There were two wells called ‘Nearer’ and ‘Farther’ situated on, or very close to what is now Lambeth Walk. At some time before 1697 a ‘Great Room’ was opened for music and dancing, the admission being 3d (1.25 pence); by 1721 the entry fee, for special events, had risen to 1s (one shilling – 5 pence). In 1755 the dance hall lost its licence and became a Methodist meeting hall.
This article appeared The Vauxhall Society newsletter in February 1980 and is based on research by Peggy Sheath with additional material contributed by Arthur Lefevre and other (then) members of the Society.
A few months ago, I was passing along Lambeth Road when I was asked by some Americans how to find Lambeth Walk. Obviously, these tourists had expected something of greater interest than the towering blocks of flats with which they were confronted when I showed them the way. I wished they could have seen ‘the ‘Walk’ when it was rumbustious and dirty, but full of the life of the streets.
In Elizabethan times, Lambeth consisted of a few houses near St Mary’s church and a narrow strip of buildings, bordering the river up to Vauxhall. There were a few houses along Church Street (now Lambeth Road) and Lambeth Butts (now Black Prince Road), but otherwise little development further from the river than the High Street (then known as Back Lane) until the end of the 18th century.
The fields of Lambeth were a favourite resort for Londoners wishing to have a day out in the country. Running matches and outdoor sports took place, and to add to the attractions, some mineral springs were discovered there which flourished as the Lambeth Wells for about 50 years in the 18th century. The waters of Lambeth were widely advertised, and accepted by many people of the time as universal medicine. A rising of the vapours, a scorbutic humour, an inniterate cancer could all be cured, as ‘eminent physicians’ constantly testified, by drinking these unpleasant but harmless beverages – if possible on the spot or at any rate in bottles sent out by the dozen and stamped with the proprietor’s seal.
In April 1696, in the reign of William III, an announcement appeared in the London Gazette which said:
Lambeth Purging Waters in Langton Gardens, Lambeth Fields near the Three Coneys will be opened tomorrow. The place is extremely pleasant and fitted for the entertainment of persons of all qualities. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays the music will be continued till 4 in the afternoon and the other days till 7. To prevent mistakes, on the top of the house which covers the Well is a Golden Ball.
It is thought that the original name of Three Coney Walk was taken from an old inn which stood there in manorial times. It cannot be certain that this was the first public announcement of the opening of Lambeth Wells. Such places usually began by merely supplying the waters, entertainment came afterwards.
At any rate, in the early 18th century, the Large or Great Room was built to provide accommodation for dancing. Booths and raffling shops were set up for players and gamblers. A visitor could spend a trifle on cheesecakes and syllabub for the ladies, and order for himself some bottled ale and such substantial viands as were afforded by the tavern or the master’s dwelling house attached to the Wells.
The Lambeth Wells although never as large and popular as the nearby Spring Gardens (later Vauxhall Gardens) were still flourishing in 1721. An advertisement in the Daily Courant of 18 March 1721 mentions ‘a Consort of good music with French and Country Dancing.’ A rider to the advertisement lends a note of gentility: ‘Note there will be attendance given every morning to any Gentlemen or Ladies that have occasion to drink the Waters.’ However, by 1736 the popularity of the Wells was declining, patrons by then preferring the delights of the Spa Waters in St George’s Fields at the ‘Dog and Duck’ just outside the borders of the Lambeth parish. The Wells were still kept open as a place of dancing and public amusement. Thomas Allen writes: ‘a Penny Wedding after the Scotch Fashion for the benefit of a young couple was advertised to be kept here in 1752′.
In 1740, the owner of the Wells was a Mr O’Keeffe, and he was succeeded by “Mr Ireland”, at which time a Musical Society or concert met monthly under the direction of Mr Sterling Goodwin, organist of St Saviours church (Southwark Cathedral). The cultural tone of the neighbourhood was further enhanced at the same time by the learning of one Erasmus King who read lectures and exhibited experiments on Natural Philosophy’ – admittance sixpence.
But less than ten years later, in about 1758, the Wells was condemned as a nuisance and a common brothel and a dancing licence refused. But it continued as a tea garden and meeting place and at one stage was let to a Methodist preacher (by profession a needle maker) who used the music gallery for a pulpit, until, being disturbed greatly in his enthusiastic harangues, he was obliged to quit; then the whole premises were converted to various purposes. One source says it became a common alehouse by the name of ‘the Well’ but another source says the dwelling in 1786 was known as a tavern called ‘The Fountain’.
It is certain that this tavern, whatever its name, was demolished and rebuilt in 1829 and was known as ‘The Fountain’ from that time. In digging the foundations many glass bottles and flagons of a peculiar shape were found with the initials “P.K.” on them, being those of Mr O’Keeffe mentioned as the former owner of the Wells. In Robson’s London Directory of 1837, ‘The Fountain’ was numbered 141 Lambeth Walk; later it was renumbered to 105. It continued to trade as a public house and appeared annually as such in the Post Office Trade Directory up to 1915. In the following year it was tenanted by Alfred George Body, hosier.
No. 105 Lambeth Walk was still there at the time of writing, but boarded up and empty. After many years as a hosiers, it finished its last few years as an eel and pie shop. It had a wide facade, and one could easily see that it was once a Victorian public house. A photographic record of it was badly needed before it finally came under the sledgehammers of the demolition squad – for with its going went the last link with the old Wells.
Survey of London Volume XXIII st Mary Lambeth Part I, LCC, 1951
London Pleasure Gardens by Warwick Wroth, Macrnillan, 1896
Springs. Streams and Spas of London: History and Associations, 1910
History and Antiquities of Archepiscopal Palace of Lambeth, by A Ducarel, 1785
History of Lambeth, by Thomas Allen, 1826
Bray’s continuation of Manning’s History of Surrey, 1814