The Convent Well, Woodnesborough
Abridged from a report by K Parfitt (Dover Archaeology Group)
Large-scale Ordnance Survey maps of the Sandwich region have, since the nineteenth century, regularly marked the site of a Convent Well at Woodnesborough. The site lies some 600 metres (656 yards) north-east of Woodnesborough parish church, at the foot of a ridge of high ground running towards Marshborough. However, no surface traces of any well were evident here, or even the presence of damp ground. Two loose pieces of dressed stone found in the undergrowth may or may not have been associated. Local enquiries provided little further information concerning the lost well, beyond the fact that the site is also known locally and, it transpires, more correctly, as the Conduit Well.
At the invitation of the current owners, who have a particular interest in this lost site, members of the Dover Archaeology Group undertook an investigation of the well between March and June 2014. Excavation was rewarded by the discovery of the buried remains of a small, stone-built conduit house, with portions of its medieval walls still standing to a height of more than one metre (3 feet, 3 inches). Inside the little building, an intact, capped-off, well shaft was found, still containing water.
The Convent or Conduit Well originated in the medieval period and the site was once connected with the Carmelite Friary at Sandwich, located some two kilometres (1.25 miles) to the north-east. A single documentary reference of the early fourteenth century records the only details known:
[In] 1306, Thomas Shelving bequeathed ‘a plot of land in Woodnesborough, 12ft by 12ft [3.65m], with a spring there, to enclose it and make an underground conduit through his land to their house’. [from: Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward III, 1301-1307].
Thomas Shelving was a leading Sandwich wool merchant who came from a wealthy, old established family that held a large manorial estate at Woodnesborough. The origins of the manor of Shelving can be traced back to Domesday Book and it long constituted the principal manor of Woodnesborough. The manor house, Shelving Court, was located immediately south of the church but seems to have been demolished sometime during the late nineteenth century.
The Carmelite Friary at Sandwich (Whitefriars) was established in about 1268, and was built across low-lying marshland on the edge of town. Its site is now largely covered by modern housing but excavations have recovered much of its plan. A new study of the site is presently in preparation.
From the documentary and field evidence it is apparent that the medieval well was constructed at the site of a natural spring issuing from the base of the hill. The original form of this spring can only be surmised. A trench excavated to the south-east of the medieval conduit house revealed nothing to suggest that there had ever been any sort of mere or pond located around the mouth of the spring.
Water issuing from the site and two or three other springs in the area, must have all originally fed into a stream that flowed away towards the coast. Today, this is represented by the South Poulders Stream, which runs north-eastward away from the well site.
Still important for local drainage, this stream flows across the marshlands of theSouth Poulders, skirting the northern edge of Mary-le-bone Hill. It enters Sandwich via a culvert under the medieval town rampart at the Butts, connecting with the Delf Stream before this empties into the main River Stour.
The Lynchet Bank
The lynchet bank into which the medieval structure was set, must have already been in existence when the conduit house was first constructed, so implying an earlier date for this local agricultural feature. This lynchet would seem to represent an accumulation of plough soil collected at the foot of a long, north-east facing slope. There is another such bank defining the upper edge of the adjacent field about 100 metres (109 yards) further up the slope to the south-west. The natural spring, however, must have been in existence long before the region came under the plough.
Bronze Age Pit
During the initial excavation of the Convent Well, a collection of burnt flint stone was noted on the surface of an adjacent ploughed field, just a few metres from the well. Excavation of this area uncovered a Bronze Age pit, of c. 1657-1442 BC, and the discovery from the surrounding field of a surface scatter of prehistoric struck flints, together with a polished Neolithic stone axe.
Following recording of the Bronze Age pit site, the excavation was reinstated to its original levels to allow cultivation of the field.
The Bronze Age pit and associated finds combine to suggest that there was at least intermittent activity around the spring site long before the medieval period. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that the Convent Well ever enjoyed the status of a ‘holy well’ during medieval times; indeed, enclosure of the spring by the Friars may have effectively represented the loss of an accessible local water source for inhabitants of the Woodnesborough area.
