Rectory Lane, Berkhamsted
Until the early years of the 20th century, there was a well by the side of Rectory Lane, opposite the site of the original rectory. For some time it was housed in a small wooden well-house and provided the water supply to the Rectory for St Peter’s Parish Church. Among its notable residents was Rev. John Cowper, Rector of St Peter’s 1722-1756 and father of the poet William Cowper, who was born here at the rectory in 1731. The well that nurtured the young poet has since been named after him.
Around 1835, the Rector at that time, Rev John Crofts, built a new Rectory at the top of Rectory Lane (now the known as the “Old Rectory”) and the original rectory was demolished. Some of the outbuildings survived, including the coach house and the old well-house.
Several photographs exist of the well-house. They show that it was a timber shed with a tiled roof and an open front facing away from the lane. Within the shed was a winding mechanism for drawing the water-bucket up from the well, and everything including the gears and the bucket was made of wood. This Heath Robinson-esque mechanism was probably 18th century in origin. It is known that the well-house was still standing when Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb was Rector of St Peters between 1871 and 1883. An enthusiastic historian, he attached a marble plaque to the well-house to commemorate its importance as a piece of local heritage. The plaque bore a poem by Cobb’s friend, Revd George Spencer Cautley (1807-1880), who was the Vicar of Nettleden.
The shy perennial fountain here the ivy-tods among,
Just emblem of his modesty and pure undying song,
With daily crystal draught refreshed the poet’s fragile youth,
Amidst the precious opening buds of genius, grace and truth;
Ere spectral wrath had clouded in despair the noble mind,
Self-loathing, yet so loving still, so boon to all mankind.
Oh, stranger, in your heart of hearts, let tender reverence dwell,
And love of love revived today at gentle Cowper’s well.
By the early 20th century, the well-house had been demolished, although the well itself was still in evidence. In 1902, a sundial from the Cowper Rectory garden was placed on
the site of the well-house along with Cobb’s marble plaque by the Cowper Society.
The well was still open until the 1960s, when Parish sold off the glebe land adjacent to the Rectory. The house named Old Orchard was built and the builders tipped rubble into the well and filled it up.
The old sundial now stands in the garden of the modern Rectory. Unforunately, Cobb’s marble plaque has been lost.
The position of Cowper’s Well can still be seen on the edge of the lane.
Although Cowper’s Well can no longer be seen, there is a preserved historic well in Croxley Green, around 15 miles away, which has a very similar well-house and winding machinery to Cowper’s Well. This well, thought to date from about 1770, can be seen in the grounds of Croxley House, now a retirement home , and allows us to see how the ancient Berkhamsted well may once have looked.
What's connected with this location
1 burial in Rectory Lane Cemetery is linked with Cowper's Well — click on a burial below to find out more about the historical connections: