All’s Well

With Maggie Chaplin

In the 1850s an Indian prince and an English country gentleman are enjoying dinner together in the sumptuous surroundings of a majestic palace on the banks of the Ganges. Despite their vastly differing backgrounds they are good friends. The host is Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh, Maharajah of Benares, a state in northern India (now called Varanasi). His guest, Edward Anderdon Reade, is a native of Ipsden, a tiny village in south Oxfordshire.

The two men got to know each other during the years that Reade served as Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Provinces of India where one of his duties was to help the Maharajah implement plans to sink wells to address the problem of acute water shortages in the state. Significantly, he also gave the Maharajah invaluable support during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and 8.  Soon after that Reade retired, and in 1860 he returned to his home in Ipsden. It’s possible that the meal at the palace may have been a farewell dinner.

The difficulties of establishing reliable water supplies were at the forefront of both men’s minds, and hard as it is to imagine now, it was just as much of a problem at that time on Reade’s family estate in the Chilterns as it was in northern India. The Maharajah must have been amazed to learn that even in far off England there were villages where people had to walk miles to fetch drinking water; where they relied on rainwater for their cooking; where personal hygiene was dependent on the supply of pond water, and where wash days were an “as and when” event, which in dry months would be infrequent.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who served in India at that time, Reade treated the local dignitaries and their customs with respect and sought to establish good relations with them. The Maharajah of Benares appreciated this approach and was also very grateful for the Lieutenant-governor’s support during the Mutiny. He was, of course, extremely wealthy and came up with an unusual way to demonstrate his gratitude. Because his friend, Edward Reade, had mentioned the problems the villagers in the Ipsden parish faced in obtaining water, Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh made a charitable gift to the inhabitants of Stoke Row, a small hamlet in the Chilterns that he had never visited, and indeed never would. He financed a well for them, but it was no ordinary well!

Visit Stoke Row today and you’ll find a church, a chapel, a primary school, and two pubs – pretty much what you might expect in any Oxfordshire village with a population of seven hundred or so. Then suddenly you stop in your tracks, arrested by a totally unexpected sight. Just across from the village hall, and opposite a side road named Benares Crescent, is a domed building guarded by an avenue of yew trees. It looks as if it could have been transported straight from India. The copper-coloured roof is supported by eight painted cast-iron columns linked by matching spear head railings. This is the housing of the Maharajah’s well, whose exotic appearance is further enhanced by the presence of a large golden elephant standing sentinel over the well machinery.

The well itself is deep – very deep. Picture St Paul’s Cathedral – the central dome of which is 365ft (111m) high, then realise that the shaft of the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row goes down three feet more than that!

The construction of such a well was no mean undertaking and much planning was required. Several potential sites were considered, and Stoke Row was eventually chosen and approved by the Maharajah. He requested that work should begin on the wedding day of the then Prince of Wales – later Edward VII. It was, of course, excavated by hand – there were no mechanical diggers then – and the first spadeful of earth was lifted on 10th March 1863. The well shaft was four feet in diameter and two men laboured for over a year in desperately cramped conditions alternately scooping out soil and laying bricks. It would be a backbreaking task at any time but in winter the poor visibility and numbing cold would be soul-destroying. Digging down between bands of chalk and sand was dangerous too, because the walls were liable to collapse.

Meantime, as the labourers burrowed ever deeper underground, well machinery, lifting gear and the decorative cast iron elephant were being manufactured locally by R.J. and H. Wilder of Wallingford, Berkshire. Everything was ready for the grand opening on 24th May 1864, which coincided with Queen Victoria’s birthday.

One condition of the gift was that water should always be freely available to anyone who needed it, so more than a one-off splurge was needed. The Maharajah of Benares was forward thinking, and paid not only for a caretaker’s cottage to be built next to the well but also for a four acre orchard of a hundred and one cherry trees to provide a source of income to help fund the well’s maintenance.

The enterprise had a huge positive impact on the daily lives of the villagers. A ready supply of clean water had a liberating effect. The incidence of water borne disease fell, more houses were built in the vicinity and a brick factory was started. People were healthier and had work.

The Maharajah and Edward Reade maintained their friendship and the parishioners of Ipsden benefited. Whenever a royal celebration was in order the Maharajah would mark it with a gift to his adopted village. For example, when Queen Victoria survived an unsuccessful attempt on her life in Windsor in March 1882, he provided lunch for everyone, and rations of tea, bread and sugar to mark her lucky escape.

Edward Reade died in February 1886 and the bond with Benares died with him. His friend Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh, outlived him by only three years. The condition of the well began to decline and the income from the cherry orchard was insufficient to continue to maintain it. Although the well was still in use when mains water came to Stoke Row in 1927 it soon fell into serious disrepair after that.

Years of neglect followed, until Queen Elizabeth’s tour of India in 1961. The then Maharajah told Her Majesty the story of the Stoke Row well and mentioned its upcoming centenary. Repairs and celebrations were arranged, and on 8th April 1964 Prince Philip opened the festivities and 1,500 people crowded into Stoke Row to participate. As part of the ceremony, water from the holy river Ganges was symbolically poured into the well.

There have been other restorations since then, notably to mark the 150th anniversary in 2014, and more recently a refurbishment funded by the Maharajah’s Well Trust charity was completed at the end of 2017. The repainting of the domed canopy and the regilding of the sentinel elephant were part of a £25,000 project. It’s interesting by comparison to look at some of the original costs. In 1864 the well and superstructure cost £353 13s 7d, which equates to around £41,000 in modern terms, and the machinery and golden elephant were an extra £39 10s. The caretaker’s cottage, now a private residence, was built for a mere £74 14s 6d.

Today, Stoke Row has an air of quiet affluence, in stark contrast to how life must have been prior to the sinking of the well. The orchard is now a village recreational space and some replacement cherry trees have been planted. In its hey day the sight of a hundred and one trees covered in blossom in the spring must have been a truly uplifting sight,  and as well as the cherry trees, there were landscape features that were given Indian names – “Muchlee Pokhra” (The Pond),  “Saya Khoona” (Shady Ravine) and “Prubhoo Teela” (Bandstand) for example. Taking centre stage now at the site of the former bandstand is a carved wooden elephant, placed there as part of the 2014 celebrations.

The Maharajah’s present to the parish of Ipsden, a place he’d heard much of but never seen, was of tremendous benefit to the local inhabitants. He didn’t just improve their lives in a practical way; he also enriched their environment by providing an architectural gem set in charming surroundings, that gave them an insight into the culture of a distant land that most of them would never visit. The deep bond forged between two men who discussed water shortages over dinner in an Indian palace in the 1850s had a lasting impact on the lives of many.

Go and see the newly refurbished well if you haven’t already – it’s an unexpected delight.