The Medieval Well
The surviving remains of the well were solid and showed no evidence of movement or subsidence on a wet site where it must have been generally difficult to build. Excavation showed that the structure had been set within a broad construction pit, cut back into the existing lynchet bank around the mouth of the spring. Apart from obvious twentieth century modifications (see below), the entire well appeared to be of one build, with no evidence of any subsequent repairs or alterations. There was nothing to suggest that the building was any later in date than the fourteenth century.
Details of the Well Shaft
The conduit house enclosed a central well shaft/cistern, 0.84m square (2ft 9ins) and over 1.60m (5ft 3ins) deep. More than one metre (3ft 3ins) of fill had accumulated in its lower part but excavation showed that virtually no medieval material was present (see below). It was not possible to excavate the shaft down to its base due to the amount of water continuing to flow in, but it is unlikely to have extended very much below the level that was reached. The shaft itself had been very carefully constructed, its builders presumably working in constantly flowing water at the lower levels.
At the base, layers of laid flint cobbles set in light grey silty clay provided a foundation for four rough, large, horizontal slabs of undressed ragstone, positioned one along each side of the intended shaft. These slabs were about 0.10m (4ins) thick. They gave solid support for the main well lining, which consisted of five courses of neatly cut and laid blocks of Caen (Normandy, France) stone, extending to a height of about 1.20m (3ft 11ins). These lining blocks were bonded in grey clay, and internally showed little sign of water erosion. No water inlets were present in this block work and, as seen during the excavation, the natural spring water flowed in through the basal cobbles.
Although there were no water inlet holes in the sides of the well, the damaged north-east wall of the shaft showed clear evidence of an original outlet. About halfway up the shaft wall, a Caen stone block set slightly east of centre, was drilled with a roughly shaped circular hole about 0.10m (4ins) in diameter. An adjacent block may also have been provided with a similar aperture, although the block had subsequently been removed to allow the insertion of the modern drainage pipe (see below). Nevertheless, a loose stone of the appropriate size and shape to fit the gap was found in the filling of the trench associated with the new pipe. This block contained a similar sized aperture, roughly chiseled through one side, leaving little doubt that it was the missing block from the shaft wall. These two perforated stones clearly represented the original outlet for the accumulated spring water and must have discharged into the culvert leading away to the friary.
Details of the Conduit House
The top of the well shaft was protected within a small, square, masonry conduit house, measuring internally 1.11m across (3ft 8ins). The walls survived up to a height of 1.35m (4ft 5ins) and were best preserved where they were built into the pre-existing lynchet bank on the south-western side. Forward of the bank, the north-east wall was completely missing, but a scar in the masonry of the north corner seemed just sufficient to indicate the former presence of a return wall here. Most likely, there was not a continuous wall on this side but two short spurs extending from the corners as far as a central access doorway, probably at least 0.50m (1ft 7ins) wide.
The walls of the conduit house itself were built off the large ragstone slabs surrounding the top of the well shaft.Around the inside, the base course of the conduit house walls consisted of large Caen stone blocks, very similar to those used in the shaft. These did not extend through the thickness of the wall, however. Above and behind these basal Caen stone blocks, the main walls of the building were largely constructed from mortared flint cobbles, with some re-used Caen stone ashlar (mostly in the south-west wall). The three surviving corners of the building were turned in medieval yellow-pink brick.
Traces of rendering showed that the interior wall surfaces of the conduit house had originally been neatly plastered all over. The external faces of the walls, however, appeared to be largely un-faced, which must indicate that they were never intended to be exposed, enclosed by the lynchet bank. Only at the north corner, located at the foot of the lynchet bank did faced brickwork occur externally.
The exact nature of the missing roof of the building cannot be certain but the available site evidence suggests that it was probably stone vaulted. A neatly shaped Caen stone corbel set at 45 degrees into the western corner of the conduit house survived, 1.13m (3ft 8ins) above floor level. The scar of a now missing corbel, similarly positioned, was noted at the south corner, whilst a loose corbel stone, re-shaped from a former Caen stone window mullion, was found loose in soil near the north corner. These corbels, together with the discovery of several pieces of probable groin, also shaped from Caen stone, combine to suggest that the building originally had a vaulted roof. Taken with a general absence of medieval tile, a stone rather than ceramic roof covering would thus seem most likely. The top of the well house roof must have stood a little higher than the top of the adjacent lynchet bank.
