerns were growing.

Many traditional open wells were seen as potential sources of contamination, as they were often located close to cesspits and other sources of pollution. This led to efforts to improve sanitation and the quality of drinking water.

Pumps relied on drawing water from local aquifers through boreholes, which constituted a significant portion of the pump installation process.

Swannington Village Pump, Swannington, Norfolk, England
Swannington Village Pump, Swannington, Norfolk, England

For softer soils, a straightforward screw-shaped auger sufficed However, when sinking a borehole through stone, a more labor-intensive and costly method known as percussion drilling was necessary.

The initial village standpipe pumps were crafted from wood, which inevitably deteriorated over time. Later, lead was utilized. While lead’s malleability allowed for the creation of smaller pumps, it was an expensive material and a target for thieves who sought to melt it down for resale.

Read More: Fingerposts, What is Their History?

This persisted despite the risk of being transported as the standard punishment for stealing village pumps. In the 1700s, cast iron, a relatively new technology, began to replace both wood and lead. Cast iron pumps were cost-effective to produce and far less susceptible to decay.

Water Wheel, Fox & Hounds, Beauworth, Hampshire - now called the Milbury's
Water Wheel, Fox & Hounds, Beauworth, Hampshire – now called the Milbury’s

They quickly proliferated in villages that had previously been unable to afford pumps, making their way into homes, inns, farms, and public institutions like schools and hospitals.

Public pumps were more than just sources of water; they resembled today’s office water fountains as places where people congregated, exchanged information, shared news, and indulged in gossip. Some tasks were more conveniently carried out at the pump itself, rather than transporting the water back home or to businesses.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Wealthier residents sometimes opted to have water delivered to them. The activity around the pump transformed it into a social as well as a practical resource, likely significantly altering the dynamics of village life once these pumps were installed.

The Oldest Wells in the World

Wells have truly ancient beginnings, and as they allowed settlements to be established in areas that weren’t immediately adjacent to a large surface water source.

Hence wells formed a key part of the development of civilizations. The oldest reliably dated well can be found on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This simple well, reaching to a depth of eight metres, is believed to have been dug in 8400BC.

The Village Pump, Hawarden, There were originally three pumps in Hawarden, used between 1805 and 1886. This is the only survivor. Image Credit: Eirian Evans
The Village Pump, Hawarden, There were originally three pumps in Hawarden, used between 1805 and 1886. This is the only survivor. Image Credit: Eirian Evans

Other ancient wells are found across the Mediterranean and Middle East, with the oldest stone lined well located in Israel and dating back to around 7000 BC.

To put the age of these wells into perspective, they were dug at a time when mammoths still roamed the Earth, Doggerland was yet to sink beneath the waves, and the Pyramids of Giza wouldn’t exist until thousands of years in the future.

Read More: Forgotten Country Ways

The emergence of wells in Britain seems to date to the Neolithic period and quickly became installed in settlements around the ancient land.

Throughout much of British history, wells have formed a key part of the water infrastructure of the UK and have been one of the primary, sometimes only, ways in which the British population have had access to water.

Excavations from settlements dating back to the Anglo-Saxon times have, in many instances, revealed large quantities of  wells. The number of wells discovered in close proximity suggests that in many settlements private wells were favoured over the building and use of communal wells.

390 Metres Down

The deepest hand dug well in the world can be found in the UK. The Woodingdean Water Well, found in Brighton and Hove in East Sussex, stretches a staggering 390 metres into the Earth.

The Woodingdean Water Well is the deepest hand-dug well in the world, at 390 metres (1,280 ft) deep. It was dug to provide water for a workhouse. Work on the well started in 1858, and was finished four years later, on 16 March 1862.

Taking four years to complete, the well was finally finished on the 16th of March 1862. The Woodingdean Water Well was created to provide a reliable water source for a local workhouse.

To reduce the cost of digging the well, labour was sourced from the Dyke Road Workhouse. ln addition to reducing labour costs, forcing those at the workhouse to undertake this physically strenuous and dangerous task was seen as strategy to deter people from applying for poor relief at the workhouse.

Read More: The Iconic Shepherd’s Hut, What Are They?

Initially, the Woodingdean Well was not intended to be as deep as it turned out to be. The original plans included a well 400 feet deep, 880 feet shallower than the finished well would come to be.

Village pump in its thatched shelter, Swannington, Norfolk, England
This village well has been capped and a pump installed. Swannington, Norfolk, England

However when the well reached 438 feet two years into construction, water still hadn’t been found. It would take another two years of men working twenty-hours a day, using candlelight at night in dangerous, dirty and cramped conditions for water to be found.

It is said that on the fateful day that water was stuck, the well was so deep that it took the workers forty five minutes to climb the ladders out of the well shaft.

For those wanting to visit the site of the well today, it is now located just outside the Nuffield Hospital, Woodingdean, in Brighton and Hove.

The Maharaja’s Well

In the Chiltern Hills in the town of Stoke Row is one well with a rich story as to how it came to be. The story goes that in the 1860s, the funding for the building of the well came all the way from Maharaja of Benares in India.

Read More: What Were the Stocks & Why Were They Used?

Supposedly, a story reached the Maharaja in India of a child that was beaten after drinking the last of the water in his household during a time of drought.

Maharaja's Well, Checkendon, Stoke Row, Oxfordshire
Maharaja’s Well, Checkendon, Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. Image credit: Peter Collins

Unable to stand by, the Maharaja funded the building of a well in Stoke Row to provide reliable water access to the people of the area.

The well, which still exists today, is highly ornate, with a wrought iron pavilion and topped by a statue of a golden elephant.

The geology of the Chiltern Hills makes the area particularly vulnerable to water shortages during dry spells. The water table in the area is close to 100 metres below the surface and due to a soil composition with high clay deposits, ponds and streams tend to quickly dry up during periods without rain.

Read More: Dick Turpin, Handsome Hero or Violent Criminal?

The well that the Maharaja funded was no small feat, costing nearly £400, the equivalent of about £45,000 in today’s currency, and was dug by hand to a depth of 368 feet.

After taking a year to be completed, the well was finished in 1865 and provided a reliable source of water for the people of Stoke Row for the next seventy years.

Wells in a Modern World

While wells are still used around the world to access water, concerns have been raised as to the impact a changing climate will have on the reliability of wells.

In many part of the world, including parts of Britain, groundwater levels are forecasted to drop with an influx of hotter, drier weather.

Little Coxwell Village Pump, Looking eastwards along the village street from outside the pub.
Little Coxwell Village Pump, Looking eastwards along the village street from outside the pub.

If this happens, wells are likely to fail as the water level drops below the depth of the well, which causes a major issue for those relying on wells as their primary water source.

Increased risk of soil and groundwater salinisation also impacts the future effectiveness of wells. If groundwater sources fall victim to increased salinisation as a result of climate change and global warming, the wells they supply will become completely unusable as a fresh water source.

A World of Water

Dating back to at least 8400 BC wells are an ancient way of accessing water that is so effective it is still used today.

Wells were built around the world to provide a reliable water source to communities and formed a way for settlements to develop in areas not directly adjacent to large surface level water.

Read More: Stand and Deliver: Who Were Britain’s Highwaymen?

While today, technology is used to help determine where a well should be dug and machinery is implemented to assist in the construction of a well, this wasn’t always the case with wells being dug by hand and a variety of ancient methods implemented to determine well placement.

From wells gifted by Maharajas to those dug by the poor at depths reaching over 300 metres, Britain has a strong history of well building.

While in the modern world, wells may be under threat from the impacts of a changing climate, they form a part of humanity’s story and demonstrate a physical link to the importance of protecting the world’s water.