Gold Hill Museum is celebrating the ingenuity of locals in accessing water in a hilltop town without a ready supply. One of their 2019 exhibitions features Shaftesbury’s long association with pipes, pumps and pubs.
On Sunday, 12th May, Shaftesbury residents will again revive the ancient Byzant ceremony, walking down to Enmore Green to make payment for clean water taken from the spring at the foot of the hill. That’s where Janet Swiss began her tour of Gold Hill museum’s new water exhibition that she has arranged.
We stood and admired a replica of the Byzant, a broom-like staff colourfully decorated with ribbons flowers and peacock’s feathers. The earliest description of the Byzant ceremony dates back to 1527 but Shaftesbury’s people addressed the need for water centuries before that, when the Abbey was founded in the year 880.
“They say there was a big well somewhere in the Abbey grounds. There’s a bit of discussion about where it could be,” said Janet. It has been suggested that the hospital car park and the old schoolhouse on Abbey Walk could conceal the well site.
As you walk around the exhibition, you’ll see that Janet has focussed on how townspeople have secured their own, often secret, water supplies. During her research, she has located wells and cisterns that few people know about today.
“We found quite a few wells in private houses. That’s been the most fascinating thing,” said Janet, leading me to pictures of a private water supply in Bimport. “It’s a cistern in somebody’s kitchen. It is lit beautifully and it is nine feet deep and nine feet wide.” On the wall, there is a map of the town marked with old pumps and springs. “There is one in Swan’s Yard somewhere. It is in the flower bed although they don’t know whereabouts it is,” said Janet.
Her research has suggested a number of wells lie underneath the Post Office too. “Several, apparently, were found there. They’re all over the place, but an awful lot of them have been filled in, so people have forgotten, which is sad. I thought this would be a good opportunity for people to try and record it all before it’s gone out of memory,” she said.
Aside from wells, water carting offered a source of income for strong locals who carried large barrels up Tout Hill. The exhibition reveals that in 1615, you could pay up to half a penny for a bucket full. “It was brought up from the ponds and the springs by carrying a bucket on your head or on a yoke carried by pairs. A big barrel was brought up later on and water was sold from the main street of the town. It was hard work. We have a bucket so you can feel how heavy it is,” said Janet, showing me the pale positioned in the middle of the room. When you lift it up, you’ll soon understand that these water carriers really earned their money.
Following the exhibition timeline around the room, I learned that a Londoner devised an ingenious plan to install a water cistern at the Butter Cross for paying customers. “In the early 1700s, John Yarnold wanted to use three horses and a machine to power it. It didn’t work. He got an agreement with the Town Hall for 300 years, but nothing came of it,” said Janet.
And then a couple of years later, plans to lay a fixed pipeline were announced. “Mr Benson had wooden pipes put in and then further on there were lead ones. He drew the water from Wincombe Pound, which was a long way,” said Janet. But capturing water from The Donheads and moving it to reservoirs on Barton Hill and The Commons was not viable and the business had ceased trading by 1706.
Lead pipes were put in by 1714 but the project failed as well. So water was again carted up from Enmore Green. After a few decades, a dozen wells were sunk. One was 126 feet deep. Then Richard, Lord Grosvenor, stepped in.
“He put in the Town Hall, a new market and all sorts of things for the good of the town,” explained Janet. He started the cooling tank, where the swimming pool is now. It was the pump house for a very deep well that he had put in and the storage was at Ivy Cross.”
By the middle of the Victorian era, the town had regular running water but the exhibition shows how the extraordinarily cold winter of February 1895 disrupted supply. “When some of the pipes were dug, they weren’t put in very deep and they froze. Mr Peach, who owned the hairdressers, had the only pipe that was sufficiently deeply buried that he could provide water,” said Janet. “There’s a lovely photograph showing everybody with their buckets and churns, all coming to get their water. He provided water for everybody for three weeks.” Janet pointed to a picture of a group of moustached, proud Victorians posing for the camera.