Post-Medieval Maintenance and Decay
Over one metre (3ft 3ins) of waterlogged grey silts and rubble filled the lower part of the shaft, extending up to a point just below the medieval outlet hole. Excavation of these deposits yielded nothing of medieval date, apart from a few smallish fragments of Caen stone derived from the superstructure of the building. The rubble excavated included large quantities of nineteenth century red brick, together with broken vessel glass, a tin can, the soles of three shoes, and a decorated clay pipe bowl broadly dated c.1880–1930.The general impression gained was that this was deliberate infill, deposited during the second half of the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century, perhaps specifically intended to reduce the overall depth of the then open well shaft. Significantly, however, the infill material was not allowed to block the original water outlet indicating that up-welling water could still exit as before.
Further evidence for post-medieval activity at the site was represented by a series of roughly laid ragstone blocks and boulders exposed resting on the north-western slope of the lynchet bank by the north corner of the conduit house. Careful cleaning suggested that these represented the slumped and partially collapsed remains of a crude flight of steps, around one metre (3ft 3ins) wide that formerly led down to the well site from the trackway running along the top of the lynchet bank. Many of the stones showed signs of adhering mortar indicting that they were re-used. Comparison of the mortar with that of the conduit house, however, showed that the mixes were completely different. Two large maroon-red bricks, probably of later eighteenth or early nineteenth century date, incorporated with stones seem to imply a later post-medieval date for this feature, perhaps c. 1800. Thus, although the steps do not appear to be part of the original medieval arrangement, they do suggest that fairly regular access to the well site continued to be required until relatively recent times. The soil sealing the steps contained much modern material indicating that these had been visible until the twentieth century burial of the site (see below).
Although some rubble apparently derived from the superstructure of the conduit house was discovered within the well shaft and in deposits surrounding the cover building itself, this was not sufficient in quantity to represent all the missing portions of that structure. The implication must be that a certain amount of original material had been removed elsewhere. Whether this was the result of regular clearance of the main well as the conduit house collapsed, in order to maintain the flow of water, or whether stonework had been specifically taken away for use in another structure remains uncertain. If the latter, the amount of material recovered would not have amounted to a great deal of useful raw material and the former might seem more likely.
Amongst the collapsed building material which was recovered was a quantity of dressed Caen stone including a corbel stone, and two or three fragments of groin vaulting, all of which appeared to derive from the roof of the conduit house.
Twentieth Century Capping and Burial
The only significant modification made to the medieval structure itself occurred sometime during the mid–late twentieth century, when a new underground pipe was installed to convey the still flowing water away to the north-east. To allow the insertion of this new six-inch overflow pipe, part of the north-east wall of the well shaft had been broken out. This seems to have included the removal of a Caen stone block containing an original medieval water outlet hole (see above).
Following the insertion of the new pipe, two heavy concrete paving slabs had been used to cover over the then still partially open well shaft. Finally, the sealed shaft and the enclosing conduit house were buried under tons of soil, rubble and general rubbish, which included plastic, glass bottles, car tyres and an old domestic water tank, tipped down the bank from the west. A more interesting find amongst this material was a small lapel badge of the National Union of General Workers. This may be dated to the period 1916 – 1924 and was certainly earlier than some of the other material present.
With this soil covering in place, all surfaces traces of Convent Well were obscured and local memory of the site seems to have been lost quite quickly – perhaps because the site was never regularly used by the inhabitants of Woodnesborough.
Site Covering and Closure
Following lengthy and detailed recording of the Convent Well, including transferring the measurement and location of each individual stone, brick and flint to a scale hand drawing, the decision was made to protect the site by recovering. A protective sheet was laid over the stone and this covered with sieved earth before the excavation was reinstated to its original level.
Little trace of the excavation is now in evidence, however, a notice is to be erected to inform of the existence of this historically significant site.
Much thanks and praise go to the members of the Dover Archaeology Group for giving freely of their time, and at often times their hard labour, to resolve the mystery of the Convent Well, and discovery of the Bronze Age pit.
Acknowledgement to K Parfitt (Dover Archaeology Group) as the author of the original report on the Convent Well and for permitting this abridged and edited version to be published. All copies must include this acknowledgement and the following copyright: Copyright 2014, K Parfitt (Dover Archaeology Group). The full version of the report will appear in K Parfitt’s book on the Carmelite Friary at Sandwich.