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Chapter 7. Black Marys Hole. - John Ashton 1888

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Between this house, and Bagnigge Wells, was Bagnigge Wash, or Marsh, and Black Mary's Wells, or Hole. The etymology of this place is contested. In the _Gentleman's Magazine_ for 1813, part ii. p. 557, in an "Account of various Mineral Wells near London," is the following: "Lastly, in the same neighbourhood, may be mentioned the spring or conduit on the eastern side of the road leading from Clerken Well to Bagnigge Wells, and which has given name to a very few small houses as _Black Mary's Hole_. The land here was, formerly, called Bagnigg Marsh, from the river Bagnigg,[34] which passes through it. But, in after-time, the citizens resorting to drink the waters of the conduit, which then was leased to one Mary, who kept a black Cow, whose milk the gentlemen and ladies drank with the waters of the Conduit, from whence, the wits of that age used to say, 'Come, let us go to Mary's black hole.' However, Mary dying, and the place degenerating into licentiousness, about 1687, Walter Baynes Esqre, of the Inner Temple, enclosed the Conduit in the manner it now is, which looks like a great oven. He is supposed to have 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."

This etymon, however, is contested in a pamphlet called _An experimental enquiry concerning the Contents, Qualities, Medicinal Virtues of the two Mineral Waters of_ Bagnigge Wells, &c., by John Bevis, M.D. This pamphlet was originally published in 1767, but I quote from the third edition of 1819. "At what time these waters were first known cannot be made out with any degree of evidence. A tradition goes that the place of old was called Blessed Mary's Well; but that the name of the Holy Virgin having, in some measure, fallen into disrepute after the Reformation, the title was altered to Black Mary's Well, as it now stands upon Mr. Rocque's map, and then to Black Mary's Hole; though there is a very different account of these latter appellations; for there are those who insist they were taken from one Mary Woolaston, whose occupation was attending at a well, now covered in, on an opposite eminence, by the footway from Bagnigge to Islington to supply the soldiery, encamped in the adjacent fields, with water. But waving such uncertainties, it may be relied on for truth, that a late proprietor, upon taking possession of the estate, found two wells thereon, both steaned in a workmanlike manner; but when, or for what purpose, they were sunk, he is entirely ignorant."

But Black Mary's Hole, during the first half of the last century, had a very queer reputation. There was a little public-house with the sign of "The Fox at Bay," which probably had something to do with the numerous highway robberies that occurred thereabouts.

In Cromwell's "History of Clerkenwell," pp. 318, 319, we hear of the last of Black Mary's Hole. He says, "Beneath the front garden of a house in SPRING PLACE, and extending under the foot-pavement almost to the turnpike gate called the Pantheon Gate, lies the capacious receptacle of a _Mineral Spring_, which in former times was in considerable repute, both as a chalybeate, and for its supposed efficacy in the cure of sore eyes.... About ten years back, when Spring Place was erected, the builder removed every external appearance of Walter Baynes's labours, and converted the receptacle beneath into a cesspool for the drainage of his houses. The spring thus degraded, and its situation concealed, it is probable that the lapse of a few more years would have effaced the memory of it for ever, had not an accident re-discovered it in the summer of 1826. Its covering, which was only of boards, having rotted, suddenly gave way, and left a large chasm in the footpath. After some efforts, not perfectly successful, to turn off the drainage, it was then arched with brickwork, and a leaden pump placed over it, in the garden where it chiefly lies. But the pump being stolen during the following winter, the spring has again fallen into neglect, and possibly this page alone will prevent its being totally forgotten."

Still following the Fleet to its outfall, we next come to Bagnigge Well, a chalybeate spring, first used medicinally, and then, like all these Spas, merely as a promenade, and place of out-of-door recreation.

Originally, this spring probably belonged to the Nunnery at Clerkenwell, and may possibly be the "Rode Well" mentioned in the Register of Clerkenwell. But we are indebted to Dr. Bevis, from whose pamphlet I have already quoted, for a history of its modern rise and development (p. 38).

"In the year 1757, the spot of ground in which this well is sunk was let out to a gentleman curious in gardening, who observed that the oftener he watered his flowers from it the worse they throve. I happened, toward the end of that summer, to be in company with a friend who made a transient visit to Mr. HUGHES, and was asked to taste the water; and, being surprised to find its flavour so near that of the best German chalybeates, did not hesitate to declare my opinion, that it might be made of great benefit both to the public and himself. At my request, he sent me some of the water, in a large stone bottle, well corked, the next day; a gallon whereof I immediately set over a fire, and by a hasty evaporation found it very rich in mineral contents, though much less so than I afterwards experienced it to be when more leisurely exhaled by a gentle heat. Whilst this operation was carrying on, I made some experiments on the remainder of the water, particularly with powdered galls, which I found to give, in less than a minute, a very rich and deep purple tincture to it, that lasted many days without any great alteration. I reported these matters to Mr. Hughes, but, soon after, a very dangerous illness put a stop to my experiments, which I did not resume for a considerable time, when the proprietor called, and told me his waters were in very great repute, and known by the name of BAGNIGGE WELLS; which I remembered to have seen in the newspapers, without so much as guessing it had been given to these springs. Mr. HUGHES took me to his wells, where I was not a little pleased with the elegant accommodations he had provided for company in so short a time."

The house attached to the Spa is said to have been the residence of Nell Gwyn, but tradition has assigned her so many houses; at Chelsea, Bagnigge Wells, Highgate, Walworth, and Filberts, near Windsor--nay, one enterprising tradesman in the Strand has christened a milk shop "Nell Gwyn's Dairy," and has gone to some expense, in pictorial tiles, to impress on passers-by the genuineness of his assertion.