There’s another snap of a cold snap, documenting the extremely cold weather of February 1963, when the pipes froze again. Someone is pictured filling a kettle next to a West Wiltshire Water van.
Pubs and brewing played an important part in Shaftesbury’s life because beer was safer to drink than the water. John Strange has researched Shaftesbury’s long-forgotten pubs and ales houses and his findings are featured in this exhibition.
“I saw that there were twelve churches and a reference that there were many more pubs than churches,” said John. “Thomas Hardy once commented that Shaftesbury was ‘a place where beer was more plentiful than water’, so I started looking at reference books. I started to wonder how many pubs there were and where they were.”
John says he has now identified 55 pubs. The town’s position on the Great West Road from London towards the West Country encouraged alehouses. “And it was a crossroads from the south coast traveling north,” he said.
John says you can often identify which town centre buildings have been used as coaching inns. “From St Peter’s Church, go down the southern side of the High Street and you get as far as Kit and Kaboodle. Look at the premises – they’ve all got large, double-door archways and cobbled passages. I think every one of those was, at some stage of the building’s life, including Boots, licensed premises.”
Some of our remaining pubs have had an interesting history. John says that The Ship Inn is very old and has changed both names and uses over the years. The Mitre Inn is relatively long established, too. “The Mitre was rebuilt in 1933 from an original one from 1825. They knocked it down and started again. The Ship Inn hasn’t been in continuous use as a pub. It was a doctor surgery and was possibly called The Ram.”
John fondly recalls some of the pubs, which have closed during his lifetime in Shaftesbury. “Down in St James there was The Fox and Hounds,” he said. That pub operated on the eastern side of the road, near Tanyard Lane, between 1820 and the late 1950s. The Hand In Hand, at 55 St James Street, served drinkers from 1820 until calling time in the 1930s.
“There was The Fountain in Enmore Green, which is rumoured be reopening,” continued John. “The Crown in the High Street, that has gone. The Butt Of Sherry on The Commons was a bar that I remember.” You can still see the reference to the former use of the building now occupied by Sloane’s hairdressers. “When they redecorated they retained the name on the outer wall. So a bit of history,” said John.
There were plenty of pubs in St James Street. The White Hart Inn was at number 30 and had been known by another name. “It was also called ‘The Ben Of Leather’ and that relates to Tanyard Lane and the leather industries down there. A ben was a part of a house.” The pub operated under that title between 1695 and 1750.
“I think the one that I enjoyed looking into the most was The Grosvenor,” said John. “There have been many, many changes over the years. It had two bars and the back bar was very much a gentleman-only bar. The front was a lounge.” John can remember his school holiday job at the hotel. “I was a junior porter. That was many moons ago in the mid-1950s,” he said.
John lives on Bimport and there were pubs on that street once, too. “One was in Ox House. At Rutters, there was a pub -The Crown and Punchbowl. It was on that site from 1825.”
John continued to reel off some of the colourful former Shaftesbury pub names, most of which created a strong visual image. “The Griffin’s Head. The Phoenix. The Blue Boar… Those three watering holes were all on Bell Street along with the Hop Bag Inn, where the dentist is. And the Tourist Information Centre was a pub. The 1480 is the first reference I have found of a licensed premises on that site. It was gone by the 1850s.”
Around the corner, Swan’s Yard’s name references a former inn. “I think that is from ‘The Three Swans’ that was there,” he said.
John’s has also looked into the history of the Shaston Club. “It was built post First World War. Lord Stalbridge offered the land. It was very much a wooden building in its early days and was probably the first social club as such,” said John.
Like Janet, John has not completed his research work. He is still uncovering new information and is keen to hear from anybody with stories to share. And Janet would like to locate more hidden wells and cisterns. “If you have got a well or you think you know where a well was, please come in and let us know,” Janet said.
So when you attend next month’s Byzant ceremony, remember that water was once so valued here, Shaftesbury celebrated its supply. And when you join the procession and pass the currently closed Fountain Inn, think how its name connects the pub with the pumps.
Gold Hill Museum’s water exhibition is open every day until the end of October.