Newly discovered well gives further insight into the history of one of Cambridge University’s Colleges

During recent excavations at Jesus College, Cambridge, a newly discovered well, of later medieval or early post-medieval date has been found.  The well is located within the remains of the hall building designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1875, although it is much older. Prior to 1875, it would have stood in a courtyard just outside the kitchen and Great Hall of the college, which was originally the refectory hall of the medieval nunnery before 1496, and it would have served as a source of water for these.

The well sits in the centre of a large ‘construction cut’, which tells us about the building method employed to create it. The construction cut is a wide, deep pit that was sunk into the ground, after which the stone structure of the well shaft was built upwards in the centre of it. The gap between the edge of the construction cut and the outer face of the stone structure was then filled in with soil, leaving just the narrow, stone-lined well shaft. This was originally built out of chalk ‘clunch’ blocks, cemented together with a lime mortar. The upper part of the well was made from reused limestone blocks, which would originally have been part of an earlier building in the medieval nunnery. The shape of the stone-lined well structure is roughly ‘bell shaped’, with the upper part curving inwards slightly. The well had been repaired on numerous occasions over the centuries, meaning that the original clunch and limestone fabric is full of brickwork patches. This tells us that the well was in use for a long period of time and valued as an important and reliable source of water, with a lot of effort put into maintaining it. Evidence for its longevity is also seen in the thick limescale crust which has developed on the eastern side of the well, where it has been splashed by the ‘hard’ calcium carbonate bearing water drawn up from it.

The centuries of repair work make dating the well a complex challenge. The construction cut of the well had been dug through earlier pits, dating to the 12th–14th centuries, which gives a possible late medieval or early post-medieval date for its origins. The use of old medieval stonework in its construction also suggests a late medieval nunnery or early college date at the earliest, when enough demolition and rebuilding work had taken place at the nunnery and college to create a source of discarded stone available for reuse in other structures. The use of clunch and limestone, rather than brickwork, in the original fabric of the well shaft might also be an indication that the well has a late medieval or early post-medieval origin, before brick became more common. The bricks used to repair and patch up the original stonework appear to be of several types, and probably date to the 16th–19th centuries. We’ve found evidence that at some point in the early college period, a brick-lined culvert was built to take water from the well into the storerooms and buttery beneath the Great Hall of Jesus College. The well acquired a pump during its history, and the court in which it was located is still called the Pump Court today. When Waterhouses’ hall was constructed in 1875, the old well was incorporated into it. The 1888 Ordnance Survey map of Cambridge depicts a pump just outside Waterhouses’ hall (at which time was a servants’ hall), that would have been fed by the well. Waterhouses’ hall was demolished in the early 1960’s, when the well was also filled in with rubble, ending its long history of use. Excavations through the 20th century demolition backfill inside the well are still ongoing, but we hope to come across much earlier deposits at its base.

Did you know?

In the past, the construction of a well was often the most costly and time-consuming element in the building process, which sometimes spanned decades. Well constructions, usually carved out of rock or soil by hand, were particularly challenging for the diggers, especially in castles on hill tops, due to the lack of oxygen. To supply fresh air for the workers, a dividing wall, usually made of wood, was built into the well shaft, with any gaps being stuffed with straw and pitch to make it as airtight as possible. A fireplace was built that sucked air through the well shaft below, ensuring that fresh air was circulated through the artificially built U-shaped pipe created, its two halves being separated by the dividing wall. This supplied fresh air at the “bend” which provided the diggers with sufficient oxygen.

The deepest recorded well in England is at Beeston Castle, Cheshire, with a depth of 113 metres.

Preston Boyles & Caroline Adams

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