Still, local tradition is strong, and, in a book called "The Recreations[35] of Mr. Zigzag the elder" (a pseudonym for Mr. John Wykeham Archer, artist and antiquary), which is in the Library of the City of London, and which is profusely "Grangerised" by the author, is a small water colour of Bagnigge House, the reputed dwelling of Nell Gwyn, which I have reproduced in outline, and on this drawing is a note, "Moreover several small tenements at the north end of the Garden were formerly entitled Nell Gwynne's Buildings, which seems to verify the tradition."[36]

BAGNIGGE HOUSE. (Said to have been Nell Gwyn's.)

[Illustration: BAGNIGGE HOUSE. (Said to have been Nell Gwyn's.)]

But the evidence is all of a _quasi_ kind. In the long room, supposed to have been the banqueting room, was, over the mantel, a bust, an _alto relievo_, of a female, supposed to be Nell Gwyn, and said to be modelled by Sir Peter Lely, enclosed in a circular border of fruit, which, of course, was at once set down as a delicate allusion to the actress's former calling of orange wench in the theatres. The bust and border were painted to imitate nature, and on either side were coats of arms--one the Royal arms, and, on the other side, the Royal arms quartered with others, which were supposed to be those assumed by the actress. When the old house was pulled down, the bust disappeared, and no one knows whither it went.

I give a quotation from the _Sunday Times_, July 5, 1840, not as adding authority, or weight, to the idea that Bagnigge House was Nell's residence, but to show how deeply rooted was the tradition. It is a portion of the "_Maximms and Speciments of William Muggins, Natural Philosopher, and Citizen of the World_"--

"Oh! how werry different London are now to wot it war at the time as I took my view on it from the post; none of them beautiful squares and streets, as lies heast and west, and north of the hospital, war built then; it war hall hopen fields right hup to Ampstead an Ighgate and Hislington. Bagnigge Well stood by itself at the foot of the hill, jist where it does now; and then it looked the werry pictur of countryfiedness and hinnocence. There war the beautiful white washed walls, with the shell grotto in the hoctagon summer house, where Nell Gwynne used to sit and watch for King Charles the Second. By the by, a pictur done by a famous hartist of them days, Sir Somebody Neller I thinks war his name, represents the hidentical ouse (it war a fine palace then) with the hidentical hoctagon summer house, with the beautiful Nelly leaning hout of the winder, with her lilly white hand and arm a-beckoning, while the King is seed in the distance galloping like vinking across the fields a waving his hat and feathers; while a little page, with little tobacker-pipe legs, in white stockings, stands ready to hopen a little door in the garden wall, and let hin the royal wisitor, while two little black and tan spanels is frisking about and playing hup hold gooseberry among the flower beds.

That ere pictur used to hang hup in the bar parlor; its wanished now--so are the bust as were in the long room; but there's another portrait pictur of her, all alone by herself, done by Sir Peter Lely, still to be seen. (This here last coorosity war discovered honly a year or two ago, rolled hup among sum rubbige in the loft hunder the roof.)"

The old house, however, was evidently of some importance, for, over a low doorway which led into the garden, was a stone, on which was sculptured a head in relief, and the following inscription--


thus showing that the Pindar of Wakefield was the older house, and famous in that locality. This doorway and stone were in existence within the last forty years, for, in a footnote to page 572 of the _Gentleman's Magazine_ of June, 1847, it says, "The gate and inscription still remain, and will be found, where we saw them a few weeks since, in the road called Coppice Row, on the left going from Clerkenwell towards the New Road."

The following illustration gives Bagnigge Wells as it appeared at the end of last century.



We have read how these gardens were first started in 1757, but they soon became well known and, indeed, notorious, as we read in a very scurrilous poem called "Bagnigge Wells," by W. Woty, in 1760--

"Wells, and the place I sing, at early dawn Frequented oft, where male and female meet, And strive to drink a long adieu to pain. In that refreshing Vale with fragrance fill'd, Renown'd of old for Nymph of public fame And amorous Encounter, where the sons Of lawless lust conven'd--where each by turns His venal Doxy woo'd, and stil'd the place _Black Mary's Hole_--there stands a Dome superb, Hight Bagnigge; where from our Forefathers hid, Long have two Springs in dull stagnation slept; But, taught at length by subtle art to flow, They rise, forth from Oblivion's bed they rise, And manifest their Virtues to Mankind."

The major portion of this poem (?) is rather too _risque_ for modern publication, but the following extract shows the sort of people who went there with the view of benefiting their health--

"Here ambulates th' Attorney looking grave, And Rake from Bacchanalian rout uprose, And mad festivity. Here, too, the Cit, With belly, turtle-stuff'd, and man of Gout, With leg of size enormous. Hobbling on, The Pump-room he salutes, and in the chair He squats himself unwieldy. Much he drinks, And much he laughs to see the females quaff The friendly beverage. He, nor jest obscene, Of meretricious wench, nor quibble quaint, Of prentic'd punster heeds, himself a wit And dealer in conundrums, but retorts The repartee jocosely. Soft! how pale Yon antiquated virgin looks! Alas! In vain she drinks, in vain she glides around The Garden's labyrinth. 'Tis not for thee, Mistaken nymph! these waters pour their streams," &c.

And in the prologue to "Bon Ton: or _High_ Life above Stairs," by David Garrick, acted at Drury Lane for the first time, for the benefit of Mr. King, in 1775, not much is said as to the character of its frequenters.

"Ah! I loves life and all the joy it yields, Says Madam Fupock, warm from Spittlefields. Bon Ton's the space 'twixt Saturday and Monday, And riding in a one-horse chaise on Sunday, 'Tis drinking tea on summer's afternoons At Bagnigge Wells, with china and gilt spoons."