Not every expedition I make, finds what I’m looking for. Sometimes it is all but impossible because for intents and purposes, what I’m looking for no longer exists on the surface. Unlike my last post on Clerkenwell, I knew I was doomed to fail on another trip to find Black Marys Hole.
However I wanted to visit as I had long enjoyed reading accounts of such a salubrious place in days of yore.
Black Mary’s Hole lay on the bank of the Fleet River, perhaps a mile from Clerkenwell. It was also called Black Mary’s Well, which is what the ‘hole’ contained, and Black Mary’s Field was adjacent. The well was popular – its iron-impregnated waters supposedly cured sore eyes – and it was covered and made into a conduit in 1687 and is marked as such, near the Pantheon Turnpike Gate, on Rocque’s map of London (l746-8). A hamlet developed around it, ‘a tiny alienated settlement on the banks of the upper Fleet’, as a latter-day commentator put it.
Black Marys Hole is likely named after a lady who had a black cow who would have at one time drank from the spring there. Mary was quite a character and was rumoured to sell milk from her cow in a watered down form, similar to how some drug dealers like to add all sorts of stuff to their illegal narcotics.
As you can see from the old map, it was in a rural area back then but likely due to Mary herself, it began attracting trouble-makers and there are several accounts of wrong-doings and even murder for the slightest provocation.
It had a pub, The Fox at Bay, which appears to have been a hangout for local villains and the pub name probably refers to its criminal origins. The Hole appears regularly in Old Bailey records, a site for highway robbery. Thus the case of Richard Tobin, indicted in 1739 ‘for assaulting Michael Crosby , in a certain Field and open Place, near the King’s Highway:
As I was coming last Sunday Night from Black Mary’s Hole, the Prisoner overtook us in the first Field we pass’d over, and turning upon me he gave me a Jolt. I asked him, What he wanted? And he ask’d me, What I wanted? I told him, I wanted nothing but Civility; upon that he held up this Iron Bar to me, and said, – d—mn you, you Dog, deliver your Money this Moment, or else I will kill you: I put my Hand in my Pocket to give him my Money; but I was the longer in delivering it, because I was thrusting my Watch into my Breeches, when I had done that, I deliver’d him all my Money, which was 9 s. and 4 d. then he snatch’d off my Hat and Wig; but the Wig falling, and he stooping to take it up, I fell upon him, and beat him, and got the better of him. While I had him upon the Ground, I held him down with one Hand, and with the other I unty’d his Garter, and bound him.
Intriguingly Black Marys Hole also was one of the first recorded area for gay men to meet each other. In 1705 the salacious ‘newspaper’ The Wandering Spy, mentioned ‘that Sink and Sodom of the Town, the famous Black Mary’s Hole’. In 1731, one David Hall was tried as a ‘molly’ for stripping, robbing and then kissing John Hart, who had been ‘much in Liquor’ at the time.
As you can see in the modern map, Black Marys Hole is now well and truly swallowed up by inner London but you can see the location of it in comparison to the original map in what is now Cubitt Street,
When poor old Black Mary had reached old age in about 1687, Walter Baynes Esq. of the Inner Temple, enclosed the well into a Conduit and left a fund for keeping the same in perpetual repair. The stone with the inscription was carried away during the night about ten years ago. The water (which formerly fed two ponds on the other side of the road) falls into the old Bagnigge river.”
By the Georgian times things were looking bleak for the well, between developers and local rogues, all evidence for it vanished and tit became a cesspool for new houses and it might have been forever forgotten but in 1826 a footpath in the street collapsed and the waters re-appeared. It was enclosed more thoroughly this time and the water pump was quickly stolen and post WW2 development means there is no visible sign of it at all as it lies in old Council housing.
I did look up and down very thoroughly and by chance met one of the oldest residents in this part of London who lived on the street and he was very surprised at my mentioning it as he hadn’t thought about it for decades but he did confirm that it was apparently on the other side of the street from his house which was where I was looking.
I did however found evidence of another very nearby well which also had its existence thanks to the high water table from the River Fleet. Bagnigge Wells were once used for healing and house whose garden they were in once belonged to Nell Gwyn, the famous actress and mistress of King Charles II.
So it wasn’t a total waste of time and at least I fared better than poor Richard Tobin.